"Did you see it?"

Ant_222   Sunday, September 05, 2004, 19:37 GMT
Hello all!
I often heard people saying "Did you see it?" when something worth attention suddenly happened. But it seems to me that thay should have said "Have you seen it?" in such situations...
Can anybody explain what the matter is?
Mxsmanic   Sunday, September 05, 2004, 23:02 GMT
The choice between the past simple tense and the present perfect tense is made based on the speaker's perception of the connection (or lack of connection) between the past event in question and the present. If the speaker perceives that the event is isolated in the past and has little or no connection to the present, he will use the past simple; otherwise, he will use the present perfect.

There are variations among different cultures in the way people perceive events. These are not differences in English grammar; they are differences in the way people see things (which are then reflected in their use of language). Americans have long had a reputation for very rapidly isolating events in the past, as compared to the British, and this means that Americans use the past simple for a past event much more readily than the British do. Thus, an American might say "Did you eat this morning?" whereas a Englishwoman might say "Have you eaten this morning?" The American sees breakfast as completely lost in the past already, whereas the Englishwoman sees it as still current in time.

It should be reemphasized that this is _not_ a difference in the meaning or use of the tenses; it's a difference in the way speakers see the events, which is cultural rather than linguistic.
CalifJim   Monday, September 06, 2004, 06:08 GMT
Mxsmanic, Best explanation of the topic I've read in a long, long time! Really superior. Thanks.

On the question of a sudden event, I would imagine that regardless of country of origin, English speakers in general would say "Did you see it?" or more likely, "Did you see that?", don't you? For example, if we are sitting outdoors at a cafe, and someone streaks by in a flash (yes, I mean naked), an event of five seconds, at most, I might say to you, wide-eyed, "Did you see THAT?". I can't imagine asking you if you have seen it. Do non-American English speakers say "Have you seen THAT?" in this context.? Please advise.

Ant_222   Monday, September 06, 2004, 14:30 GMT
Thank you for the answers.

I am not a native English speaker. I am a Russian and currently my English is too poor to give advices to Americans... But today I asked my English teacher at the institute where I study about this problem and she answered that the British would use Present Perfect while Americans probably wouldn't.

The reason for using the Present Perfect was that the speaker was still amazed a lot by the moment he said it, so the result of the sudden accident was present: the lively experience of what he had just seen.

But owing to the given explanations I have come to the conclusion that there is no sharp edge between the cases where only one of the two tenses must be used. This edge is fuzzy. The fields of using the Present Perfect and the Past Simple are overlapping and, in this pruduct space, the use of any of the two tenses is not a grammar mistake. And the edge lies somewhere withing this region but it is different (and always fuzzy) from nation to nation and, to a lesser degree, from person to person of the same nation.

And now I'd like to ask you two more questions to improove my understanding of the subject discussed. Help me, please.

1. "The examination is usually hold in the following way... [Here is the description in the Present Simple] ... After that the students are asked to leave the room having left their question cards on the places they have been (were) sitting."

It seems to me that here there is only one correct tense and I incline to the Present Perfect.

2. "One may say that it is impossible to record CDs on slow machines but read: I (have) recorded a CD on a x386 computer."

The use of tenses in this example strikes me as being located in the overlapping area I told you about and, therefore, I think that both the tenses are correct here.

CalifJim   Monday, September 06, 2004, 15:39 GMT

In 1 "have been sitting" seems to go better with "having left" -- to my ear, anyway.

In 2, I agree with you again. I also feel there is an overlap. I would have chosen "I have recorded" just to match tense types. Present with Present Perfect. The claim of impossibility is in the present, and my recording accomplishment which disproves the claim is also in the present, in the sense that I can now show what I "have done" to disprove the claim, i.e., I now have "something to show".

Damian   Monday, September 06, 2004, 18:51 GMT
In the scenario mentioned.....the flasher, or as they usually say here in the UK - the streaker.....I would used the Present Perfect all the time. I would splutter on my latte and yell: "Wow! Did you see THAT?"

In a different situation, we would be watching TV and they were reviewing films, and when they referred to one in particular, I would ask my mate: "Have you seen that?" rather than "Did you see that?. However, if my mate had been in London when the film was shown, I would say: "Did you see that when you were in London?"

If he told me something about the plot I would exclaim: "Have you seen it already then?"
Damian   Monday, September 06, 2004, 18:55 GMT
<<.....I would used the Present Perfect all the time>>

oops! ..red face..... Correction: "I would use"
CalifJim   Monday, September 06, 2004, 19:23 GMT
Hi, Damian. Did you really mean Present Perfect instead of Past? Because "Did you see ..." isn't present perfect; but I'm sure you already knew that! Just a 'slip of the fingers on the keyboard' I'm guessing.
Take care.
Mxsmanic   Tuesday, September 07, 2004, 01:28 GMT
Ant_222, your English teacher is mistaken. In the case of the streaker, almost all native English speakers would say "Did you see that?" because the event is entirely completed and in the past, even though the past is very recent.

You are correct that there is an overlap. A common mistake made by coursebooks and some teachers in teaching English is to insist that a specific tense is definitely correct or definitely incorrect in a given situation. In most cases, multiple tenses are gramatically correct; the choice depends only on the intention of the speaker.

I have a grammar exercise that I give to students of a simple fill-in-the-blanks kind, and for each sentence, I tell them to fill in the blank with every grammatically-correct tense they can, telling me each time the meaning of the tenses as they use them. This is far more useful than the usual "correct/incorrect" philosophy of coursebooks because it forces students to consider the meaning of each tense. They don't pick the tense based on some fixed rule, they pick the tense based on the meaning they wish to convey.

For example, the first sentence in the exercise is something like "I ---- about it all week." I ask students to fill in the blank with some appropriate tense of "wonder." In fact, there are many different tenses that can be used in this sentence, depending only on the speaker's intentions; and so I have students go through every possible tense and explain how the meaning of the sentence changes with the tense. They learn a lot faster and better this way than they would with simple "correct/incorrect" exercises of the type found in most coursebooks. It takes a very long time to get through the exercise, however (there are 40 sentences, and sometimes it takes 2-3 hours to do them all). Students find it tedious and rather difficult, but extremely instructive.
Damian   Tuesday, September 07, 2004, 07:38 GMT

<<Just a 'slip of the fingers on the keyboard' I'm guessing>>

Oh dear....yes! OK, I will use that as my excuse....I blame the faulty keyboard..or else you can just call me a wee daftie, as we say in these parts. :-)
Ant_222   Tuesday, September 07, 2004, 13:09 GMT
On Damian's reply

«I would use the Present Perfect all the time. I would splutter on my latte and yell: "Wow! Did you see THAT?"»

You said that you would use the Present Perfect but in the example you used the Past Simple. Which is correct: your assertion or the example? Jim asked the same.

The other examples you gave are obvious to me, probably because they are beyond the critical overlapping area.

And what is the meaning of the word latte?

On Jim's reply

«In 1 "have been sitting" seems to go better with "having left" -- to my ear, anyway» &#8212; Since I'am not an Englishman I would prefer an explanation from the grammatical point of view.

My opinion is that here should be used the Present Perfect (but I doubt). My reasoning is the following. It is just a description of a hypotetic action. The document doesn't not tell us about a real examination. It describes the class of English exams at a certain institute. Hence, that is not a narration about a sequence of actions which took place in the past or will happen in the future. It is just a description of the ideal average English exam. So we can't say "where you were sitting" anyway because actually nobody was sitting there and we are not speaking about a certain time: past, present or future. We speak in general, having abstracted our minds from time. And that is why we should connect the action of leaving the exam cards to the action of asking students to leave the room and, therefore, to the action of leaving the room by students. And the action of leaving the cards is preceding to the action of leaving the room and so we use a perfect tense. We use exactly Present Perfect because we are not speaking about the past or the future and our description is written in the Past Simple.

Your answer to my second question is just how I argued. I decided that the Present Perfect is better but the Past Simple is possible too.

On Mxmanic's reply

«You said that the Past Simple should be used "because the event is entirely completed and in the past, even though the past is very recent."»

Here your reasoning seems insufficient to me. Of course if the event being mentioned is still discussed then (in most cases) the Present Perfect should be used. But that is not the only principle of using this tense. The phrase "I have read the "Origin of Species" is correct since I refer to an important (at the current moment) result of the action. For example: "I have read the Origin of Species and I know that Darwin tried to answer the questions why we find so few or even no transititional species and why the geological chronicle is so barren with them." In this case I refer to my having read the book [by the way: is it grammatically correct?] as to the source of some my knowledge which is important and topical in the current discussion.

As far as I know, the general rule reads about an important result in the present, not about a present action which is only a special case. It still seems to me that "Have you seen it?" in the case with a streaker cited in Jim's reply is very similar to the question "Have you read the book? (Can you tell me about it? - important result in the present)" from the viewpoint of reasoning the use of the Present Perfect. It doesn't matter how long ago the event happened, the main thing is whether we are speaking about the event and it's details itself, more or less isolated from the Present (which, of course, doesn't mean that it doesn't affect the present. Just the result is less important for us than the event itself. An example: "Who built this house?" The house still stands and it is one of the results of the action but we don't care of it." The event is just interesting in it's own, irregardles of it's results ) or about an event whoose result is at the first place. In the streaker case the important result is knowing of the event. We are interested in this result more than in the event as a process isoleted from the present, aren't we?

So, I'd be glad to see an explanation which would consider theese aspects of using the Present Perfect.

The exercise you told about is better that simple tests. Are you a teacher? Of what education institution? Most of grammatical knowledge I have learnt is gained in the following way. I read an English text and when I found myself incapable of understanding the meaning of a grammatical construction (in the wide sense; read: anything I don't understand) I made an investigation with the help of a textbook. Having been met for several times, the construction became not only understandable but usable for me, e. g. after that it was automatically recalled in appropriate cases. Translation to English is an indispensable method. Long practice helps a lot. Unfortunately, I haven't had it ;)

I was an evident of the following accident.
Two men were walking along a road. A motorcycle suddenly went by them at a very high speed.
"Did you see it?(or "Have you seen it?")" &#8212; one asked.
"No, just heard" &#8212; answered the other.

I ask you to point me to grammar mistakes in my posts. That would be very useful for me. Don't draw your attention to my spelling. That's on account of my symbol generator.

And thank you all for your explanations and for the patience probably needed to read this long post!

Tom   Tuesday, September 07, 2004, 23:59 GMT
Mxsmanic, I like your "no single correct way" approach a lot, but I think you're going too far. Since your grammar rules can't explain why "Have you seen that?" is incorrect, you claim that it is actually correct, it just reflects a different way of thinking. Don't you think it's a bit of a problem that nobody thinks that way in the US (and I suspect in Britain too)?

It's like you're telling learners "Memorize all my grammar rules and you cannot go wrong. Oh, and in case you go wrong, it's not really wrong, it's just 'thinking differently' from all the other speakers of the language".

I recommend that students learn "Did you see that" as a fixed phrase and not listen to the contrived explanations of Mxsmanic. Let's face it -- the use of the simple past tense in this phrase is not consistent with the rest of the language. Normally, when we think about the present consequences of past actions, we use the present perfect tense.

For example, "Have you read this book?" actually means "Do you know what's in the book?" (the asker is interested in the present state of the, um, askee's mind).

Similarly, it would be logical to say "Have you seen that?" right after seeing something remarkable (e.g. an automobile almost running over a pedestrian), because the question we're really asking is "Do you know what happened?".
Mxsmanic   Wednesday, September 08, 2004, 01:20 GMT
I think I still see too much of a preoccupation with hard and fast rules here. My students have the same problem. Additionally, the emphasis seems to be on rules in isolation, when in fact the actual language is spoken by human beings who are thinking as they speak. No native speaker of a language applies grammatical rules by rote to his speech; instead, he decides on what he wants to communicate, and then he selects language that expresses it. The distinction is important. Function--the desired information to be communicated--comes first, then comes the form of the language ... not the other way around.

The difference between "did you see it" and "have you seen it" is in what you communicate with these phrases; neither is right or wrong in the abstract, but only right or wrong with respect to a given intention on the part of the speaker. If you use a tense that doesn't express what you want to say, it's the wrong tense; if you use a tense that expresses what you want to say, it's right.

The only way to get this right is through extensive, guided practice, I think. You have to scroll through a long list of tenses in a given context and understand exactly what changes in the meaning with each tense. That's why I use my tedious grammar exercise with students. The context is general and simple; I have the student concentrate on the changes in meaning that occur with each tense. It is interesting to note that after trudging through all 40 sentences (which takes a very long time with most students), many are able to not only select an appropriate tense for a givien meaning, but they can explain precisely why they chose that tense. Ultimately they pick a tense because it "sounds right" for what they want to say ... just like native speakers.

Not that this can be done with just one grammar exercise, but it's a step in the right direction. Doing coursebook exercises is much less useful, because they just don't go into enough detail--they only say "right" or "wrong." You really need a teacher who explains every single example in exhaustive detail so that there is no doubt about why a given tense is used and what it means.

I don't agree with Tom that "Did you see that" is an exception to any rule. Native speakers use it because it matches what they want to express. I can assure you that "did you see that" in my mind unquestionably conveys the idea of a completed action, isolated in the past. "Have you seen that" always means that something in the present is connected to the past event, implicitly or explicitly.

Your examples are inconsistent in their use of tense. You say

Have you read the book? --> Do you know what IS in the book?
Have you seen that --> Do you know what HAPPENED?

Note that a key part of the first example is in the present tense, but a key part of the second example is in the past simple tense. In the second example, the logical correlation would be with "Did you see that?" and not "Have you seen that?" If you say "Have you seen that?" then the logical correlation would be with "Do you know what has happened?" or even "Do you know what's happening?".

"Have you seen that?" implies a connection with the present. That means consequences in the present, or a repetition of the action in the present, or a continuation to the present, etc. For example, "Have you seen 'The Matrix'?" to me implies that the movie is still showing, whereas "Did you see 'The Matrix'?" implies that the movie is no longer in theaters. "Have you travelled to Paris?" implies that it's still possible to go there; "Did you travel to Paris?" implies that going there is no longer an option.

An example I use with students is asking a woman about her children. If a woman says "I've had three children," then all is well, and the children are doing fine. If she says "I had three children," then something is wrong--they are dead, or gone far away, or something. A very old woman might use the past simple, because for her the children are now past history; younger women will typically use the present perfect, unless something has interfered with their relationship to their children (death, estrangement, etc.). It's a subtle difference, but an important one. When a student can immediately tell me what is implied by the use of the past simple in this example, I know he is making progress towards understanding the tenses. It's interesting that native speakers will always accurately understand the implication of the use of these tenses, but they are typically unable to explain how they caught it (they may not even notice which tense was used). They can explain what _feels_ different about the two phrases, but they don't know why they feel a difference.
CalifJim   Wednesday, September 08, 2004, 05:44 GMT
Just for fun, I'd like to take another stab at this. :-)

"Have you seen X?" asks whether you have the experience of a) seeing X at ANY time before the question is asked. b) We do not care about any specific time -- two hours ago, a week ago, just now, and so on. None of that is important. c) We are only asking what you 'have' as a life experience. It is as if everyone has an imaginary diary where his life experiences are written. With "Have you seen X?" we are asking if we will find in your "diary" TODAY, - if we look NOW - the notation: "X seen" on ANY page of the "diary".

"Did you see X?" asks about a specific act of seeing. We want to know something about a specific occasion which took place at a specific time, that X which took place just now, or two hours ago, or whatever. When we ask, "Did you see X?", we are both focused on a particular X -- the X you may or may not have seen exactly at a certain time. a) We do not consider X as something that affects us directly at this moment. b) X is certainly finished now. c) We just want to know the fact -- yes or no -- about this "seeing of X " that we are focused on. d) We are not interested in your "diary" of life experiences.

Does any of this persuade anyone, particularly Anton :-) , that "Did you see THAT?" is the best possible response to the streaker?
Margaret   Wednesday, September 08, 2004, 12:39 GMT
Dear Ant_222, so long as you know the 'edge is fuzzy' you should have no problem with English, since this is the key to learning it – even if you're English too. Good luck to waheed by the way – keep reading!

< an American might say "Did you eat this morning?" whereas a Englishwoman might say "Have you eaten this morning?">

What is interesting here is that an English person would assume that the Englishwoman is offering to feed them while the American is just being rude and 'nosey'. I assume an American finds an offer of breakfast in the American phrase and may find the Englishwoman equally intrusive.

< 1. "The examination is usually hold in the following way... [Here is the description in the Present Simple] ... After that the students are asked to leave the room having left their question cards on the places they have been (were) sitting." >

'held' not 'hold'. But good English would be to arrange the events in an order which does not require convoluted tenses that strain the reader's understanding. So: 'After that, the students are asked to leave the question cards on their desks and leave the room.'

Complicated tenses like 'After having had three buns given to him...' are generally a warning sign to think the thought through again and simplify. Fowler (THE top acknowledged guide to English writing style) said nearly a century ago that you are writing for 'the sleepy and inattentive reader' and it is your job as a writer to be polite and not make things difficult for him.

2. "One may say that it is impossible to record CDs on slow machines but read: I (have) recorded a CD on a x386 computer."

CD-type people would probably write 'You may think' rather than 'One may say'. 'I have recorded...' sounds fine. 'I recorded'... would probably be followed by 'and it sounded fine' (or something).