A is for Aspect (2)

19 06 2011

In this second short video on the English tense and aspect system, I take  a look at perfect aspect.



24 responses

19 06 2011

Nice video Scott. I see you have stopped making them in your lounge.🙂 Actually that white backdrop is great – no distractions whatsoever.

The examples are excellent and it will be very helpful for users to have them visible on the screen.

For Spanish students, for example, do you think a contrastive analysis with Spanish is useful here? Some argue that it just confuses, especially if you ask students to translate from the Spanish present into the English present perfect. They suggest that teachers are far better sticking to contrastive analysis within the L2 (as in the vid).

Are you every likely to touch on the other monster?: I’ve been living here for ten years/I’ve lived here for ten years.

20 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Glennie – I think L1/L2 contrastive work is always useful – not least because students will be doing it in their head, anyway, so it’s as well to make it public and explicit.

As for the difference between ‘I’ve lived here for 10 years’ and ‘I’ve been living here for 10 years’ you should go back to my first video on aspect. Because the tense/aspect system is componential, i.e. the meaning of the whole phrase is the sum total of meanings of the different components, then what the addition of progressive aspect to present tense + perfect aspect adds is the notion of the activity being seem from within as it were, as unfolding, evolving, unbounded. Depending on the context and the type of verb, this may have further implications, such as incompleteness or temporariness. But this is a secondary effect. It´s not true to say, for example, that the present perfect progressive connotes incompleteness, witness ‘I´ve been having a nap´ can’t be uttered if the speaker is still asleep!

So, to summarise:

I´ve lived = present tense (i.e. presentness) + perfect aspect (retrospective view)
I´ve been living = present tense (i.e. presentness) + perfect aspect (retrospective view) + progressive aspect (unbounded, evolving, dynamic view)

20 06 2011

Many thanks, Scott, for that generous response.

19 06 2011
Scott C

I like the ‘dead vs. alive’ contrast. I’ve also found other good ways are to talk about a football match. During the match: ‘Beckham has scored one goal’ and after the match, ‘Beckham scored one goal’. Also, while class is running, ‘We’ve studied the present perfect’. Once class is over, ‘We studied…’

In regards to the progressive mentioned above, can’t it have two possible meanings? 1. In my mind this has been a long time (eg. I’ve been studying all night) and 2. In my mind, this is temporary (eg. I’ve been catching the train to school this week because my car is being fixed). I guess context is the key. True?

20 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Nice examples for highlighting the contrast, Scott – thanks.

As for the pp vs ppp: see my response to Glennie above.

19 06 2011
Marjorie Vai

Scott. Video was great. Why not do a Khan Academy, Thornbury Academy as it were*, for teachers on tense and more…

re. as it were…


19 06 2011
J.J. Sunset

A video McNugget?

19 06 2011
Josh Kurzweil

Hi Scott,
I’m really glad that you addressed the present perfect because it can be such a tricky point for students to feel comfortable using. Interestingly, I’ve found that grammar books/teachers often end up telling students when ‘not’ to use the present perfect. For example, they’ll say something like ‘with the present perfect we do not say when the action occurred.’ This strikes me as fairly confusing advice that does not provide students a sense of when they should use the present perfect.

When I was in my MAT program at SIT, one of my classmates, Dian Henderson, gave me a very useful way of framing the present perfect that I have used ever since. She noted how there is a kind of causality with the present perfect sentences, particularly those puzzling ones that refer to past experience. For instance, in the case of “I’ve been to Barcelona,” one can finish the sentence with a ‘so now…’ statement such as ‘so now I know many things about the city,’ or ‘so now I can tell you about it.’

This same ‘so now’ shortcut can be useful in cases when there has been a past experience with a present effect. Ex. “The taxi has arrived” = So now it is here. Or “He’s drunk five cups of coffee.” = So now he’s a bit jumpy. Michael Swan in “How English Works” has a nice exercise that has students match present perfect to the present meaning (p. 151). This type of activity also helps students think about why native speakers use the present perfect. I sometimes follow that up with speculation exercises in which students make guesses as to why someone use the present perfect by completing ‘so now’ statements.

By offering this simple guideline and some ‘so now’ exercises, students can develop more of sense of why the present perfect is used and how they might want to use it to convey there own meaning.

20 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

“So now…” – yes, I love it! I like the idea of matching sentences where the match depends on their having present relevance:

a. He´s been to Venice…

1.where he died.
2. where he has many friends.

b. They’ve been living here for 10 years…
1. and own their own house.
2. and then they moved back to London.


19 06 2011

‘Hi Sally! Did you eat yet?’

‘Hey Jason. Uh, yeah. I ate already.’

In US English (at least that of the ‘Friends’ variety) the present perfect seems to be on the way out.

20 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, well noted Lorna. I think I have some stats somewhere about the relative frequency of the pp in AmE vs BrE. I’ll see if I can hunt them out.

The disappearance of the present perfect can only be a good thing for language learners, second only to the third person -s, in terms of its capacity to mystify!

20 06 2011
Chris Bowie

Interesting video. I have often taught this “alive or dead” difference to students, especially when I was in Germany, where the students naturally assumed the present perfect and past simple had the same meaning because the equivalent forms do in German.

I was teaching a Chinese student yesterday about how to talk about people and their jobs (ideal present perfect situation). She had made the errors “I am a manager for several years” and later “Tina is a secretary for a long time” (Tina is no longer a secretary and is now an administrator).

First of all I introduced “I am a manager” and “She used to be a secretary” and that with these we can’t add a time adverbial to say “for how long”. I THEN introduced the concept that, to talk about “for how long”, we need to use present perfect when you would say “I am/she is” (for a job they have now) and past simple for the “used to be” sentences. And that was it. That student’s homework is to speak to three colleagues and find out (1) how long they have had their current job and (2) what jobs they had before and how long they had them and then report the information back to me in an email:

“XX has been a manager for 3 years. She used to be an accountant. She worked in the payroll department for 6 years from 2002 until 2008” etc etc.

Interestingly, Chinese has the same ‘aspect’ ideas as English, although this is shown by adding particles and not conjugating the verb as in English. In Chinese you have a form which describes experiences “I have been to America” and another form which describes changes of state “We’ve run out of paper” and so on. This means that, unlike German learners, Chinese learners have no trouble with the concept of the perfect, they stumble on the form.

21 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chris, for this useful contribution to the ever interesting ‘how to teach perfect aspect’ conversation.

It makes me wonder if a grasp of the basic concept of both progressive and perfect aspect isn’t best achieved by means of collocations, particularly adverbs and adverbial phrases. This in fact is what many coursebooks attempt to do, by strongly associating the present perfect with phrases beginning with either ‘for’ or ‘since’ (although they tend to get diverted by the different collocations within these phrases), or with ‘just/already’ or with ‘how long…?’

I’m wondering if this approach couldn’t be extended into the learning of set phrases. I once did a corpus search of phrases containing the string ‘have you been’ and found these to be the most frequent, in order of frequency (per million words in spoken English):

how long have you been (2.4)
have you been able to # (1.8)
have you been in # (0.8)
have you been to # (0.8)
how have you been (0.7
where have you been (0.7)
what have you been doing (0.6)
what have you been up to (0.1)

Source: Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA)

21 06 2011

Must take time to read all the comments here, but a quickie for now. As a parent, I doubt the present perfect will die out, as it’s the second tense L1 children ‘learn’. Well, sort of third. But as with all that early-acquired stuff, and based on observation of how my own children learnt English (as bilinguals, not L1 exclusive) I would certainly say teach pres perf lexically, and then sort of reverse collocation, or chunking. Littlies pick up the concept of the participle as being something they can see in the now – ie they comment on an effect. They say ‘all gone’ as they look at the empty plate, and you look at the mush all round their mouth. They use the pres perf as an announcement of a state of being (if you know what I mean) and tend to limit the announcements to the participle. Certainly with younger students, I would use this route to teaching the whole caboodle. Start with the participle, support the meaning of it however u would normally do ‘broken’ ‘gone’ ‘finished’ ‘lost’, whatever, then build forward – ‘Damn, broken my cup’ ‘Gone to bed. See you in the morning’ ‘Finished your homework?’ ‘Damn, lost my glasses’…. Then add on the ‘little bits’ at the front, and experiment with the adverbs changing the meaning slightly. I mean, you can teach the meaning of ‘yet’ without the auxiliary bit ‘Finished yet?’ ‘Just seen Hamlet – amazing!’ etc. (getting them writing tweets as practice!) Students can communicate with a lexical form of the pres perf long before needing to fiddle about with auxiliaries. It works with kids this way, cuz I’ve done it and it seems to reduce confusion later, as missing off the auxiliary at the start avoids the initial association with forms that look the same in their L1. If it works with kids, it should work with adults…. ‘not tried it yet’, maybe I should.

21 06 2011

Oops. WordPress has over-ridden my attempt to call myself by my own name – ‘macappella’ is me, Fiona, @fionamau

23 06 2011

Brilliant and very original approach.🙂
Thanks for that.

21 06 2011
Klaus Beutelspacher

Brilliant video Scott, so to the grammar point. I love the examples too.

It adds some arguments to the philosophy of present perfect which I feel is always forced upon me by, well, the students themselves. The first thing they say is: Oh, my English is sooo bad, I’ve always had these awful problems with grammar. What grammar? The tenses, omg these tenses, they are so confusing!

By tenses they mean PP.

My response is: Don’t worry about it. As long as you’re elementary, you don’t need this. 80% of all language teaching is elementary, chances are that you’re fine with present/past/future for now.

I can literally see them growing in their chair when I take that burden off their chest.

Tenses in English are subtle, I sometimes explain. Not like in German, where you only have one past (you use Perfekt unless you’re writing or you want to sound smart), and you need to find the right form, which is hard. In English, you have to make a decision which tense fits your intentions, and the form itself is very easy. In the beginning, you can get away by not making this decision and choosing the simplest tense.

Ok, you spent 1.500 hours at school, and you’re still elementary, that’s normal. Secondary schools hardly ever get beyond elementary, at least concerning oral skills. So the “tenses” that confused you shouldn’t have been in the curriculum in the first place. It’s not your fault. Maybe progress was so slow because they went on about PP and all this stuff that you had no chance to really grasp.

But now you can speed up. And while you are developing through intermediate stages, you want to notice the subtle difference that you can read or hear. Some of them you’ll be able to use more and more as an intermediate, like progressive is fairly easy to grasp, or possibility. PP – by all means, perceive it, play with it, but don’t be mad at yourself if you can’t use it safely in conversations before you are well into advanced. Most English teachers in Germany couldn’t, so you don’t need to either, not before you’ve spent a couple of years abroad.

(I don’t ever give this entire talk, but frequently parts of it)

Hence the solution I’d suggest to the problem of teaching PP: DON’T.

Instead, have people watch Scott’s video🙂

22 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

An interesting contrast in views between Fiona, who is suggesting that perfect aspect – albeit in a reduced and formualic way – is relatively early acquired (in L1) to express the function of ‘past event with present consequences’, and Klaus, who argues that, in L2, it is relatively late acquired, due to difficulties learners have of assigning it a function that is not already served by another form (i.e. either the past simple or the present simple). The L2 learning path is littered with similar examples of learners sticking to the ‘devil they know’, over-using one form at the expense of another, because the underused form is either not perceived at all (there is only a small difference between ‘I read this book’ and ‘I’ve read this book’, after all), or it is considered to be redundant – just another way of saying the same thing.

This is not to say that there aren’t ‘lessons’ to be drawn from L1 acquisiton – one being that, if the present perfect is to become useful for the learner, it needs to be mapped on to very clear pragmatic contexts using high frequency, easily memorised formulae, as in expressions like ‘Have you finished yet?’ or ‘No, thanks, I’ve just had one’ (admittedly much easier to teach in the days when more people smoked!)

22 06 2011
Declan Cooley

in relation to teaching, and to previous comments about associating the PP usages with shorthand formulae and brief contexts, I have found (!) it useful to match particular usages with the questions that prompt them:

1. Have you ever ….. ? >>> Yes, (I have) often …. (life experience questions/use)
2. How long have you …? >>> I’ve …… for quite a while now. (length of activity/state up to near-present/present moment)
3. What’s happened ? >>> He’s forgotten his keys. (visible/evident result in the now)

From Fiona’s examples, it looks like the initial route of L1 acquisition of meaning seems to follow a path based on
(a) the lexical aspect of the verb (aktionsart), Achievement verbs predominating (finish)
(b) and the salience of concrete results.
Students hear this a lot in the classroom (have you finished ?) and thus ought to acquire this first too. However, I notice textbooks often start with usage 1. above which is probably one of the more abstract of the uses (evidence = my memories and changed experience).

At higher levels, the link between tense choice and discourse probably is more important to focus on ( I’m thinking of your materials relating to tense choice in short news articles – the story of an escaped monkey in Uncovering Grammar).

21 06 2011

Enjoyed the video, Scott. In one of your books, How to Teach Grammar, you give an example of an exercise contrasting pp and the simple past whereby students write questions for a friend who is back from a visit to Egypt (eg, Did you see the pyramids?), and a separate set of questions for the friend who’s still in Egypt. (eg, Have you seen the pyramids?). I’ve used that in class a la Dogme by asking students to write questions to someone in our program – students tend to know others from their country from the same program. I find it a useful scenario which, combined with contrastive analysis of Spanish (the students L1) helps learners at least grasp the concept although it still takes plenty of practice and noticing to make it part of one’s repertoire if you will.

I know Dennis tried to post a comment here, but apparently it didn’t go/hasn’t gone through.🙂 At the risk of misrepresenting his remarks, I believe he wanted to say that he found the video very clear and useful for a study of grammar. As for learners, those ‘people in the room’, he was less enthusiastic about how it might help them. Perhaps Dennis’ comments were made before some of the posts sharing classroom experiences? At any rate, I do know how easy it is for grammarians, amateur and expert, to get caught up in the Joy of Grammar without considering how a person who sees grammar as a kind of mathematics – and they hate math! – might learn to automatically comprehend and utter phrases like “Here’s one I’ll bet you haven’t heard before.” So it’s good to read some teacher-student encounters here.

Seems we’ve reached that ‘deadly’ ten-post mark, so perhaps you’ll be the only one reading this, Scott. Nonetheless, thanks to everyone for your thoughtful and informative posts.


21 06 2011

Hi Scott – I like the idea of looking at the present perfect as just another collocation. Let the context determine the meaning then repeat the particular collocation lots of times as in a substitution activity – then back to task – re-anchoring the language so to speak. We could even throw the description “the present perfect” out then and just approach it as another fixed expression.

22 06 2011

Very generous of Rob to take me by the arm and give a brief summary of a message I sent to him off-blog. Thanks, Rob. I realise that explanation rather than pedagogy is the chosen focus of this blog, but I couldn’t help feeling that Scott’s very clear exposition led to a number of accounts of “doing grammar” and that somewhere in the not remote background we were heading towards a grammar-based list of important things to do. I may well have missed it, but I did not spot any central focus here on student needs, or, indeed, on learning. From Scott I learned about Nick C. Ellis’ and Diane Larsen-Freeman’s Language as a Complex Adaptive System and it would be fascinating to explore how they would (or do) approach the teaching of “grammar”/aspect in the light of their declaration that:

“Language has a fundamentally social function….. processes of language acquisition, use and change are not independent of one another but are facets of the same system…..This system is radically different from the from the static system of grammatical principles characteristic of the widely held generativist approach.” op cit p2 (Wiley Blackwell, 2008)-

22 06 2011

Dennis, glad you’ve been so sanguine about my attempt to represent your interests here. To be fair to Mr. Ellis and Ms. Larsen-Freeman, I don’t think teaching is their bag per se. They write ‘big picture’ books and leave the rest to us if you will. I would love to see them in front of, amidst, or even behind my class of 20, but I doubt they have the need or motivation. I could be very wrong about that, of course, as I’m just guessing. I’ll bet they’d do just fine in the classroom. They just don’t work there, that’s all.

To your point: We teachers tend not to focus so much on our learners directly unless we’re in class with them. Perhaps these discussions, which, inevitably feel a bit like chatting in Scott’s ‘domain’, are an indirect way of attending to learners’ needs?


29 06 2011
Kaye Woodward

As you say, “I’ve been to Peru” is often taught as having a separate meaning ie; life experience. When I teach the present perfect, I teach 3 uses and include the “life experience” use in the category of “time frame not finished”. Other examples might be “It’s been cold this week”, “I haven’t seen him this morning” or “I’ve been skiing 4 times this season”. Usually the time frame is stated but when the time frame is someone’s life, it’s assumed. I use a time line with a long box around the time frame which is open at the right hand end, I then show that the box closes when time moves on and the time frame finishes. The verb form then becomes the simple past.

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