This is an excerpt from an official Cambridge exams preparation book:

"Mike: Thank you. Lots of people ........(help) us last year and we want to thank everyone."

The task is to fill in the correct verb form of "help". Present perfect or past simple can be chosen. The correct answer is "have helped" according to the key. I disagree. "Last year" is a finished period of time in the past, so the past simple should be used. Am I wrong?

  • I feel that more context would help. As it stands that looks very much like the wrong answer to me. I agree with the answer below in that lots of people have helped us over the last year would be fine, but for me the over the part is crucial. – Minty Apr 6 at 17:02
  • But doesn't "last year" always refer to a completed action in the past? Isn't it a reference to a completed past time with no connection to the present time? Instead using the present perfect with "over the last year"/"the last year"makes sense to me. – Manuel Apr 21 at 11:38
  • I don't understand the but - yes, last year by itself refers to a period that has finished. On the other hand, over the last year means in the one-year period up to now, which has not finished, so it does have a connection with the present time and it absolutely makes sense to use the present perfect. – Minty Apr 21 at 12:50

The key is whether the writer wants to emphasise that the process is ongoing

In general you are right:

"We sold 200 cars last year."
"200 people joined our club last year."
"200 people visited the shrine last week."

However when speaking of a period that goes up to the present moment, where nothing special happens at this instant in time (other than the writer having to quote figures up to now), writers typically use the "have" version. The implication is that the process is ongoing and this is just a progress report so far.

 "We have sold 20 of the new style of car since it first went on sale in January."
 "200 people have joined our club."
 "200 people have visited the shrine."

When writing a note of thanks, one is typically emphasising how soon one is writing, to show that one is prompt in expressing appreciation. Moreover, one may be still be expecting more help in the time to come.

Similarly the writer may be wishing for, or requesting, a continuing stream of events. Hence:

"Lots of people have helped us in this first difficult month with the new baby."
"Lots of you joined our club last month. Will anyone who hasn't joined, please do so?"
"200 people have visited the shrine already. When it appears on Google Maps, many more will come."

I agree with the exam preparation book that the best answer is "have helped us", but I do not think your answer is terrible or would be considered incorrect by most English speakers. They have unfortunately made it difficult for you to instantly pick "have helped", by saying "last year", which doesn't particularly strongly suggest an ongoing process.

More idiomatic UK English would be "have helped us over the past year". This underlines the ongoing nature of the need for help, and that the slice of just one year is arbitrary. "Keep the help coming, please!"

  • Thanks for your detailed reply. My idea was it should say "the last year" in order to describe "a period that goes up to the present moment" and not only "last year". I thought "last year" always refers to the previous calendar year. Am I wrong? – Manuel Apr 6 at 16:39
  • Tricky. Strictly speaking, "last year" (when said today, 6 April 2019) means 2018. That is why the question in the book is not helpfully worded. Again, I think your answer would be considered generally correct by most English speakers. I am just trying to explain why the book authors thought differently. In the end, I don't think you need to spend too much time worrying about it, as it is a subtle point and your answer is very reasonable. – Eureka Apr 6 at 20:22

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