Tuesday, 23 March 2010

On having done something yesterday

An Australian correspondent writes to say that he's encountered sentences like I have been to the cinema yesterday which, he says, would be 'completely out in British English'. It seems like a natural development, he adds, but asks: 'isn't this against the "rules" of simplicity, which languages are so keen to comply with? Isn't it more "economical" to use simple structures than complex ones and aren't languages prone to such economy?'

I don't think economy has anything to do with it. Simplicity is only one factor in promoting language change, and is not always the determining factor. Issues of identity and clarity, for example, can motivate the maintenance of a more complex construction.

'Completely out' in British English? Not so. I use this kind of construction regularly. All that has happened is that the aspect has shifted, which is perfectly normal in spontaneous speech. At the beginning of the sentence, the notion of current relevance is in the forefront of the speaker's mind; at the end of the sentence, it isn't, thus allowing the use of such adverbs as yesterday. One can even renew the current relevance meaning, as in a response to Have you been in touch with John about what he owes me? It could begin: Yes, I've spoken to John yesterday, and ... Now, what will come next? I've told him what you said or I told him what you said? It all depends on whether the have spoken bit is in the forefront of our mind (in which case we'll probably stay with the present perfect) or whether the yesterday bit is (in which case we'll probably switch to past).

All this is for spontaneous colloquial speech, of course, where sudden changes of thought are normal, but I think people are more likely to follow the traditional constraint in formal speech and in writing. I would myself. But even in everyday speech a lot depends on the semantics of the adverbial.

I've seen him yesterday.
I've seen him a day ago.
I've seen him a week ago.
I've seen him six months ago.
I've seen him last year.
I've seen him 10 years ago.

For me, these are increasingly unacceptable because increasing strain is being placed on the notion of current relevance.

The system does seem to be slowly changing. Or perhaps I should say 'reverting', for there are examples of ago with a present perfect in Middle English -in Chaucer, for instance. And there's probably some pressure coming from the modal construction (I should have done it yesterday).


Jonathon said...

Interesting. I don't recall ever hearing present perfects with past adverbs before, and all of those sound pretty strange if not outright ungrammatical to me. (I'm an American English speaker.) To me it's about like saying, "I'm going to the store yesterday."

mollymooly said...

I'll bet you've heard one very recently.

John said...

As an Australian, I don't detect any increasing awkwardness in your list of phrases: I would say that they all seem just a little 'out'. If I heard someone speaking that way, I think I would conclude that they were not locals - possibly even not native English speakers.

David Crosbie said...

For me, the nearer the top of the list, the more likely I am to understand This is when I last saw him. The nearer the bottom of the list, the more likely I am to understand This is the one time in my life that I saw him

Claudia said...

I am an Italian teacher and I spend a lot of my teaching time insisting that the Present Perfect is a present tense, unlike the Italian "Passato prossimo" (similar in construction) - or "recent past" - which in northern Italy is used for recent or remote past actions (same as in French for the Passé Composé). The interference is pervasive and it is difficult to make students (but also people who otherwise speak excellent English) use the PP correctly. I wonder if the use of English by more and more non-native speakers may speed up the change, or, at least, boost tolerance of its use. In any case, I would like to thank DC for never making his white beard get in the way... He's never conservative or judgmental, he always tries to look into himself and interpret how he would feel hearing or using a certain structure. In my opionion that's the only way a real linguist should be. Thanks for this blog and for all your books. Claudia

David Crosbie said...

I think it's worth pointing out the difference between what Claudia's students say for much of the time, and what native speakers say under very specific conditions.

The key words in the original post were 'the aspect has shifted'. Native speakers match one set of forms (Present Perfect) with one set of pragmatic perceptions (current relevance, for example) at the start of the sentence. The match a different set of forms (Past Simple) with a different set of pragmatic perceptions (narrative for example, or temporal precision) at the end of the sentence.

From a language teacher's point of view, what matters is that the learner should be capable of both matches. Before Claudia got to work on them, her students were unaware of the mindset with which native speakers might start one of these sentences. If they are lucky enough to stay under her influence for long enough, there is a chance that they will learn to adopt that mindset without conscious effort.

I used to be in a job which involved advising English language teachers. About the Present Perfect I tried to be reassuring: Some things are difficult because they're difficult.

Claudia said...

Ta-da! Gordon Brown (concerning immigration and points) has just said "It's come down three years ago, two years ago, this year..." :-)

DC said...

Well spotted!

Wojciech said...

I have seen him yesterday --- to me this looks like two sentences squeezed into one: I have seen him, I did it yesterday. This doesn't contradict DC's diagnosis, I think.