Present Perfect has two usage case:

Case A: Say that an action happened at an unspecified time before now.
Case B: To show that something started in the past and has continued up until now.

How can we determine a usage case in the following sentence:

I have studied English!

How can I tell is this action happened already in the past vs. this action started in the part and has continued till now?

  • 1
    There are actually four, not just two, and many sentences don't contain enough information to distinguish which one is intended. Apr 24, 2016 at 3:56
  • @JohnLawler Your four usages all look like they have the same sense to me... Apr 24, 2016 at 5:34
  • @curiousdannii JL's "universal" usage (I've known Max since 1960.) describes a state that obtains in a past interval that continues to the present. JL's "existential" usage (I have read Principia Mathematica five times.) describes completed discrete events that occurred some time in the past up to the present. JL's "stative" and "hot news" usages don't seem to me to differ much from the "existential."
    – deadrat
    Apr 24, 2016 at 5:45
  • They're not my usages; they're McCawley's. And they have other differences, too, which are discussed in the original paper. Apr 24, 2016 at 14:51

3 Answers 3


J. Lawler's comment is spot-on. The sentence is ambiguous and you cannot be confident in the hypotheses you've proposed without making some assumptions.

However, based on your judgement of the supplied statement, you can tell, but it depends on the risk you are willing to take. There are two types of 'risks': believing a possible lie or not believing a possible truth (there are many lies, but oftentimes only one truth, which you may be denying).

Within the context of logic (see Useful Links below), you are making a trade-off between making an inductive inference (premise is likely or probable, being wrong and believing a lie), rather than a deductive inference (premise nearly guarantees truth, being wrong and not believing the truth).

Omitting a potentially lengthy introduction to philosophical logic, I would say your two cases boil down to one or two follow up questions:

Are you still learning English? or Have you already learned it?

Remember one of the best ways to apply language (including English) is in situations of two-way communication.

Useful Links: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logic#Logical_form, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_I_and_type_II_errors, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_positives_and_false_negatives https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_logic


I always have confusion with perfect tense as non native speaker too.But I think it means here that you have started studying English but not finishing studying it yet.


Without a context it is not possible to determine which sense of the present perfect is meant by the speaker. Add to this the fact that present perfect varies by country and region and it really isn't possible to say anything meaningful. You could just as well say, "I studied English." In fact, a sentence like yours is usually followed by something that clarifies the meaning, "I have studied English so I think I am qualified to do the translation." but even that could be changed into the simple past without disturbing the meaning.

In my opinion, the present perfect is best understood by considering questions, for example "Have you done the Laundry?" is not quite the same as "Did you do the laundry?" But, again regional differences make it difficult to consider the absolute meaning.

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