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Regarding actions taken in the past, besides the differences those two tenses have semantically, my teacher shared that it could be a British vs American English case.

When talking about past action, British prefers present perfect because they take into account that the effect from their past action still happens until now. As for American, they prefer to state the action only. It happened in the past, so past tense it is.

I have had dinner. [British]

vs.

I had dinner. [American]

I hope to hear it from the native speakers, both British and American. What do you think about this? Is it true?

If it is, I don't think it can apply to all cases of past actions. There have to be cases when both style agree to use the same tenses. Could you please help me define the situation when this kind of difference applies and when doesn't?

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You'll have had your tea? –  TRiG Oct 30 '10 at 3:57
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3 Answers 3

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I think, in formal usage, you will find that American and British are basically identical. We each use both of those constructions in the appropriate situation. Obviously, there is a semantic difference between these two constructions and neither dialect exclusively uses one or the other.

I am not certain, but I think what you are referring to is the fact that American English speakers can sometimes use simple past in places where one normally uses present perfect. So, as a US English speaker, I would correctly say:

(1) I've never gone to a tennis match before, but I am going to one today.

But, sometimes I say:

(2) I never went to a tennis match before, but I am going to one today.

I would not say that this second example is standard US English — in any formal situation I would use the present perfect. But, I suspect it is common in speech and I do it quite often.

This could be the very beginning of a semantic shift in the present perfect construction in English. Perhaps (2) will be preferred in several hundred years. (Such things are not unheard of; German now uses the present perfect form to indicate simple past in speech.)

If a non-native speaker asked me about this, I would never recommend to use the construction in (2), because (1) is right in every situation and never sounds strange or formal.

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What about in formal situation like this (this is another example the teacher gave me): Have you sent the report (British) vs Did you send the report (US)? Is there any other situation that the difference applies? –  Elfira Sep 22 '10 at 1:10
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If you said "have you sent the report" in the US, it would still sound perfect. The different US style is totally optional. (Of course, if the sentence were something like "did you send the report yesterday " then both British and American English would have to use simple past.) –  Kosmonaut Sep 22 '10 at 1:38
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I dunno, I'd most likely say "I've never been to a tennis match before, but I'm going to one today." –  Marthaª Oct 28 '10 at 23:23
    
I think the problem with the (2) is that is basic. I mean if you were from the caves (no offense intended): I never went tennis, I go today. That's enough to understand the thought, but, the more contextual information the clearer the message. So i think (1) is more communication than (2). Maybe is a kind of mood? Sorry if I can't point it clearly. :) –  Billeeb Dec 2 '10 at 13:03
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The simple past tense is definitely more common here in the States. Though I still do hear the present perfect specifically in response to making decisions or responding to questions:

"Would you like some dinner?"
"No thanks, I've already had dinner."

or

"Since I have already had dinner, I can do this while you eat."

Adding "already" seems necessary, somehow, to keep it sounding conversational.

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I think your teacher's example is incorrect. I don't think Americans would say "I had dinner" ... I certainly wouldn't; it sounds a little off to me. What I would probably say is either

I already had dinner,

or

I've had dinner.

In the first sentence, "already" carries the same semantic content as the present perfect tense, so in some sense the present perfect tense is redundant here. However, my impression is that in the U.K. you would never use the past tense here, but say either "I've had dinner" or "I've already had dinner", so you use the present perfect even when you include "already".

However,

I've already had dinner

is perfectly correct in American English, and I wouldn't be surprised if I used it sometimes.

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