1

This is a conversation from the exercise from the Advanced Grammar in Use by Cambridge University Press:

A: How was your weekend?
B: Not great, actually. I'd really been looking forward to a relaxing couple of days. But early on Saturday morning Mom phoned to say that Dad had been taken ill.
A: Oh no! What had happened?
B: She had just heard that he had been flown by helicopter to hospital in Edinburgh from a village called Contin he had been fishing with my Uncle Mark.
A: And is he okay? What's wrong with him?
B: Well, Uncle Mark said that Dad had been complaining of a bad headache most of yesterday, but he hadn't wanted to go back to the hotel and spoil the day. But then in the evening, just as they had stopped fishing for the day, he had collapsed...
A: Has he had [1] any health problems recently?
B: Well, he's been suffering [2] from stress for some time, but we had thought a holiday in Scotland would be relaxing for him. He has worked [3] too hard for months, and we'd been trying to persuade him to have a break for ages before he agreed.
A: So did you go up to Scotland when you heard?
B: No, Mum has gone up to be with him, but the doctors have checked him over and have said that it's not too serious. They have given some medicine to bring down his blood pressure and have told him that he needs complete rest for a couple of months. So Mum's driving him back in the car tomorrow.
A: Well, send him my best wishes when you speak to him.
B: Thanks, I will do.

Here I can't figure out the use of present perfect (simple and continuous) in places [1], [2] and [3]. Regarding the context, the question given in place [1] seems to be about Dad's recent health problems but not including a period of time since he last fell ill as it would make no sense. In my view, this suggests that the past perfect might be a better fit here because the question is all about the past situation or activity before another past event. But the answer key of the book suggests that the present perfect probably is the only option here. Isn't it? Similarly the same applies to [2] and [3].

So my questions are:

  • How can we justify the use of the present perfect here?
  • Would the past perfect be an equally good fit here?
3

In all three cases, the present perfect is appropriate because we're discussing potential events or conditions that occurred at or have continued from some point in the past right up to the present. Since the father is still alive and still employed, it's presumed that the suffering and employment condition continue to the present day.

The past perfect isn't appropriate in these three examples because we're not describing an event or condition that entirely occurred earlier than some other event. (And when we do, we do indeed use the past perfect: "...we had thought a holiday in Scotland would be relaxing for him." Here, the prediction that the holiday would be restorative took place before the illness and then ceased, having been falsified. Or "...we'd been trying to persuade him to have a break for ages before he agreed." The attempts at persuasion ended once he agreed.) Barring alleviation from stress, the person is still suffering; barring separation from his job, he is still working.

It is true that the length of time ("recently") is not explicitly defined. "Some time" could be anything from weeks to years. However, this vagueness doesn't change the fact that the inquiry addresses a period that began in the past and continues to the present day; the same can be said about the suffering and the working. Thus, the present perfect is the right choice.

  • Thank you. Interesting explanation. My thoughts were based on (apparently false) interpretation of context. I assumed that Dad in the end was not suffering from stress. Increasing stress was the reason why he collapsed. But eventually Mum and doctors were with him and I thought he couldn't have felt stressed. I also assumed that hard work was not about the employment agreement itself which was still present but more about physical or mental activity which in the end was not hard anymore because he was trying to have a rest. – Karolini May 27 '18 at 7:44
  • I must say all these details are so subtle that sometimes I find it really hard to identify the correct interpretation of context. Anyway, your explanation justifies the use of the present perfect to me but I still have some questions on past perfect specifically. When we have a sentence in past perfect without a time clause we usually try to identify a reference time from the context. So for example here "he had been suffering from stress for some time" should resolve to "he had been suffering from stress for some time before he fell ill". Why this rule doesn't work here? – Karolini May 27 '18 at 7:45
  • Because falling ill from stress does not end the stress. The criterion for using the past perfect is that the event or condition has already ended. – Chemomechanics May 27 '18 at 18:41

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