Practical English Usage and the Cambridge Grammar of English say that the present perfect “is connected in some way with the present.”

Neither book explains this, and this is why I’m asking for you to indicate how the present perfect “is connected in some way with the present” in the examples below — by saying, for example, “The past is connected with the present in ‘She has lived here all her life’ ... (your answer).”

Examples (not from Cambridge)

  • Has lived: She has lived here all her life.
  • Have written: They have written three letters already.
  • Have worked: I have worked here since I graduated school.
  • Has done: He has finished his homework.
  • Have been: We have been to Canada.
  • Has forgotten: She has forgotten her folder.
  • When I was at school in the 1950s I was made aware of "the perfect tense" in each of English, French and Latin. In none of them at that time did teachers call it "the present perfect". And the thing that people on this site now call "the past perfect" was called the "pluperfect". I much prefer the older nomenclature. Indeed in spoken and correspondence French the perfect (parfait) is the principal tense used to describe past events - and covers both the English simple past and the English perfect. – WS2 Jan 22 at 18:40
  • None of which comment, @WS2, is of any help to the OP, as far as I can see. – Colin Fine Jan 22 at 19:07
  • @ColinFine That's why it was given as a comment rather than an answer. However perhaps I should have added, for the benefit of the OP the words - "I entirely understand your difficulty, for I also fail to see what it has to do with the present". – WS2 Jan 22 at 21:32
  • @ColinFine I've now read your answer with interest and respect your point of view. – WS2 Jan 22 at 21:36
  • @EdwinAshworth I have noted your remarks. – WS2 Jan 23 at 17:31

I usually put it in the form "the speaker is choosing to present the past event as relevant to the present".

But either way, the particular relevance (or connection) can vary. Some examples are:

  • a state which continues to the present ("has lived");

  • an action which has a continuing effect in the present ("has written");

  • an action which is so recent that it seems still relevant (No clear example in the ones you give, though "has finished" might be in this category);

  • (especially in the negative), regarded as taking place in a period which extends to the present ("haven't seen him").

In many cases, the speaker can choose the past or the present perfect, depending on whether they want to present this "present relevance": So "he finished his homework" is not relating it to the present - this might indicate that you weren't talking about the recent past, but some earlier day; but it doesn't necessarily do so; whereas "he has finished his homework" almost certainly means that it was recent, probably today, so the homework being in a finished state is still relevant.

"Have been to" is a special case, and I don't think they should have listed it with the others. It is an idiom that means "went to at some time, and came back". The "present relevance" there is that the visit is seen as taking place in a time that stretches up to the present; but it could have been long ago. If you don't use the perfect, you don't get the idiom: "He went to Canada" does not imply that he came back: he might have, but you can't tell. "He has been to Canada" means that he went and he came back.

Edited in response to comments.

  • Now this is an answer worthy of the site to a question of similar nature. Dare I ask if you'd consider bullet-pointing the five different usages you list? I know it's the classical elegance vs clarity-for-undergrads divide. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 22 at 19:30
  • "With all due respect", could you elaborate on your "I usually put it in the form 'the speaker is choosing to present the past event as relevant to the present'"? – user326251 Jan 22 at 20:11
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    Deciding how many different usages there are for the present perfect construction is an exercise in epistemology. McCawley says there are four, but one could certainly subdivide them differently. Mostly it's the semantic nature of the predicate (as an active, stative, causative, volitional, punctual, accomplishment, or achievement predicate, to name some possible categories) that determines the relationship with the present state of affairs. – John Lawler Jan 22 at 21:25
  • @user326251: the difference between connected and relevant is not significant. But what I like to emphasise is that the use or non-use of the perfect is usually a choice that the speaker can make, depending on how they want to present the events, not an consequence of an objective difference. (It can be constrained by expressions of time that they use, such as "already" or "just", but not normally by the objective facts). – Colin Fine Jan 22 at 23:44
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    @EdwinAshworth: I didn't intend my list to be exhaustive. It never occurred to me that anybody might have tried to categorise the different uses (though in retrospect it is obvious that somebody would). – Colin Fine Jan 22 at 23:45

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