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Problems with explaining English grammar often reside in the terminology. There is often a big assumption that we understand what the terms mean. Simple is, in my opinion, one of the most important examples.

Recently I have noticed two terms, present perfect and present perfect simple.

When I looked up simple in multiple dictionaries it stated that simple meant a verb tense without an auxiliary. So now I'm confused because the perfect tense uses the auxiliary has/had. So now I'm thinking, the meaning is a verb tense without an auxiliary "to be" verb means simple, but I can't find that in writing anywhere. Being that I can't find it written anywhere and that I can find present perfect written without the "simple" term added at the end, I'm starting to think that the present perfect is in fact not simple, but I have no idea.

I think the biggest problem with grammar, is it is somewhat scientific, yet it often lacks citation. People state rules all the time without ever stating the origins of them.

Ideally, I'd like to know who came up with using the term simple in English grammar and what they actually intended that word to mean and why we seem to be using it and NOT using to talk about the present perfect. My research on Google had led to no results on these matters.


Update 5/20/2021 I believe/hope I've found the answer from Collin's Dictionary https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/simple

"In grammar, simple tenses are ones which are formed without an auxiliary verb 'be,'"

I have visited America. (present perfect simple) UK grammar.

I have visited America. (present perfect) US grammar.

This seems to be a feature of British grammar, whereas in American grammar this is not followed. There seems to be the idea that any auxiliary verb eliminates the "simple" state (for lack of a better word) of the verb in American grammars, whereas in the UK it is only the "be" verb that eliminates the simple state.

See the term present perfect simple used here: https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/intermediate-to-upper-intermediate/present-perfect

Note the authority of the source.

We use the present perfect simple (have or has + past participle) to talk about past actions or states which are still connected to the present.

Also, see here https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/present-perfect-simple-i-have-worked

and here https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/past-perfect-simple-or-past-simple

See the present perfect used here from a US source: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/grammar/verb_tenses/index.html

I hope this clears things up for a lot of English learners out there.

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    Present Perfect (also called Present indefinite) is different from Present Perfect. I haven't heard a tense named Present Perfect Simple!? Not sure if I have understood the question as intended by the author.
    – Ram Pillai
    Nov 25, 2020 at 10:46
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    Can you give us a sentence or larger context where you saw the term "present perfect simple"? It might be that the term is being used to contrast it with the Present Perfect Continuous, in the same way that the Present Simple is contrasted with the Present Continuous.
    – Shoe
    Nov 25, 2020 at 11:42

1 Answer 1

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The word "simple", in basic terms, has one stem and two branches.

The stem is neutral and there is:

  1. A negative sense of lacking knowledge, intelligence, experience, sophistication

and

  1. A positive sense of being uncomplicated, not complex, not compound, but clear and concise.

Demonstrating the above, the OED gives

Etymology: < Anglo-Norman sinple, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French simple (French simple ) (adjective) (of people) characterized by a lack of knowledge or education, (of a text, language, etc.) clear, straightforward (both early 12th cent.),[...] (of medical preparations) uncompounded (13th cent.), [...] (of a thing) not composite or complex (late 14th cent.), (of a word) not compound or complex (early 15th cent.),

When applied to a verb, we have the positive sense

The simple past - I saw.

The present perfect - I have seen

"Simple" is used as "saw" directly and clearly indicates the past - it is without any additions. Whereas, to achieve the same thing, "have seen" uses "to have" as a tense marker, plus the past participle. (This is "complex", "compound" i.e. not "simple".)

And we have

The simple present - I see

The continuous present - I am seeing

You should now be asking yourself "What about "I do/did see." and "Did you see?""

This form is still the simple past, and the "do" is the main verb merely used emphatically or in a periphrastic manner. The grammar recognises that "do" has no semantic function and thus the verb's tense remains "simple".

As far as "when and by whom was "simple first applied to verbs", we have

OED

18.a. Grammar. Of a word: consisting of a single unit or element; not compound or complex; (also) without an affix. Also (of a lexeme): consisting of a single word, that is not phrasal.

Here we see simple used of nouns:

?c1425 tr. Guy de Chauliac Grande Chirurgie (Paris) (1971) 75 [Apostemes] þat ben made..of þe lordschippe of one humour, þai..ben cleped of a symple name. Whiche þat ben made of the lordschippe of two humours or of many..ben cleped of a compowned name.

Here we see it used of "words":

1530 J. Palsgrave Lesclarcissement 68 Dyvers substantyves be symple, that is to saye, be nat compounde with any other wordes.

And here we see it recorded for the first time being used of verbs.

c1590 J. Leech Certaine Gram. Questions sig. Lv I must looke whether the verbe be simple or compounde.

So your answer is J Leech first used "simple" in reference to verbs somewhere about 1590.

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  • So is the term present perfect simple a mistake? Should it just be present perfect?
    – Gary Moore
    Nov 25, 2020 at 13:05
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    I suppose that you can have the present perfect simple (I have seen), and the present perfect continuous (I have been seeing), and the present perfect conditional (I would have seen), etc.
    – Greybeard
    Nov 25, 2020 at 19:20
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    By that logic, is there a present continuous simple? That is not logical, "Simple" refers to the verb (other than phrasal verbs) being one word - "He goes". The continuous form is two words "is going", so it is not "simple". The name "present perfect simple" is not commonly used although it has "have" as the 'simple' verb, it also has "seen" BUT 99.999% of the time,"simple" is only used for the one word verb: go/goes simple present or went simple past.
    – Greybeard
    Nov 26, 2020 at 14:27
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    British Council uses present perfect simple on one part of their website, see here learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/… Also, In grammar, simple tenses are ones which are formed without an auxiliary verb 'be,' - therefore, at least amongst British grammarians it seems that because the verb "to be" is not included in the present perfect, it is the present perfect simple. In the US we appear to not care about the "to be" verb deciding whether simple is included.
    – Gary Moore
    May 20, 2021 at 13:18
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    @Gary You were really asking for one usage of 'simple' in grammar, but your very loosely phrased question invited this answer showing various usages. 'Problems with explaining English grammar often reside in the terminology. ' And in the unavoidable truth that words are used in different ways, even in this domain. The term 'absolute adjective' has been used by grammarians in three totally different ways, for instance. May 20, 2021 at 14:36

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