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Welcome to this week's writing lesson from

 MyEnglishTeacher.net

It Happened, But I Don't Know When

Lesson Topic: Using The Present Perfect.

There are times when you are talking about an event in the past, but 
you don't know when it happened,
you don't care when it happened, or
the time when it happened is a secret.

When talking about past events AND the time is unimportant, unknown, or a secret, the present perfect is a good tense to use.  What is the present perfect?  Here is an example:

I have visited 56 countries.

How is this grammar formed?  It is formed with the following words:

I have  visited 56 countries.
subject + have or has + past participle

The past participle and the simple past are sometimes the same.  Sometimes they are different.  For the word visited, the simple past and the past participle are the same.  If the simple past and past participle are different, they are usually irregular verbs.  For a list of irregular verbs, click here

book recommendation

cover Action Grammar: Fast, Easy Answers on Everyday Usage and Punctuation

The author, Joanne Feierman, focuses on the grammar most of us need in everyday life, from "Five Lies Your English Teacher Told You" to "Simple Business Verbs You Should Know." She also includes helpful sections on memos, letter writing, and e-mail etiquette, as well as an appendix of troublesome words and phrases, and words that are easy to misspell.  Click here for more information.

Maybe you are asking, "What is the difference between the simple past and the past perfect?"  That's a good question.  You are so smart!  Let's take a look at the above sentence in both the simple past and the present perfect.

  simple past present perfect
example I visited 56 countries.

I have visited 56 countries.

feeling and meaning The feeling and meaning here is that the person visited 56 countries, but his/her traveling is finished. The feeling and meaning here is that the person visited 56 countries, and so far the traveling is finished; however, his/her traveling may continue in the future (but it may not continue).  
specific time? The person may put a specific time in this sentence.  It is optional.  The person may NOT add a specific time.

CORRECT:

I visited 56 countries last year.

INCORRECT

I have visited 56 countries last year.

The present perfect can give a starting time or an amount of time only if you use the words since and for.  When using these words, the sentence usually means that the action is continuing.   If you do not use since or for, the sentence means the action is finished, and it may or may not continue in the future.  Take a look at these examples:

I have smoked. I have smoked for 12 years.
NOT SURE it continues SURE it continues
Meaning:  The person smoked in the past (we don't know when), and he/she may still smoke, but we do not know. Meaning: The person started to smoke 12 years ago, and he/she still smokes. 

Therefore, when the present perfect sentence does not have since or for, we do not know if it is still continuing.  

So, the present perfect is used for one of the following two reasons:

1. When the time is  unimportant, unknown, or a secret.

OR

2.  If the time is known and the action is continuing (for or since are used in this situation).

Some verbs are NOT used with for or since because they do not have any length of time.  The following is a list of some verbs that can be used in the present perfect when the time is unimportant, unknown, or a secret.  These words very rarely use for or since because they do not have a length of time.  In other words, the following actions occur, but then almost immediately do not continue; they do not have a length of time.  Therefore, they do not use for or since.

start      arrive      begin      meet      end      leave      stop

Here is an example of what we mean:

CORRECT

We have begun the test.
INCORRECT We have begun the test since yesterday.

The first sentence is correct because it does not use since or for.  Begin (begun) does not have a length of time.  After a few seconds, it is over; you cannot continuously begin the same test.

Some of you may know the present perfect progressive.  If you do, then you may want to know what the difference is.  For example,

present perfect I have worked here since 1977

OR

present perfect progressive I have been working here since 1977.
Actually, there is little or no difference between these two sentences.  You may want to know when to use the present perfect and when to use the present perfect progressive.  We will continue this topic in our next lesson, but for now, remember this: the present perfect progressive almost always means it started in the past and is continuing; the present perfect means the action is continuing only if it uses since or for (otherwise, we are unsure if it is continuing).  For example,
I have lived in Iran.   Not sure if this person still lives in Iran; the time is also unknown.
I have lived in Iran since 1997. We are sure this person still lives in Iran; we also know the time.
I have been living in Iran since 1997. We are sure this person still lives in Iran; we also know the time.

The second and third sentences above have identical meanings.  The first and second sentences have (potentially) different meanings even though they look almost the same.  

book recommendation

cover Better Sentence Writing in 30 Minutes a Day features clear discussions of rules and strategies for good writing. Clear explanations and lots of exercises reinforce the skills needed for strong written communication. From filling in the blanks to joining short sentences into longer and more graceful combinations, this book will improve your writing. All the answers to the quizzes are given in the back of the book.  Click here for more information.

Quiz time

Directions: Rewrite the following sentences with the present perfect.  The present perfect used may be the one that has no time, OR the one that means a continuing activity.  You must decide.  The first one has been done for you.

1. The Brown Family goes to Switzerland every winter.  They started to do this 4 years ago.

The Brown Family has gone to Switzerland every winter for 4 years.

2. 
 My brother ate frogs' legs.  He ate frogs' legs three times.

3.  Carol is in Morocco.  She went there last month.

4.  Timothy rides a bus to school.  He started to do it when his car broke down.

5.  Jorge and Carmen are married.  They got  married in 1980.

6.  Scientists are concerned with the world's rain forests.  This concern started many years ago.  

7.  James knows how to repair a computer.  He learned how to do it a long time ago.

8.  I wanted to go to Japan several years ago.  I still want to go.

9.  Maria was excited about space exploration when she was young.  She is still excited about it.  

10.  I saw the answers to the test.  When I saw the answers is a secret.

Are you going to take the TOEFL?  Visit our new TOEFL Help Center.  Go to http://www.MyEnglishTeacher.net/TOEFL.  

 

1. The Brown Family goes to Switzerland every winter.  They started to do this 4 years ago.

The Brown Family has gone to Switzerland every winter for  4 years.

2. 
 My brother ate frogs' legs.  He ate frogs' legs three times.

My brother has eaten frogs' legs three times.

3.  Carol is in Morocco.  She went there last month.

Carol has been in Morocco since last month.

Carol has been in Morocco for a month.

4.  Timothy rides a bus to school.  He started to do it when his car broke down.

Timothy has ridden the bus to school since his car broke down.

5.  Jorge and Carmen are married.  They got  married in 1980.

Jorge and Carmen have been married since 1980.

Jorge and Carmen have been married for 21 years.

6.  Scientists are concerned with the world's rain forests.  This concern started many years ago.  

Scientists have been concerned with the world's rain forests for many years.

7.  James knows how to repair computers.  He learned how to do it a long time ago.

James has known how to repair computers for a long time.

8.  I wanted to go to Japan several years ago.  I still want to go.

I have wanted to go to Japan for several years.

9.  Maria was excited about space exploration when she was young.  She is still excited about it.  

Maria has been excited about space exploration since she was young.

10.  I saw the answers to the test.  When I saw the answers is a secret.

I have seen the answers to the test.

Are you going to take the TOEFL?  Visit our new TOEFL Help Center.  Go to http://www.MyEnglishTeacher.net/TOEFL.  

 

  Rules to Remember!

1

Usually for can be omitted.  The meaning does not change.  

      James has known how to repair computers a long time.

2 When using for AND a specific amount of time (one week, three years), you can use the words the past after for

      We have lived here for the past 10 years.

You can usually remove the for if you use the past.

      We have lived here the past 10 years.

3 Ever is often used in present perfect questions.  Ever means "at any time before now."  Ever is usually not used in answers.

     Have you ever seen a falling star?

4 Never is often used in negative present perfect answers.

      I have never seen a falling star.

5 The present perfect is often confusing because students do not know how it is used and how it is different from the simple past and past perfect progressive.

The best way to understand this is to remember that there are basically 2 kinds of present perfect:

1 2
I have smoked. I have smoked for 10 years.
This present perfect means it happened in the past.  We don't know if it is still happening now. This present perfect means it started in the past and is still happening.  This present perfect usually has the same meaning as the present perfect progressive (I have been smoking for 10 years).  Notice that this present perfect uses for and since.
6 What time is almost never used in questions with the present perfect.  That is because it is requesting a very specific time.  Specific times are not used with the present perfect.  

INCORRECT: What time have you done it?

CORRECT: What time did you do it?

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