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The option of using simple past vs. present perfect in situations like the following has been bothering me for quite some time.

I sent you a letter a few days ago; I was wondering if you have received it.

I sent you a letter a few days ago; I was wondering if you received it.

People use both of them, in most cases I would say interchangeably. I also searched it on google books, which turned out to be used in roughly the same way. I was wondering if someone could shed some light on what the difference between the two was? Which one is used more often and seems more appropriate over the other?

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@jwpat7: Having looked at all of those, I can't see that any of them address OP's issue here. If you thought any of them did, how come you didn't vote to close this as a dup? If you agree with me, why flag them up in the first place? –  FumbleFingers Apr 26 '12 at 23:47
    
@FumbleFingers: I like what jwpat7 did here. He saw a similarity, pointed it out, then let the rest of the community evaluate whether the question is truly a duplicate, or maybe there's something unique about it. Meanwhile, his links spare everyone else from searching from scratch, thereby helping the community perform that evaluation – much like you were able to do. (Excellent use of circumlocution, btw) –  J.R. Apr 27 '12 at 0:47
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@FumbleFingers, although I believe OP's question is a duplicate of the above, I must confess to not understanding what special points or issues the question is asking about. On a different tack, supposing the question didn't have the "pointless circumlocution" I was wondering, would you have posted an answer, or voted to close? –  jwpat7 Apr 27 '12 at 0:51
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Nitpicky: you need a semicolon where the comma is, or you need an "and" after the comma. Otherwise it's a run-on sentence. (You didn't ask about that, but as long as we are trying to be excrutiatingly correct, I thought I'd point it out.) –  Jennifer Davis Apr 27 '12 at 0:56

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

To a first approximation both OP's sentences are valid - certainly they both mean exactly the same. But if I'm going to get "picky", I don't much like the first one...

?I sent you a letter a few days ago, I was wondering if you have received it.

...because there's a subtle clash of tense. "I was wondering" refers to my wondering in the past, but "if you have received it" asks about your status (of having received it or not) in the present.


Thus my own preferred version is neither of OP's...

I sent you a letter a few days ago; I was wondering if you had received it.

...but to be honest, I'm only proposing that for the sake of grammar. If I needed to convey the sentiment myself I'd just ask "Have you received the letter I sent a few days ago?". It seems to me the additional verbiage is just pointless circumlocution.


Regarding the "mixed tense" issue, note that "I was wondering if you had" is twice as common as "I was wondering if you have". A preference which is even more noticeable when comparing, say, "...if you knew" with "...if you know".

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Personally, the first thing I would do is replace the comma with a semicolon. Them's independent clauses! –  MT_Head Apr 27 '12 at 1:49
    
@MT_Head: Technically speaking you're right, though "and" would also have been fine. But over recent years I've gotten used to commas in such contexts - it's no big deal to me these days. Besides, it's just a detail of orthography. If I can almost tolerate the garbled tenses, I can easily overlook a minor punctuation mark "mistake". Whatever - in deference to your comment with no less than three upvotes, I've changed it (not as the "first thing", since it's not critical to me, but I got around to it in the end! :) –  FumbleFingers Apr 27 '12 at 4:25
    
@FumbleFingers- How is your version meaning wise(incase someone gets picky) different(the use of past perfect)? –  Noah Apr 27 '12 at 12:31
    
@Noah: I'm not sure I understand what you're asking there, but I'll guess you're asking if my "past perfect" version has some different meaning to your first example. The answer is it doesn't - but yours mixes past perfect was wondering with present perfect have received. Which is far from ideal, even though people probably do that sort of thing quite often. –  FumbleFingers Apr 27 '12 at 15:46
    
@FumbleFingers- So which action happened and completed before another action in this case that calls for past perfect? –  Noah Apr 28 '12 at 0:34

The well-known difference between present perfect and past simple is that the present perfect refers to past events that have a present relevance to the speaker, whereas the past simple refers to past events that do not necessarily have a present relevance. With this is mind, a case could be made for saying that:

  • I sent you a letter a few days ago; I was wondering if you have received it

implies that I am expecting further action by you or me dependent on your receipt of the letter.

On the other hand:

  • I sent you a letter a few days ago; I was wondering if you received it

may simply be asking for confirmation of receipt of the letter without further action being necessary. Equally though, the speaker may have no such subtle difference in mind when asking the question. So essentially the two are interchangeable in this context.


As an aside, the phrase I was wondering is a way of avoiding asking rather abruptly: Have you received the letter? or Did you receive the letter? Despite the use of the past continuous, the wondering is in the present not the past. This is an example of backshift in order to pose questions more tentatively and politely. Another example: I was wondering if I could see the manager.

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Thanks. And what would be the explanation for the past perfect as in FumbleFingers example "if you had received it"? –  Noah Apr 27 '12 at 12:29
    
This seems like another example of the polite backshift, but could also be interpreted as using the past perfect for the classic past in the past. Best ask FumbleFingers direct! –  Shoe Apr 27 '12 at 13:51
    
Agreed I was wondering is "polite backshift", as is switching to the modal form if I could see you. And yes, people do sometimes say I was wondering if you have a moment to discuss my annual bonus - but for grammatical consistency (and to convey even more of the required deference and hesitancy by fully backshifting) I think most people would say I was wondering if you had a moment to discuss my annual bonus. –  FumbleFingers Apr 28 '12 at 1:38

Look at the following sentences:

(a) Past simple: I lived in Florence for five years ... but I do not live there anymore.

(b) Present perfect: I have lived in Florence for five years ... and I still live there now.

(c) Past simple: I broke my glasses ... but it does not matter. I repaired them.

(d) Present perfect: I have broken my glasses ... and so I can't see properly now.

You probably learned the difference between (a) and (b) years ago: that one of differences between past simple and past perfect is the 'time' of the verb, i.e. when it happened. The difference between (c) and (d) is harder to understand.

In (c) and (d), 'time', i.e. when the verb happened, is not really what separates the two sentences; it is possible that both (c) and (d) happened last month, this morning, or one second ago. What is important is that the event in (d) is considered more relevant to the situation now than the event in (c), which is why it is given in the present perfect.

That said, let us consider the first sentence: "I sent you a letter a few days ago, I was wondering if you have received it." Here person who ask the question would seem interested to talk about what he or she did wrote in the letter. (Lett. 'd' in my example.)

While, in the latter example, "I sent you a letter a few days ago, I was wondering if you received it," person who ask the question wants to make sure himself or herself that the letter is being received. (Lett. 'c' in my example.)

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as far as I know , when we use present perfect , we explain something with more details, for instance , when you say I've studied,means you studied all your notes and completely ready for your exam . but when say i studied , it means you did but not seriously and complete , just looked on some lessons.when you say I've seen that movie means you remember all parts but when you say i saw it , means you remember watching it but just a general view of the movie.this is completely up to you , whether you want to convey your feeling by present perfect or simple past, with more details or just mention to action .I hope I could have satisfied you my friend.

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-1: I don't think there's any particular implication that referencing a past action using present perfect implies you did it more thoroughly. What it often does imply is that the past action is somehow relevant to the present. I think you mistakenly assume this "more details" sense because, for example, if I say "I've seen that movie" rather than "I saw that movie", the choice of present perfect could feasibly imply that my having seen the movie is more relevant to the present (i.e. - because I can recall it well, and I'm about to start saying more about it now). –  FumbleFingers Apr 28 '12 at 1:25

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