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I know there are differences between American and British English in this area. So when answering, please specify whether you speak American or British English.

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possible duplicate of Present perfect tense versus past tense –  Robusto Mar 12 '11 at 14:12
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However that is a poor duplicate with no good examples –  mplungjan Mar 12 '11 at 15:19

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The answer is that "I have just eaten them" is normal in British and I think US usage, but "I just ate them" is not normal in British use, or at any rate wasn't until recently (except in the different sense of mplungjan's answer).

The aspectual difference between the simple past and the present perfect is that the perfect is used for past-with-present-relevance, the simple past for, well, simple past.

So "I have eaten it" has some present relevance - perhaps I can still feel the curry burning in my belly; or somebody has just discovered the cake has gone and wants to know where it is now; or I am in the (present) state of having eaten polar bear at some time in my life. "I ate it" is regarding the event on its own without considering any present relevance - even possibly those same acts of eating the curry, the cake and the polar bear.

In a similar way, some expressions of time encompass the present. "Just" and "just now" do, and so normally do "today" and "this afternoon" (assuming it is still this afternoon). "Yesterday", "once", and "this morning" (if it is no longer morning) do not.

In British usage (more than US), we don't tend to use a present-related expression of time with a simple past, or a non-present-related time with a perfect; if we do the latter, it implies that the relevant time is in fact finished.

So (all judgments with regard to UK usage):

  • "I have just eaten it" but not "I just ate it" (in that sense)
  • "I saw him yesterday" but not "I have seen him yesterday"
  • "I have eaten polar bear" and "I ate polar bear once", but not "I have eaten polar bear once"¹.

"I have seen him today" and "I saw him today" are both acceptable, but have slightly different meanings: "I saw him today" implies that the time within which I might have seen him today is over — for example he has gone away. This is even clearer in negative and interrogative cases: "Have you seen him today?" implies that you might still be able to, while "Did you see him today?" implies that you have missed him.

As I say, the judgments above are for UK English: I am aware that US English is not the same in this regard, but I wouldn't like to specify exactly how.

¹ Actually, I've realised that "I have eaten polar bear once" is acceptable, but with a different meaning, "on exactly one occasion" as opposed to "at some time in the past". "I ate polar bear once" is ambiguous between these, but unless "once" is emphasised, will usually mean "at some time in the past". "I have eaten polar bear once" can only mean "on exactly one occasion".

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@Colin Fine. I think your response is right on, if brilliant just wanted to ask about the difference between "I ate" and "I have eaten." However, there is no difference in usage between how Americans and Brits use "I ate", or how they use "I have eaten." As an American who lived in England for a year (and frequent the island as often as I can), I am almost positive that these two phrases are used in exactly the same way in both dialects. That is why I thought that brilliant must have been asking about spelling/pronunciation--that's where the differences are between the two. –  Jon Mar 12 '11 at 17:15
    
@Jon: (1) However, there is no difference in usage between how Americans and Brits use "I ate", or how they use "I have eaten" - Here is one real story that happened to me. It illustrates my first encounter with this problem (It also has some indication that there is still a difference here between British and American English): ... it was a long trip and we were all quite tired. Luckily, finding a hotel was not a big problem in that town and we were quite relieved at the thought that soon we would be enjoying a cup of hot coffee in a –  brilliant Mar 12 '11 at 21:45
    
@Jon: (2) nice room in front of TV. Daniel and Pat, both Americans, were especially excited about that. However, we were a bit worried about Henry as we didn’t know whether he had been behind us in the mountains or had gone ahead of us. Anyway, having checked in, we all went into our rooms. Sadly, there were no clean cups in my room, so I went out to the hallway to ask for a cup. Suddenly I saw Henry in the end of the hallway – he had gone ahead of us and had checked into this same hotel, perhaps, one hour earlier. He also seemed to –  brilliant Mar 12 '11 at 21:47
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@brilliant, I guess it depends on where in Americans in your story are from. There may be dialectical differences that account for their misunderstanding. I've never heard of such difficulties. Though, I guess Americans tend to use the present perfect with an imperfect meaning: "I have lived in New York for ten years" or "I have been listening to the radio for the last hour." But this is not always the case: "I have already gone to the store." Here "already" plays the same role as "just" in your example. So where were those Americans from, as I have never heard of such a thing. –  Jon Mar 13 '11 at 17:20
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@Jon: I am surprised at the reaction of the American friends in brilliant's story; but I am asserting that thirty years ago "I just ate" was something that very few British speakers would ever say, but it was commonplace on American TV programmes. –  Colin Fine Mar 13 '11 at 22:35

As a non-native speaker I would feel there is a different feel to the two examples

I just ate them sounds like
I simply ate them

As a reply to
How was it possible that all the apples disappeared?
I just ate them, that's all.

whereas the second example sounds more like a
Did you eat the apples I left for you?
Yes, I've just eaten them.

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+1: That is how I would use the phrases using British English. The second could also take an ambiguous simply meaning in "What have you done with the apples?" "I've just eaten them, nothing else" but the a moment ago would still probably be more common. –  Henry Mar 12 '11 at 20:06

I speak American English. "I just ate them" and "I've just eaten them" are not examples of different spellings in British and American English. "I ate them" is past tense; "I have eaten them" is present perfect tense; "eaten" is a past participle--not a verb. However, I think you're looking for something like this: "I learned that" (American) and "I learnt that" (British). "The British speaker spelt it with a -t, whereas the American spelled it with an -ed." This distinction doesn't hold for all past tense/past participle forms of verbs; "it fit" (American) is spelled "fitted" in Britain.

When American English adds an -ed to the verb stem to form the past tense/past participle British English adds a -t instead. When American English doesn't change the form of the verb, i.e. "fit" (present) vs. "fit" (past), British English adds an -ed to form the past tense "fitted." But also, "light" in American English becomes "lit" in the past tense, whereas in British English it becomes "lighted."

So anyway, I hope this is what you were asking about.

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I don't think the question is about spelling at all - see my answer. –  Colin Fine Mar 12 '11 at 16:38
    
Are you sure about all those assertions? When American English adds an -ed to the verb stem to form the past tense/past participle British English adds a -t instead. No, "-ed" is the default in British English, too (we don't say "fastent", "*opent", "*lookt" or anything like it). *But also, "light" in American English becomes "lit" in the past tense, whereas in British English it becomes "lighted." No, lit is more common in Britain too - and FWIW the person I just asked said, "lit is British, lighted is American" ;-) –  psmears Mar 12 '11 at 16:44
    
"This distinction doesn't hold for all past tense/past participle forms of verbs." I perhaps should have said most. However, American English does not use "lighted." If you look at ngram, you'll see that "lit" is becoming the most common spelling/pronunciation of the past tense of "light," however, in British English, "lighted was for a time used more frequently than "lit." In American English, "lighted" is seldom, if ever, used. But yeah, often American and British English use the same spelling, i.e. worked. But think of the past tense of "dream"; most British speakers say/write dreamt. –  Jon Mar 12 '11 at 17:07
    
Jon, I feel I must apologize here for not being specific enough in my question. My question was not about the spelling, but about the usage. –  brilliant Mar 12 '11 at 21:44

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