How To Teach Present Perfect With Unfinished Times

By Alex Case

In this article “Present Perfect with unfinished times” means when the tense is used when talking about “today”, “this week/ month/ year”, “in the last few weeks”, etc. Other uses such as with “for” and “since” could also fit inside this category, but I will deal with them in other articles.

“… with unfinished times” is often the first or second use of Present Perfect to be introduced in books, usually contrasted with Simple Past for finished times like “yesterday”, “the day before yesterday”, “last week/ month/ year”, “on Monday 24 January”, “at 7 o’clock” and “two months ago”. However, it could be argued that this use is not so vital for students. If they say “I went to the shops today” when they mean “I have been to the shops today”, there is little chance of misunderstanding them. This is unlike saying “Did you ever eat snake?” when they mean “Have you ever eaten snake?”, because the former can have the very different meaning of “…while you were living in Australia and so had the chance”. Having said all that, this use of the Present Perfect is a great opportunity to introduce lots of lovely time expressions like “in the last couple of days” and “so far this week”, and time expressions are generally much more important than tenses for actual communication. There are also a few times when changing tense can change the meaning. For example, if you are speaking on Saturday “Did you have a good week?” means Monday to Friday (e.g. at work or school) but “Have you had a good week?” includes the weekend and so also the day you are speaking. Some students may also use the incorrect sentence “I work out a lot today” to mean “I have (already) worked out today”. This could easily be misunderstood as supposed to be about the future.

Although I generally agree with the prioritisation of this point for the reasons given above, the way it is taught and practised could be improved. Perhaps the biggest weakness is “rules” that don’t quite stand up, e.g. that “this __________” goes with Present Perfect, in contrast with “last __________” with Simple Past. The most obvious exception to this is when “this morning” (when it is now afternoon) and “this week” (meaning working week when it is now Saturday) have already finished and so Simple Past is used instead of Present Perfect. The same is true of “today” in “Did you have a good day today?” when you get back from work. Less commonly, we can also use “I did it today” to emphasize that the action is truly finished or when giving more details about something. The number of time expressions which really aren’t used with Present Perfect is greater, but although “I’ve done it yesterday” isn’t possible, “I’ve done it – yesterday” is not a mistake because it means “I’ve done it. I did it yesterday”.

The grammatical rule can simply be tweaked to become “Simple Past when the speaker thinks of the time as finished or that there is no chance of it happening again in that time”. I wouldn’t necessarily introduce the exceptions to the more traditional rule mentioned above at the presentation stage, but their existence does mean you have to be very careful when designing written exercises. You also have to make sure corrections are of actual errors – and anyway concentrating on errors which cause difficulties in communication will mean mainly correcting time clause problems like “in last week” rather than the actual tenses.

Something that modern textbooks are much better on than older ones is introducing the common form “in the last three weeks” with Present Perfect. This is something that I would introduce from around Pre-Intermediate level, as students find the word “last” in it confusing.

Perhaps the most common textbook exercise for “Present Perfect with unfinished times” is to ask students to divide time expressions into two groups – finished ones like “yesterday” that go with Simple Past and unfinished ones like “in the last three weeks” that go with Present Perfect. The problem with this is that there are very few time expressions that always mean unfinished and so therefore can’t be used with the Simple Past – as we have seen above with “today” and “this week” and is also true for “Did you play tennis this year?”, e.g. when it means “this summer”, the summer is finished and the person speaking thinks there is no further possibility of playing tennis before next year. A much more useful exercise is to give students pairs of sentences in the two tenses (e.g. “Did you complete your travel claim this month?” and “Have you completed your travel claim this month?”) and ask them to discuss the differences in meaning and situation (e.g. that in the first case it is now too late).

Another approach is simply to concentrate on controlled speaking practice where they are given the opportunity to use the Present Perfect with the unfinished times that the tense often goes together with. For example, pairs of students can be given various unfinished times like “this month” and “in the last two months” and be asked to find things they have both done in that time that they think none of the other pairs of students have. They can also play guessing games such as telling their partner a true sentence with just the last word missing, e.g. “I have seen someone famous this beep” or “I haven’t smoked in the last five blanks” for their partner to guess the missing length of time. Personalisation is also involved in giving them verbs and time expressions and asking them to make sentences about what they guess is true about their partner. You can also get them speaking about themselves with lying games like the Yes I Have game, in which they answer “Yes” to all questions they are asked (e.g. “Have you taken a picture this afternoon?”) and then answer questions about details (“What was it a picture of?” etc) until their partner thinks they can guess if the original “Yes” was true or not.

There are many more fun possibilities, including many in Speaking Activities For Present Perfect With Unfinished Times.

Written by Alex Case for July 2012
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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