Earlier today I had a private lesson with an Italian student—intermediate level, who has been studying the present perfect vs. past simple tense. His teacher had given him an exercise where a list of Italian phrases had to be translated into English. One of the sentences was the following:

Hai sentito che Sally si è rotta una gamba?

It looks deceivingly simple to translate (for a native speaker) but I found myself with five versions, all of which I am certain are idiomatic and grammatical.

  1. Have you heard that Sally broke her leg?
  2. Have you heard that Sally's broken her leg?
  3. Have you heard about Sally breaking her leg?
  4. Did you hear that Sally broke her leg?
  5. Did you hear that Sally's broken her leg?

The actual moment when Sally broke her leg happened at a specific time in the past, hence the past simple seems to me appropriate but we also say, Sally's broken her leg to express an action that occurred in the past but whose consequences are still felt in the present so...

  • Which sentence tells the reader that Sally's leg is still broken?
  • Which tense is more appropriate; the present perfect, Have you heard? Or the past simple Did you hear? Both sound acceptable to me. How is the meaning affected?
  • Is it preferable for both verbs to be in the same tense? Why or why not?
  • Ignoring the Italian translation and focussing on the five sentences, how would you interpret each one? Do they mean the same?

EDIT (updated September 1 2014)
Let me explain, more fully, why I posted this question. There was an Italian phrase which had to be translated (the first line in a short exchange) the rest of the dialogue was easy enough for my student and I to translate but he had difficulties with this first line.

In the exchange we learn that Sally broke her leg while skiing.

A: Have you heard/Did you hear... etc.
B: How did it happen?
A: She was skiing when she fell.

When I thought carefully about how the first sentence could be translated, I came up with five versions. I had a problem explaining to myself why they all sounded equally valid to me, in fairness sentence number 3 sounded the weakest candidate to me because it seems that the news of Sally's accident is very recent and conveys greater intensity.

As I tried to explain earlier, I was wondering how switching the past simple with the present perfect might change the meaning of the first line. If I say: Sally broke her leg, I might be thinking about the precise moment when this accident occurred. The event is established in the past and cannot be repeated. If I say: Sally has broken her leg it is plausible that her leg is still broken, seeing as a broken leg takes about a month to heal, and I am concerned with the results of that action which are felt in the present i.e. Sally now has her leg in a plaster/She cannot walk properly/She is currently injured, etc.

If the first verb is in the past simple, Did you hear...? does it affect how I write the rest of the sentence? Is Have you heard...? more colloquial?

Finally, I am NOT asking about translation, nor how to use the present perfect or the past simple.

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    @ElberichSchneider I gave context to my question, in order to explain why I am asking. I'm 99% certain I have translated the Italian phrase correctly, the phrase is from an Italian text book on English grammar, and it's in perfect Italian. Forget the intro, look at the five separate sentences and tell me how their meanings differ.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 14, 2014 at 22:50
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    @Mari-LouA - tough crowd! Aug 14, 2014 at 23:02
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    @Drew In my opinion the background is useful and appreciated. It seems to me that you have allowed the background information to jade your view of the actual question(s.) The question has been edited since you commented. Perhaps giving it another read might change your opinion.
    – Lumberjack
    Aug 14, 2014 at 23:22
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  • 3
    @FumbleFingers C'mon,that question that you've linked to is probably one of the worst questions ever asked on this site and should surely have been closed (and if it wasn't, moved to ELL for sure). The top rated answer doesn't accurately or otherwise explain anything about anything about how tense and aspect relate to each other. Us people who are interested in how grammar works, even though we can use our own language proficiently, should be able to use this site to discuss these questions -even if asked by a non-native speaker. I'm not a fan of this question really - but it's fine. Aug 15, 2014 at 0:04

4 Answers 4


To indicate that Sally's leg is still broken, stay away from the past tense (your examples #1 and #4). If you use the past tense the leg could still be broken, but past tense doesn't indicate that fact. If I say "Sally broke her leg yesterday" maybe you can guess it probably is still broken but if I say "Sally broke her leg 6 months ago" there's a good chance it's healed by now and past tense gives you no indication of whether it is still broken.

Similarly, to indicate that Sally's leg is still broken, stay away from the participial phrase form (your example #3). Especially in this context, a sentence starting, "have you heard", there is no indication that the action being described is still happening. If I ask you "have you heard about the mariner shooting the albatross?" you should not conclude that the mariner is still shooting the albatross. It could have happened a really long time ago!

The present perfect form (your examples #2 and #5) indicates that something happened in the very recent past so for something that takes as long to heal as a broken leg it should reasonably indicate that the leg is still broken, but to be absolutely clear have you considered the present tense? For instance, "Sally's leg is broken" or "Sally has a broken leg?" Because in that case there would be no doubt that Sally's leg is still broken!

If you say "did you hear" (past tense) it means did you hear at some point in the past? If you say "have you heard" (present perfect) it means did you hear at some point in the recent past? Both mean the same thing in this case.

There is no need for the sentence verb to be the same tense as the verb used in the gerund phrase (that Sally..). I can say, for instance, "I know that you wrote this question." The sentence verb tense should be appropriate for the sentence action and the gerund verb tense should be appropriate for the gerund action.

Note I've included a couple of sources that present perfect implies recent events since one comment on another answer claimed this isn't true. My understanding is there are 3 basic uses for present perfect: experience up to present (often with the word "ever"), recent past, and a recent journey. A broken leg would normally not be experience up to the present when combined with "did you hear" or "have you heard" (who says "did you hear I have broken my leg" if they are referring to their medical history from childhood?) so the choices are recent past or a recent trip. A recent trip doesn't make sense. So that leaves recent past.

"We use the present perfect simple with action verbs to emphasise the completion of an event in the recent past." Cambridge Dictionaries Online http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/present-perfect-simple-or-present-perfect-continuous

"The present perfect is often used to express recent events that affect the present moment." About.com http://esl.about.com/od/grammarstructures/ig/Tenses-Chart/presperf2.htm

"we often use the present perfect for recent events" wordpress.com http://englishprojectoxford.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/present-perfect/

  • Hmm, CDO grammar seems a bit wonky: Have dinosaurs ever roamed the earth? Has Britain ever been ruled by Romans? Or in affirmative sentences: I've been inoculated against measles. Britain's been invaded by Romans, Vikings and Normans. Dinosaurs have roamed this island etc ... Aug 15, 2014 at 0:38
  • My understanding is there are 3 basic uses for present perfect: experience up to present (often with the word "ever" as I notice all your questions contain), recent past, and a recent journey. A broken leg would normally not be experience up to the present when combined with "did you hear" or "have you heard" so the choices are recent past or a recent trip. A recent trip doesn't make sense. So that leaves recent past. Another source: englishprojectoxford.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/present-perfect
    – Brillig
    Aug 15, 2014 at 1:02
  • Didn't get this edit in in time but I wanted to include the example that if I say "Did you hear Britian's been invaded?" it implies some recent news not history from the middle ages! Also I'll edit my answer to make this point clearer.
    – Brillig
    Aug 15, 2014 at 1:10
  • Sometimes it's good to take a break, and re-read a post. This is a very good answer, and proposes a sensible solution. "Have you heard? Sally's leg is broken"; I don't know why I didn't see it before. Thank you! This answer should help future visitors too.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 5, 2014 at 8:45
  • I find this answer leaves out two key points: Deciding on the simple past or present perfect can be a function of what a speaker wants to say. Also, the present perfect includes the axiom: true at the time of speaking. In other words, "Did you hear she has broken her leg last year"=Buzzer. "Did you hear that Sally" can be followed by: "has broken her leg" or "broke her leg", in this case, without a big difference in meaning. However, the question after that must be, so to speak: P2: Oh? When did she break it?.
    – Lambie
    Dec 15, 2021 at 14:50

I'm not a linguist but I'll hazard an opinion based on my understanding. (I may be overreading.)

Did you hear that Sally broke her leg? is the simplest of the five and is perfectly acceptable for giving someone a piece of news. All that is expected for a response and follow-up is sympathy (more is of course likely):

Did you hear that Sally broke her leg? No! Poor Sally!

Have you heard... implies something else is going to be said, or that it might have happened several times already. If it is finished with that Sally broke her leg, it is perfectly fine. It's true, it happened in the past, and it's certainly not an ongoing thing, and the news will probably elicit a question of the specified time. There's no need for agreement:

Have you heard that Sally broke her leg? She needs help from her friends.

...that Sally has broken her leg may sound correct, but one of the most common mistakes with the present perfect is that it tends to be over-used. If it doesn't add anything, I wouldn't use it. If there are ramifications, I'd use it:

Have you heard that Sally has broken her leg and needs surgery? She will be needing a lot of help from her family and friends.

Did you hear that Sally's broken her leg? is fine, and implies more information about the leg:

Did you hear that Sally's broken her leg? She's going to have surgery tomorrow.

Have you heard about Sally breaking her leg? suggests that's just the intro to more news. I don't think it's so much the tense as the use of about.

There is no need for the tenses of both clauses to agree. The following is an example:

Sally broke her leg and has been bed ridden for two months...

Which sentence tells the reader that Sally's leg is still broken? None of them exactly, but it's implied by the recent "Have you heard/Did you hear?" We don't usually say in any situation ...it's still broken. Instead, of an old fracture now healed, we might say

Had you heard that Sally broke her leg last winter? I had not heard until last week.

As I said, I'm not a linguist, but this is my take.

  • French manages with just the perfect, in everyday speech and informal writing. The past is only used in formal writing such as in novels. So the varying nuances that one can achieve through use of past or perfect in English are unavailable in French conversation. But if they said something like 'Sally has broken her leg' in an instance where we would say 'Sally broke her leg', a French speaker might add that it just happened on Thursday. There is more than one way to skin a cat, as they say.
    – WS2
    Aug 14, 2014 at 23:08
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    @WS2 I get what you're saying, but it doesn't parallel that way. The present perfect is talking about a not-definite time in the past. You can't be thinking in this way if you add on Thursday! Also, the present perfect on it's own doesn't imply recentness. This impression in the example is carried by Have you heard. To illustrate; A: Have you ever broken your leg? B: NO, but Sally's broken her leg. B's sentence doesn't imply any recentness. Aug 14, 2014 at 23:44
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    @WS2 - This is English Language & Usage. Aug 14, 2014 at 23:48
  • @Araucaria That is exactly my point. French manages with the perfect alone in conversation. the 'Past historic' being reserved for formally written pieces. And my point is that there are other ways than through choice of tenses to convey nuanced meanings.
    – WS2
    Aug 15, 2014 at 7:29
  • @medica I was taught when I was at school well over a half-century ago that one cannot properly understand English without some knowledge of the Romance languages, in our case Latin and French.
    – WS2
    Aug 15, 2014 at 7:32

The sentences your Italian student was given are a bit confusing as they're all correct in their own way. For me, a Brit, the best answer is number two, simply because this is about teaching the difference between the past simple and the present perfect (which is probably one of the hardest things to learn for EFL students). "Sally broke her leg" implies it happened in a finished past situation: 10 years ago, last week, in 1989, after the last time we spoke about Sally, etc. "Sally's broken her leg" implies it happened recently or in an incomplete time period: since we last spoke to or saw each other, for example. So although the breaking of the leg happened at a specific time in the past, it's the lack of an indication of exactly when it happened coupled with its consequences in terms of the present that's important.

  • which would make #2 a better answer than #5 because....? It seems you're only responding to the first of the four parts of the question and not really addressing everything that's being asked.
    – Brillig
    Aug 15, 2014 at 0:18

"Have you heard…" is the most common way to say this, and it applies to your sentence too, so I'd use "have you heard."

"Sally has broken her leg" may suggest that her leg is still broken (while "sally broke her leg" doesn't), but it does not tell it to the reader certainly. Whatever you choose, the meaning in those sentences will pretty much remain the same.

Roughly, we can say that "Sally broke her leg" refers more to the fact that Sally leg was broken, but it's not really important; just something that happened in the past. "Sally has broken her leg" can suggest that the injury affects the present that you—as the speaker—care of/talking about somehow; it doesn't matter when, where or why, it's happened and Sally's leg is broken.

For example, "we have a big dance performance coming up and Sally's broken her leg!" tells us that Sally is a dancer, her dance class is scheduled to perform soon, the speaker is one of Sally's class members, and now Sally won't be able to perform because her leg is broken. But if it's not the case then I suggest you to use Past Simple.


Have you heard about Sally breaking her leg?

This one implies that the story of how she broke her leg is what matters. Who cares about Sally's leg? The story is hilarious.


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