I have a question specifically about present perfect usage in legal and “bureaucratic” writing. On official forms (for example, application forms from US government agencies or IRS forms), I sometimes see questions worded using present perfect, for example:

  • (1) "Since establishing Hawaii residence, have you received a job offer from a foreign government?"
  • (2) "Has your employer closed permanently or temporarily due to the COVID-19 emergency?"
  • (3) "Have you become a full or part-time student since leaving the Armed Forces?"

In each of these cases, would the correct answer still be "yes" if the present perfect action happened but the situation had already concluded? For example:

  • For (1), you were offered a job by a foreign government after establishing Hawaii residence, but you already declined it.
  • For (2), your employer closed temporarily at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but has since reopened.
  • For (3), you were a part-time student for one quarter after leaving the Armed Forces twenty years ago, but are not a student any more.

I understand that present perfect is used for past actions that are either continuing in the present or relevant to the present, while the simple past is used when the action was completed and has no ongoing relevance. This does not answer my question, though, because even if the action has no ongoing relevance to the answerer, it could easily still have relevance to the agency who is asking for it. Should these questions be answered with “yes” or “no”, and why?

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    It sounds like you have received an extremely super-limited model for understanding how the present perfect is actually used in real English. All those questions are identical to their corresponding versions in the past tense using did you. It does not make any difference, and whoever told you it did make a difference was wrong.
    – tchrist
    Feb 7, 2021 at 22:16
  • @tchrist, English is not my native language (my native language has only three tenses, and I learned some English tenses kind of "mechanically"; they still aren't quite intuitive). So yes, you are right.
    – Rai
    Feb 7, 2021 at 22:23
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    Welcome to our site. Your English is very, very good, much better than someone I would normally refer to our sister site for English Language Learners, so maybe you can get a technical answer here you could not get there. I do think you're over-analysing this, though; we ourselves certainly never think of it like this. So I hope someone can answer you fully here, or refer you to other questions that already have those answers.
    – tchrist
    Feb 7, 2021 at 22:24
  • All of these questions, if answered yes, would branch to a list of more questions that would clear up the details. They simply aren't designed to be definitive. They are designed to permit negative responses to bypass a slew of non-applicable questions.
    – Phil Sweet
    Feb 7, 2021 at 22:29
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    English only has two tenses in the inflectional sense, past and present, but it has a seemingly endless set of modal and/or periphrastic and stylistic alternatives for expressing other times and aspects and moods. Even "present perfect" is not a tense but rather a tense plus an aspect, and its name tells you nothing to guide you on its use.
    – tchrist
    Feb 7, 2021 at 23:15

1 Answer 1


You express the question cogently and coherently. I can only add to the comments by saying that the answer is a matter of truth and logic rather than linguistic rules. These questions do not invite an essay or a qualified answer. They invite the simplest response: yes or no.

I only take (1) as an example. Let us assume that after you established residence you were offered a job but declined it. The answer has to be “yes” because that is the truth. You cannot answer “yes, but ...” because the form is not structured to take account of events after such an offer. Nor may you answer “no”, because that is a lie.

Similar arguments apply to your other examples. Just answer the question and do not seek to qualify your answer by some kind of manipulation or qualification of the truth. In general, it is unwise to impute unstated purposes or hidden meanings to forms; you are as likely to guess wrongly as correctly.

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