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According to English Page.com,

We use the present perfect to say that an action happened at an unspecified time before now. The exact time is not important. You CANNOT use the present perfect with specific time expressions such as: yesterday, one year ago, last week, when I was a child, when I lived in Japan, at that moment, that day, one day, etc.


and it also says

Use the simple past to express the idea that an action started and finished at a specific time in the past.

So, you entered the living room and see your child standing next to a pool of water.

Now, we don't know the specific time that the child spilled the water.

In that situation, which one would you say?

"Have you spilled the water?" or "Did you spill the water?"?

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    Both verbal forms would fit in your context. – user121863 Apr 19 at 6:14
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    The have variant might elicit a “Yes, it’s done, but I still don’t understand why you wanted me to do that.” – Lawrence Apr 19 at 6:51
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    @KateBunting No, I suppose you’re right. I was trying to highlight the sense of accountability suggested by have. Have you done the dishes? Have you paid the staff? Have you ordered my whatsits? The did you variants are more straightforward queries. – Lawrence Apr 19 at 8:23
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    It was probably the dog, anyway. – Xanne Apr 19 at 9:29
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    "Have you spilled the water?" implies that spilling is an expected task and the speaker is wondering if you've gotten around to it yet. – Hot Licks Apr 19 at 11:46
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I'd go with "Did you...?". I vaguely remember from school that when telling a story you start with Present Perfect and then switch to Simple Past. E.g.

  • I have broken my leg
  • How did that happen?
  • I was running across the street and I slipped.

So. I can see the water on the floor. The kid can, too. Hence, we're already past the "Someone has spilled water on the floor" stage and I can use Simple Past.

I've tried rephrasing the question:

"Was it you?" vs "Has it been you?"

Sentence one sounds more natural in the context.

PS. Note that the past participle of "spill" is "spilt" in BE.

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  • Yeah, normally in the US, if the communications was parent to child, it would be "Who spilled the water??!!", even if it's obvious who did it. – Hot Licks Apr 19 at 11:47
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You care if some event happened at some particular point in the past, not if something has been done by the present regardless of how it was done. What you're asking is not whether the water has spilled, in which case you wouldn't even think about the event. It is whether the person did it, which they did at one moment in time.
(edit: please tell me what you found confusing about my answer if you downvote it)

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So, you entered the living room and you saw your child standing next to a pool of water. Now, we don't know the specific time that the child spilled the water. In that situation, which one would you say to your child? "Have you spilled the water?" or "Did you spill the water?"?

Because there is no specific time phrase, it does not matter which you say. If there is no specific time phrase, then the guidance on time phrases is irrelevant.

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We don't know the specific time the water was spilled, but the "timeline" knows. The spilling of the water was an event, one that you can picture as a distinct timeline marker to the left of the "now" marker.

That is what is meant by your text:

Use the simple past to express the idea that an action started and finished at a specific time in the past.

Have you spilled the water? means something like Have you spilled the water yet?

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  • While "Have you spilled the water?" is certainly unidiomatic here, "Did you do this?" and "Have you done this?" differ only, in my opinion, in register. Both are confrontational if unhedged. – Edwin Ashworth May 22 at 10:19
  • @EdwinAshworth If both people are looking at the water, then it would| be idiomatic. If the person addressed had no idea that there was water there, then it would be confusing. – Greybeard Jun 21 at 17:37
  • @Greybeard Have you spilled this water?" with 'this' is quite acceptable. "Have you spilled the water?" is weird. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 21 at 19:56
  • @EdwinAshworth I do not see that it should be thought of in such black and white terms. We must remember that "the" is basically a demonstrative adjective - a close relative of that - thus cousin to "this". – Greybeard Jun 21 at 20:29
  • @Greybeard Black and white? There are degrees of acceptability, we must remember. No less a linguist than Quirk (together with the equally respected Swartvik) postulated a scale of acceptability. Thus degrees of weirdness when getting towards the 'totally unacceptable' pole, away from the 'normal sounding' pole. // And 'the' is the definite article, strongly associated with previous mention. 'This' is identifying. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 22 at 14:24

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