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How do the tenses in English correspond temporally to one another?

What's the difference in meaning between "Did you speak to the landlord this morning?" and "Have you spoken to the landlord this morning?"

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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Jun 12 '12 at 10:02

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2 Answers

It has been pointed out in a few grammar books that the present perfective describes a past event with present relevance. Whatever that is and whether there is a difference depends on the context.

From Practical English Usage, Swan, 3rd ed.:

The difference between the present perfect and the simple past is not always very clear-cut. It often depends on our ‘focus’: are we thinking mostly about the present relevance of a past event, or about the past details? In some cases both present perfect and past are possible with little difference of meaning.

A nice explanation of present relevance, from Cruse, 2000:

Consider the difference between the following:

(39) John read the book.

(40) John has read the book.

Both indicate that John’s reading of the book occurred in the past. But the first sentence directs our attention into the past, to the specific time when the event occurred; the second sentence, on the other hand, directs our attention towards John’s present state, or at least at aspects of it which are attributable to his having read the book at some (indeterminate) time in the past. This is the essence of the perfect: present relevance of past events.

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If it is still this morning, then it needs to be the present perfect:

  • Have you spoken to the landlord this morning?

because this morning is an expression of unfinished time and implies the possibility that you still might speak to the landlord.

If, on the other hand, it is no longer this morning (it is afternoon or evening of the same day), then it has to be the past simple:

  • Did you speak to the landlord this morning?

because this morning is now an expression of finished time.

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@Shoe- Americans wouldn't really bother with this subtle difference in day today conversation. They would simply go with did in most cases:) –  Noah Jun 12 '12 at 5:15
    
@Noah, You are right that Americans are more likely to use the past simple with expressions of unfinished time, whereas Britons would prefer the present perfect (Did you eat yet? / Have you eaten yet?). But I would be interested to hear from an American whether your assertion is correct that they would use the past simple in most cases in this particular context - particularly if it is still early in the morning when the question is asked. –  Shoe Jun 12 '12 at 6:04
    
I'd go so far as to say that Did you eat yet? is ungrammatical in British English, which is probably because yet indicates unfinished time. –  Andrew Leach Jun 12 '12 at 7:10
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