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I have a question about a sentence I read in the comic strip Garfield.

Garfield's owner, Jon, brings him a burnt piece of toast saying,

I burned the toast.

Well, once there's no time specified and the toast is still there on the plate at the time the cat owner is speaking, shouldn't we use the present perfect? Wouldn't it have been more correct for Jon to say,

I 've burned your toast

I know the finished time may be implicit, but the thing is it's the example given for the use of simple past in a text book for foreign students, so I think it might be a little confusing for them, don't you think so?

  • Thanks for the help on editing, Benjamin. It does look better now! – Giselle Trajano Jan 14 '16 at 6:04
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    Maybe in this instance "I burned the toast" is short for "Five minutes ago, in the other room, I burned the toast." In other words, perhaps Jon Arbuckle is simply reporting something that happened in the past to Garfield in the (comic strip) present. – Sven Yargs Jan 14 '16 at 6:12
  • That's right, but don't you think that the students might get confused about the use of the past simple with that example. I wonder if another example could be more appropriate for foreign students in their second year of English studies.. – Giselle Trajano Jan 14 '16 at 6:33
  • The comic strip wasn't written for ESL learners boning up for the TOEFL; it was written for newspaper readers. What's more, I don't think the example is at all complicated. It's actually quite clear. It's a picture with a result that just happened, not just has happened. I think it's you who are making it complicated. You are throwing up your own obstacle, Señora Trajano. Ask yourself, "Quemé"? Or, "He quemado"? – Benjamin Harman Jan 14 '16 at 6:59
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1

Quick googling, I guess you mean this comic?

No, the has done form would not have been more correct.

This comic is a perfectly normal example of the way that the did form is used.

I mean, yes, it probably will be confusing to students, because the English tense-aspect system is confusing. (By which I mean, it's a relatively complex and subtle part of the grammar.)

But the usage of the did form here is not in any way a weird exceptional case that misrepresents normal usage.

The has done form would imply a following statement or question in some sort of present or future tense verb form like is doing, will do, is gonna do, etc, or another has done (eg: "I haven't done it yet, because he hasn't paid me yet").

(It could also be followed by a does form; the does form is just more restricted for the same reason it always is: for "normal" verbs [ie, not weird, essentially arbitrary exceptions like "see", "want", "know", "like", etc], it can usually only be used with a habitual meaning. eg: "I've burned too much toast in my life. Now I only eat cereal.")

Concretely, if Jon had said:

  • "I've burned the toast."

that would imply that he's gonna say something like:

  • "And now I'm doing X."

  • "And now I'll do X."

  • "And later I'm gonna do X."

  • "Do you want me to do X now?"

  • "Should I do X now?"

Or expects Garfield to respond with a statement or question with a verb form like that.

  • "Are you going to do X now?"

  • "Well then, I guess we should do X."

And when I say it would imply that, I mean that neither of them has to actually respond with an utterance with any verb form, or have any exact utterance in mind.

Consider:

1 - "Have you heated the water?"

vs:

2 - "Did you heat the water?"

In both cases, the answer could be "yes" or "no", but 1 is "naggier" than 2 because it vaguely implies the asker saying something like "if you haven't yet, then you should do it now" (even if they don't actually say anything extra later), whereas 2 is more "neutral". That is, the asker just wants to know the simple factual answer to the question.

Jon is being "neutral" in the same sense here: he's not soliciting any response or leading into any continuation.

EDIT:

Some more stuff to add...

1 extra point

Note that Jon would also use the did form if he expected (to make or receive) a continuation in a past tense form like did, was doing, had done, etc, like:

"I burned the toast..."

  • "While I was doing X."
  • "Before I did X."
  • "After I did X."
  • "Because someone left the toaster on the wrong setting."
  • "Because someone had left the toaster on the wrong setting."

etc

(There's no real difference between did and had done in those last two examples; had done makes it a bit clearer that we're making yet another jump back in time, but that's already pretty clear from context.)

But he could also continue into a non-past form as well, like:

"I burned the toast..."

  • "So now I'm gonna do X."

etc

That is, did can continue into both the past or non-past, but has done can only continue into the non-past (or another has done, like I said above).

So in that way, has done is a more restricted, specialized form than did.

In fact, I might even dare to venture that, as a general rule-of-thumb:

Pretty much any time the has done form sounds right, the did form would also sound okay, especially if you also use an appropriate adverb like "already", "before", "once", etc. (In fact, the has done form kinda is functionally a member of that set of adverbs.)

eg:

  • I've visited China.

could more-or-less be substituted with:

  • I visited China once.

or:

  • I visited China before.

Without really making it sound weird or changing the connotations.

But there are lots of cases where the did form sounds right, but the has done form would sound odd, no matter what you add.

eg:

  • I went to the store and ran into Bob while I was there.

could not be transformed to:

  • WEIRD: I have gone to the store and ran into Bob while I was there.

nor to:

  • EVEN WEIRDER: I have gone to the store and have run into Bob while I was there.

So yeah, rule-of-thumb: "when in doubt between did and has done, use did".

(I call it a "rule-of-thumb" because, while it's probably more-useful-than-not for confused students, I don't think it really offers much linguistic insight... teachers shouldn't be pushing confused students into making tricky choices in production like that anyway...)

2 extra point

But!

There is definitely one major exception: when the action is still happening.

eg, "I've worked here for three years" can not be replaced with "I worked here for three years", because that would change the implication from "and I still do" to "but I don't anymore".

However, the has been doing form is probably better in that case anyway (ie, "I've been working here for three years").

Again in a table to make it clearer:

"I've been working here for three years"    ("and I still do")      # same meaning as below, sounds most normal
"I've worked here       for three years"    ("and I still do")      # same meaning as above, sounds like... maybe there's some doubt about the future?
"I worked here          for three years"    ("but I don't anymore") # different meaning

This is the case where a language like German or French would use a construction with present tense and a word like "since" and/or "already", so that the literal translation into English would be something like:

  • (NOT NORMAL ENGLISH): I work here since three years.

I'm not sure offhand, but I expect that other languages like Italian and Spanish also use a similar construction in this case...?

3 extra point

Also...

None of this applies to the had done and had been doing forms when they're used for narrative back-shifting like in a novel.

Like, if you imagine someone narrating their experiences and thoughts as they happen in present tense 1st-person...

then you can think of English novel style as taking that narrative, and shifting all the tense forms "one step back".

(And also often transforming them into the 3rd-person.)

like:

I'm walking down the street.    >   I was walking down the street.  >   Bob was walking down the street.
I haven't eaten any breakfast.  >   I hadn't eaten any breakfast.   >   He hadn't eaten any breakfast.
Suddenly, I see a strange man.  >   Suddenly, I saw a strange man.  >   Suddenly, he saw a strange man.

etc

Narrative back-shifting gets more complex (will do goes to would do, for instance, which is totally different from the normal use of would do in conversation), and some forms like had done can't really be back-shifted (had had done would be bizarre), so they stay the same...

4 extra point

Finally, the had done form in an "if"-clause is... best thought of as a transformation of an underlying would have done, I think.

Like, it really "should" be:

* if I would have done X,    he would have done Y

and it's just an arbitrary extra rule that, after an "if", it turns it into:

  if I had done X,           he would have done Y

But that's just part of a bigger pattern where "if" forces all the .would meta-forms to transform into .did meta-forms like:

would do                >   did
would have done         >   had done
would be going to do    >   was going to do

etc

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  • Thanks, glad I was able to maybe help a bit. I know it's not a great explanation, and it's very incomplete... I just made an edit adding in some more information. I don't know if it's any use, but I figure, I already wrote it, so I may as well post it. – Owen_R Jan 20 '16 at 14:12
  • That was just great and clarifying! Thanka a lot again!!! – Giselle Trajano Jan 22 '16 at 3:42
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No, it's not more correct to say, "I've burned your toast." First, in the original statement, Jon doesn't say it's Garfield's toast, so "your" doesn't belong. Second, Jim Davis, the author of Garfield, could have written, "I've burned the toast." It wouldn't have made much difference. I'm not sure why you would think that "I've burned the toast" is in any way less favorable. While Jon is stating something he has done, he is also stating something he did. Furthermore, it seems slightly funnier to say, "I burned the toast." The character Jon is stating the obvious with plate of burnt toast is right in front of him. In my opinion, stating the obvious comes off more obviously using the past simple.

All in all, the way you suggest (save for the "your") isn't wrong; however, neither is it more correct. So, if you'll excuse the droll pun, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

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  • Bear in mind that BrEng speakers tend to use the present perfect tense more often than AmEng speakers. And many coursebooks for ESOL are written in BrEng. – Mari-Lou A Jan 14 '16 at 11:23
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The toast might be on the plate before them, but he still burned the toast in the past.

On the other hand, in British English the present perfect may be the preferred tense here. Have to wait for some BrE speakers to comment.

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