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Category : Mechanics

Simple Past vs. Present Perfect

The present perfect tense is used to describe actions that took place in the past and continue to be relevant in the present – and, in some cases, actions that took place in the past and continue to take place in the present.

The simple past tense is used to describe actions that took place in the past and no longer take place in the present. It does not convey the same sense of continuity or relevance as the present perfect.

Here’s an example:

  • President Obama has stated his intent to run for a second term of office.

Here, the present perfect is used because the election in which the currently-sitting president will compete has not yet occurred, and so the president’s announcement that he will run is still relevant.

It would not be appropriate to write, “President Obama stated his intent to run for a second term of office,” unless this sentence were situated in a specific context that no longer exists. For example: “On April 4, 2011, President Obama stated in an email to his supporters that he will run for a second term of office.” Here, the simple past is appropriate because the email announcing the president’s intent to run was sent on a day that has ended. Although those who follow the news know that, at the time of this post, the president’s announcement is still relevant and his intent to run ongoing, this is not really important here and should not suggest the use of the present perfect, as the purpose of the sentence is to convey information about events that happened at a specific time in the past – not to imply the continuity of the president’s intent.

Another, perhaps easier example:

  • President Johnson stated his intent to only serve one term in office.

Lyndon B. Johnson was president of the United States from 1963-1969 and served one elected term, at the end of which he decided not to run for another. It would not be appropriate to say, “President Johnson has stated his intent to only serve one term in office,” because his intent is no longer relevant (i.e. does not affect events today). There is no upcoming election in which Johnson could or would complete (he died in 1973).

In academic writing, the simple past and present perfect tenses are often interchangeable, as in:

  • Lee observed the importance of news media coverage.
  • Lee has observed the importance of news media coverage.

In general, the present perfect seems to be more popular than the simple past, but note that when time-specific details are provided, the simple past may be required, as in:

  • In 1982, Lee observed the importance of news media coverage in a study that described the effects of TV-watching on adolescent development.

However, you could also write:

  • Lee has observed the importance of news media coverage in a study that describes the effects of TV-watching on adolescent development.

And if Lee has conducted further studies on the same topic, you might write:

  • Since 1982, Lee has observed the importance of news media coverage in several studies on the effects of TV-watching on adolescent development.

Forming Possessives

Possessives are used to indicate ownership. The possessive forms of nouns indicate that something (the second of two nouns) belongs to (is possessed by) the noun in question.

For singular nouns (e.g. dog, girl, book) possessives are formed by adding an apostrophe and then an “s”, as in:

  • The dog’s owner was away on vacation.
  • We don’t know the girl’s name.
  • The book’s chapters are all very interesting.

The possessive forms of plural nouns are formed in one of two ways. When the plural of the noun in question ends in “s” (e.g. dogs, girls, books), possessives are formed by adding an apostrophe after the “s”. No additional “s” is necessary. For example:

  • The dogs’ owners were away on vacation.
  • We don’t know the girls’ names.
  • The books’ covers were difficult to tell apart.

When the plural of the noun in question does not end in “s” (e.g. children, women, people), possessives are formed by adding an apostrophe and then an “s”. For example:

  • The children’s department features a variety of styles.
  • Susan enrolled in the Women’s Studies Department.
  • People’s thoughts are often not aligned with their actions.

When more than one noun possesses the same item (e.g. two people own a car together), only the second noun takes the possessive form, as in:

  • The point of Ackerman and Tolson’s study was to highlight deficiencies in the literature.
  • Jared and Claire’s dog looks like a mixed breed.
  • I think Sue and Jim’s car would look better in blue.

However, when two or more nouns have possession of different forms of the same item, all nouns take the possessive, as in:

  • The women’s, men’s, and children’s departments are on different floors.
  • Sarah’s and Tiffany’s grades are vastly different.

Note that possessive adjectives (e.g. yours, ours, theirs, hers) need no apostrophe:

  • This is yours?
  • Ours were excellent seats.
  • I thought it was theirs, but I wanted to be sure.
  • When you bring hers, please also bring mine.

Subordinating Conjunctions

Subordinating conjunctions – e.g. “while”, “though”, “however”, “despite”, “because”, “since” – imply that one condition in a sentence depends on (i.e. is subordinate to) another. Commonly, they are used to indicate exceptions to a rule or highlight an alternative, as in:

  • While he was happy in his new home, he missed his friends and family.

The same sentence could just as easily be written as:

  • Though he was happy in his new home …
  • Although he was happy in his new home …

Here’s another example:

  • While there are numerous ways to learn a language, the best is through a combination of study and application.
  • Though there are numerous ways to learn a language …
  • Although there are numerous ways to learn a language …

These sentences can also be written using “however”.

  • He was happy in his new home. However, he missed his friends and family.
  • There are numerous ways to learn a language. However, the best is through a combination of study and application.

Consider the last example. “However” does not always have to appear at the beginning of a sentence but may appear between the subject and verb in a clause, as in:

  • There are numerous ways to learn a language. The best, however, is through a combination of study and application.

Or “however” may appear between two clauses in a sentence, as in:

  • He thought he knew a lot about the rainforest. While talking with a scientist, however, he realized that he had much to learn.

Despite, nevertheless

Like “however”, “while”, “although”, and “though”, “despite” and “nevertheless” can be used to indicate that, although one condition exists, another condition is still possible.

  • Despite calling several times, he never received a reply.
  • Despite preferring to go to the park, he agreed to go to the movies.

Note that the last sentence can also be written as:

  • He preferred to go to the park. Nevertheless, he agreed to go to the movies.
  • He preferred to go to the park. However, he agreed to go to the movies.
  • While he preferred to go to the park, he agreed to go to the movies.
  • Though he preferred to go to the park, he agreed to go to the movies.
  • Although he preferred to go to the park, he agreed to go to the movies.

In this case, while the subject’s preference exists, it is still possible that he will act in a way that doesn’t agree with this preference.

Thus, therefore, because, since, as, hence

“Thus”, “therefore”, “because”, “since”, “as”, and “hence” are used to imply that one condition follows from (i.e. is caused by) another.

  • Because he had the flu, he did not go to work.
  • Since he had the flu, he did not go to work.
  • As he had the flu, he did not go to work.
  • He had the flu. Therefore, he did not go to work.
  • He had the flu. Thus, he did not go to work.
  • He had the flu. Hence, he did not go to work.

Please be aware, however, that “therefore”, “thus”, and “hence” tend to be used in more formal (e.g. academic) contexts and would be less appropriate in the former example than “because”, “since”, and “as”.