I've always struggled with the present perfect tense, as probably many non-native speakers do. The way I learnt the perfect tense in school always involved these so-called signal words that one had to remember, or these time-line diagrams that were meant to show that some event in the past was still relevant at present etc. But there were always cases that just didn't fit into these pattern and this was driving me crazy.
Recently I came up with a trick how to understand the present tense. I have the feeling that it works very well for me, and makes it obvious whether or not to use the present perfect tense in an ad-hoc way without having to remember any signal words, rules or patterns.
I think it's important to understand what a native speaker "feels" linguistically when he uses this or that construction, my idea seems to be based on this fact, and I wanted to ask native speakers among you if you feel it the way I think, or if it's completely wrong. If the latter is true, do you think my method is appropriate to make sense of the present perfect tense?
My idea is to take the auxiliary word "have" more literally. When I use a similar construction in German, I don't give the word "haben" (=have) any meaning in the sense of possessing something, it's just a construction. I used to do it for the English "have" as well, and I think this is why I got confused.
Take for example "I have done my homework". The way I look at it now is that I focus on the part "I have" - I have something, I possess something, and this is happening now. What do I have? I have my homework with the attribute "done". It's like having a mental checklist with the word "homework" on it, and with the status "done", and I have it, because it's on my checklist. The difference is in breaking up the sentence, namely not "I have done" + "my homework" but rather "I have" + "my homework done".
Now using this rule I would not make the mistake and say something like "I have done my homework yesterday" (In German, for example, it would be perfectly OK to say the corresponding "Ich habe meine Hausaufgaben gestern gemacht."!) I would not say it because if I focus on the "I have" part it becomes "I have yesterday", but this does not make sense, you always have something now, and not at some point in the past, unless you say "I had done my homework yesterday", which again makes sense, and you can proceed with applying the same logic but not to the present but to some given point in the past, and gives you the past perfect tense.
It seems that this rule is analogous to the signal words like "yesterday" that we had to remember, those are just words that indicate some point in the past and lead to a contradiction when used in a similar way as above: "I have (point in the past)". So, really, instead of remembering the signal words it looks like it's easier to just get rid of the participle part of the present perfect and see if the sentence still makes sense.
Also, now it's more transparent in what way present perfect is a tense that bridges the past and the present, which those typical time-line diagrams try to illustrate. The construction consists of two parts, the auxiliary "have" + past participle. The past participle together with the corresponding object (e.g. "done homework") is a property of this object which was obtained in the past. The auxiliary "have" tells you that that object still has this property now in the present.
To sum up:
- Thinking of the auxiliary "have" in the present perfect tense as just a formal part of the construction without any meaning on its own was a mistake
- Think of the "have" as really having something.
- This something is the corresponding object with the past participle indicating its present status.
It would be really helpful to hear opinions from both native and non-native speakers about weather or not this is helpful, useful, or correct at all.