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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]


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
What makes you think it's not "affected by culture"? It's part of culture and changes with it, like most things we take for granted. –  John Lawler Feb 11 at 19:11

3 Answers 3

up vote 13 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
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
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
In fact, Americans (at least) are notoriously incorrect in perceiving how they actually talk. Most American English speakers would pronounce I've had dinner (nobody would say "have had" separately unless they were pretending to be formal) with the /v/ of I've pretty lenis. Before the /h/ of had, it would probly be audible; but in many other situations -- especially before consonants, like I've gone/I've done/I've seen/I've been/I've wanted.., the /v/ is effectively gone. Except that the speaker thinks they said it, and American listeners will "hear" it". But others won't, necessarily. –  John Lawler Feb 11 at 19:07

I think one aspect of this question is not being given enough emphasis: the difference between formal written English and informal colloquial English. I am a humble retired English teacher (UK!) who spent many years trying to encourage his pupils to feel that good English mattered - for several different reasons, not least of which is accuracy in the communication of thoughts. I quickly learnt that my young charges were "bilingual": they spoke one language amongst themselves and wrote another "correct" one for me!

I think this applies to people both sides of the Atlantic. The best journalists in the USA and Britain know perfectly well the difference between "I did" and "I have done" and regularly get it right along with other usages. Frasier and Niles know their grammar! In everyday speech people don't bother too much about such refinements - well, some of us still do...

But there is no excuse for Microsoft asking me "Did you forget your password?" "Have you forgotten?" and "Did you forget?" mean totally different things.

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This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post. –  Hellion Feb 12 at 6:22

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."


"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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