Must present perfect tense be used if the action takes place more than once?

I was told that if an action is completed once in the past, the simple past is used. Ex: I saw that movie.

If the action is completed more than once, the present perfect tense must be used. Ex: I have seen that movie twelve times.

So, "I have seen that movie twelve times on Tuesday." is correct and "I saw that movie twelve times on Tuesday." is incorrect?

Whether or not an action is repeated has no bearing on the choice between the past tense and the present perfect construction. The first describes actions at a particular time in the past and the second relates past actions to the time of speaking. You wouldn’t say I have seen that movie twelve times on Tuesday because Tuesday is a particular time in the past. You would say instead I saw that movie twelve times on Tuesday. However, if you were obsessive about watching films, you could conceivably say I have seen that movie twelve times today because today is recent enough for it to be related to the time of speaking.

• I have seen that movie twelve times today also strikes me as implying that you intend to watch the movie again, possibly today. – Dave Jan 2 '12 at 18:29
• @Dave: Equally, it could imply that you don't: 'I have seen that movie twelve times today and I wouldn't watch it a thirteenth time if you paid me.' – Barrie England Jan 2 '12 at 18:34

McCawley, James D. 1971. “Tense and Time Reference in English,” in C. J. Fillmore and D. T. Langendoen (eds), Studies in Linguistic Semantics. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

1. Universal Perfect: Since 2000, Alexandra has lived in L.A.
• Describes an ongoing continuous situation still true or relevant
2. Existential Perfect: Lola has seen “The Princess and the Warrior”.
• Describes at least a single occurrence of some potentially important event.
3. Stative Perfect: Rebecca has lost her glasses.
• Describes a current state that was caused by something in the past.
4. Hot News! Perfect: The Red Sox have won!
• Describes an extremely recent important event.

All this stuff about "once in the past" is true some times, but not others.
The Perfect is not a simple construction.

• I didn't wade all the way through the doc you linked - as you say, the perfect is not simple. But hopefully somewhere it says present perfect doesn't really work when closely allied to a single specified time in the past. Well, that's what I think, anyway. – FumbleFingers Dec 31 '11 at 5:38
• Yes. *Lola has seen “The Princess and the Warrior” on Dec. 13 is ungrammatical, precisely for that reason, while Lola has seen “The Princess and the Warrior” in 3-D/at the Bijou/with Bill are all OK. – John Lawler Dec 31 '11 at 16:06
• The stuff about relevance is not, er, relevant. I can't say I'm here today specifically because my grandmother has escaped from the Irish potato famine even though clearly her having escaped is still true and very relevant to my being here. – Brett Reynolds Dec 31 '11 at 16:18
• One little codicil on the Perfect is that you can't use it if the subject is both human and dead. President Obama has visited Seattle is OK, but *President Nixon has visited Seattle is not. – John Lawler Dec 31 '11 at 16:55

John Lawler and others have pretty well nailed it, but I'd just like to add a couple of things. Maybe if we try and think why it is the present perfect, and the past simple. The past is finished and done with. It doesn't matter how many times you did something or how long you did it for, if you mention a past time reference, or if the fact that something is finished is obvious (eg: Dickens lived in London), use past simple.

Present perfect connects a past event to the present. When I say "I've been to Paris", it doesn't matter when. The fact is I now know what the crowds in the Louvre are like, what the view from the top of Montmartre is, etc; I have this mental picture in my head because I have experienced it. When I experienced it is of little importance. This is John Lawler's existential sense. And when John says "Rebecca has lost her glasses", it means she is without glasses now. When he says "Alexandra has lived in LA since 2000", she still lives there now.

The next thing is time period. When we use finished time periods, such as last year, last week, yesterday, or this morning (if we are in the afternoon or later), we use past simple.

But if we mention a current time period: today, this year, this morning if it's still morning, then we use present perfect. The only exception I can think of is when you come home in the evening, you can use today to mean your working day, then you could say to your partner, "I saw five clients today".

Be careful with the last (or past) year and last year. As soon as we add the, we are talking about the time period specified up until now. So "I saw that film twice last year", but "I have seen that film three times in the last year."

Certain prepositions help: since, over, yet, already (in BrE) and still, are usually used with perfect tenses, not simple tenses. The tricky one is for - "He lived there for ten year", but also "He has lived here for ten years".

Lastly, we often start a conversation with present perfect and then move to past simple when we get down to specifics: "Have you been to Paris?"- "Yes, I went there last year." - "Oh, what was it like?". Or in John's media example, where they use present perfect to give the story immediacy - "The Red Sox have won again! Earlier tonight the Red Sox won a stunning victory against ....", etc.

• I think you've done a good job there explaining how the present perfect tense relates something in the past to present time, whereas there's no such connection with past simple. And I particularly like "I saw five clients today" for showing how loosely "the present time" can be defined in certain contexts. – FumbleFingers Dec 31 '11 at 15:53
• Time expressions have their own grammar and reference. Today, for example, can refer to the starting point of the day, the endpoint of the day, the whole day, the day so far, the rest of the day that's left, and many other contextually-deducible time periods or points. See Chapter II, "Time" from Fillmore's Deixis Lextures. – John Lawler Dec 31 '11 at 17:18
• I should have course said prepositions and adverbs. – RandomIdeaEnglish Dec 31 '11 at 17:53

You may find Wikipedia's section on the present perfect tense useful. The article mentions several cases where present perfect is appropriate, the most relevant being:

• When a repeated or prolonged action is specified, the present perfect indicates that the time period in question goes up to the present. ...

Because Tuesday is over and done, your first version,

I have seen that movie twelve times on Tuesday.

is incorrect, and the second is correct:

I saw that movie twelve times on Tuesday.

Edit: There are contexts in which the first version is grammatical. For example, it's a valid reply to a question like "How many times have you seen War Horse on a Tuesday?" (except I'd expect plural Tuesdays in the reply). As a statement of times a movie was seen on a recent day, the sentence goes wrong. If on Friday, A asks B, "Which day did you see The Darkest Hour, anyway, and how many times?" it would be bad grammar for B to reply "I have seen that movie twelve times on Tuesday". The Wikipedia paragraph after the one I quoted above says:

When an explicitly past frame of reference is established by mentioning a particular time in the past, the present perfect cannot normally be used. That is, "I ate two minutes ago" not "*I have eaten two minutes ago"

in which * denotes a grammar mistake.

• Maybe in some other context what Wikipedia says about the time period in question goes up to the present might be relevant, but not in OP's case. The only issue is that present perfect doesn't sit well with a specific period in the past. But I must point out that last year, for example, is "less specific" than Tuesday, which is why it doesn't grate so much. – FumbleFingers Dec 31 '11 at 5:32
• @FumbleFingers I added some context – James Waldby - jwpat7 Dec 31 '11 at 6:06
• ...that doesn't change the fact that your first quote from Wikipedia is irrelevant to OP's examples. – FumbleFingers Dec 31 '11 at 12:32

This is a really interesting question. To me, *I have seen that movie twelve times on Tuesday sounds wrong, and I saw that movie twelve times on Tuesday sounds right - that is, the opposite of the situation you described.

I am just conjecturing here, but I think the reason lies in a different characteristic of the tenses: that the simple past is used to describe a time period that has been definitively completed in the past, whereas the present perfect is used to describe time at some unspecified point in the past, right up to the present.

Thus, we use the present perfect in I have seen that movie twelve times because the sentence does not indicate specifically when the movie was seen, other than that it was in the past. That is, within a time period stretching from some time in the past to right now, you have seen the movie twelve times. But we use the simple past in I saw that movie twelve times on Tuesday because the time period during which you saw the movie is restricted to Tuesday - a time period which ends before the present.

Edit, to provide references: This website (page about the present perfect, page about the simple past), which is the first Google result for those tenses, seems to agree with my explanation above.

• 1) "I have gone to many places this year." 2) "I went to many places this year." Am I right in thinking that #1 is wrong and #2 is correct (since "this year" is specific)? – Sherlock Dec 31 '11 at 6:13
• No, I would say #1 is correct - which is consistent with my answer, since "this year" is a period of time which stretches up until the present. I would only say #2 if it was currently the end of the year, so that "this year" would be interpreted as an already-completed time period. – alcas Dec 31 '11 at 6:20
• @alcas: “This year” in #2 would essentially be short for “this past year”. – Jon Purdy Dec 31 '11 at 8:59
• @Sherlock - Sentence 1 should be: "I have been to many places this year" - You are talking about the current time period, today, this week etc., so it's correct to use present perfect, but presumably you came back each time, so "been", not "gone". The second sentence is not correct, as we are still in the time period. If you had said "last year", past .simple would have been OK, but not with "this year" – RandomIdeaEnglish Dec 31 '11 at 9:49

I believe jwpat7 is correct: The issue is whether the time period in question is complete.

Consider, "I saw that movie 12 times today." The simple past tense is correct, because you are not still watching showings of the movie. The time period has ended. But, "I have seen that movie 12 times so far today." The perfect should be used because the "so far" indicates that the time period has not ended; you may watch the movie again. Note "I have seen that movie 12 times today" would also be correct, and would carry the implication that the day is not over so you may see it yet again today. But "I have seen that movie 12 times yesterday" would be wrong. The time period is over.

Repeating the action multiple times has nothing to do with the tenses you mention.You should consider time period.

As long as the time period you mentioned hasn't finished you can use Present perfect.

• I have watched two movies today. (Today hasn't finished).
• I watched two movies yesterday (It finished).

Extend the time period:

• I have watched two movies this week. (This week hasn't finished and I can watch more).
• I watched two movies last week. (It finished and became last week).

Extend again:

• I have watched two movies this month.(This month hasn't finished and I can watch more).
• I watched two movies last month. (It finished and became last month).

You can continue this by extending your time period. You can use longer time expressions like this summer, this year etc.

There is no grammatic or semantic distinction between "I saw..." and "I have seen that movie." And that's still the case if you append, say "...twice".

If you append "...last year", many people will feel uncomfortable with "I have seen", because of a sporadically-observed rule that you shouldn't use the present perfect when refering to one specific time in the past. This rule is often broken, but it can make a difference in certain contexts.

Consider "I drank/have drunk beer twice on Sunday". In this, the "drank" version implies the drinking happened on two separate occasions during the most recent Sunday. The "have drunk" version can carry that meaning, whatever the grammarians say. But it much more strongly implies that I drank on two different Sundays (i.e. - not one specific time).

TL;DR: It's nothing to do with whether an action is completed once or multiple times. It's about avoiding the present perfect for a specific time in the past.

• By the rules we teach in EFL, "I have drunk beer twice on Sunday", is certainly incorrect, as Sunday is finished and done with. And as you say, it's a specified time in the past.In British English, at lest, this is not a "sporadically-observed" rule, it is absolutely standard. If you want to say that you drank beer on two separate Sundays, then you would need to say (in BrE at least), "twice on a Sunday", or "twice on Sundays". – RandomIdeaEnglish Dec 31 '11 at 9:54
• I suspect even among competent native speakers, conscious awareness of the exact rule in play here is relatively uncommon. If I say, for example, "Your turn to answer the phone! I've answered it twice this morning!", and you know I'm a competent speaker, would you really want to bet your life it must still be before midday? Retreating into "grammatical rules" is pointless if they aren't universally observed. Pluralising Sundays or preceding it by the indefinite article are just tricks we use to gloss over the awkwardness there - I don't think they're grammatically required as such. – FumbleFingers Dec 31 '11 at 14:10
• I absolutely agree with you that we do it subconsciously. Children form grammatically perfectly sentences well before hearing a grammatical term. In TEFL we don't simply teach an arbitrary set of rules, but rules based soundly on descriptive grammar - how standard English is spoken. I can only speak about standard British English, where we do use present perfect in exactly this way; it's absolutely natural. And the same goes for pluralising Sundays. These are not made up "grammatical rules". This is how people communicate. At least in my neck of the woods. – RandomIdeaEnglish Dec 31 '11 at 18:06
• That's one reason why I find this particular question fascinating. I'll admit I overstated the case with "sporadically-observed", because to the best of my (UK) knowledge, native speakers fairly consistently apply this "rule" in all but the most borderline cases. We subconsciously register the relationship between "the present time" and the time being spoken of, and choose verb form appropriately. But I really like your example "I saw five clients today", where I doubt most people could articulate (or register, even subconsciously) any difference between that and "I have seen..." – FumbleFingers Dec 31 '11 at 18:50

This is a tough call. The incidents have to be separate. "I saw the movie twelve times in a row" is fine. "I saw the movie twelve times over the past year" is not. However, despite the fact that it is formally incorrect, it is quite common in casual speech.

• Do you view I saw the movie twelve times during 2011 and I saw the movie twelve times in the past year as not fine, as well? – James Waldby - jwpat7 Dec 31 '11 at 3:15
• On what possible grounds do you find I saw the movie twelve times over the past year "formally incorrect"? Do I now have to say "I have drunk beer twice yesterday" instead of "I drank beer twice?" I suggest you throw away whatever "pseudo-grammar" book told you this. – FumbleFingers Dec 31 '11 at 4:15
• -1 Agreed with @FumbleFingers; it's completely misleading, and a wrong answer, to say that I saw the movie twelve times over the past year is "formally incorrect". – alcas Dec 31 '11 at 4:46
• @Fumblefingers - On the same grounds as every EFL/ESL teacher and every course book and grammar book I've ever dealt with. Over the past year means until now; it doesn't mean last year. We are still in this time period, so present perfect is called for. Yesterday is a past time period, so I'm afraid your analogy is a false one. It gets even more complicated when we say "the last year" which also refers to the current time period, and is different from "last year". And I think we only use "over" with the current time period, not a finished one. – RandomIdeaEnglish Dec 31 '11 at 10:11
• @RandomIdeaEnglish: We're skirting round the margins of a somewhat vague aspect of correct usage for present perfect. There's not really space in a comment to fully illustrate a contrived context, but there are definitely times when you can say, for example, "I've shed tears as a child, but not as an adult". Where according to "the rules", that 've is ungrammatical. – FumbleFingers Dec 31 '11 at 14:27