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I have a question and I hope you can help me. I've been learning English for many years but I'm still struggling with the difference between simple past and present perfect.

For example this sentence here:

"By the time I got to the office, the meeting (begin, already) had already begun without me. My boss (be) was furious with me and I (be) was fired."

Can I also say "My boss was furious with me and I have been fired."?

I lately read an article in the business insider with the topic "What to do right after you've been fired?". Could I say "What to do right after you got fired?" too?

My native language is German and for me both sounds perfectly fine when I just don't seem to get the difference. Are both sentences right and if so what exactly is the difference?

Help would be very much appreciated.

Thank you!

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The first thing to realise is that in most cases, whether or not to use the present perfect is a free choice: it depends on how you are choosing to relate the events to the present circumstances.

If you choose to use the perfect, you are expressing that the event which happened had some relevance to the present time. What that relevance is depends on many things: it might be that the event was very recent; it might be that it created a state which is still continuing; it might be that it is seen as part of a series of events which are still continuing; it might be that it has consequences now.

In this case, if you choose the present perfect, you are saying that being fired is relevant to the present: probably that you are in the state of having been fired, as Davo says. In this case "my boss was angry with me and I've been fired" probably means that this is very recent - today or maybe yesterday. If it was longer ago, I would have expected "and I was fired". But not necessarily: if you are choosing to emphasise the fact that you are still feeling the consequences of the firing, you might choose "I have been fired" even if it was much longer ago.

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    Re: "whether or not to use the present perfect is a free choice": I would avoid the term free in this context, because it suggests that the two versions are equivalent. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_variation.) As you go on to explain, they are not: they differ in how they relate the events to the present circumstances. In some cases, the difference is extreme enough to imply materially different facts. – ruakh Apr 24 at 18:40
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    @ruakh: my point is that in most cases (not all) you can describe the same objective events either way. – Colin Fine Apr 24 at 22:29
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    I'm not disagreeing with your point, I'm just suggesting that you not use the word "free" this way. – ruakh Apr 25 at 0:01
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Both are fine.

...and I was fired.

This explains what happened in the past - you were fired.

...and I have been fired.

This explains your current situation - you are in a state of having been fired.

  • I would say they have a different shade of meaning--the first implies the firing was immediate, while the second suggests it happened at a later time before the present. – eyeballfrog Apr 24 at 16:19
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    @Davo I'd disagree with your second use. For a person, "being fired" is essentially a transitory thing that takes you from an ongoing state of being in work, to an ongoing state of being out of work. You could use "I have been fired" only in the immediate aftermath; from then it would be "I was fired". By comparison, it would be OK to talk of a clay pot as "it has been fired" for all time since in that case "being fired" is a permanent state (hardened clay). – TripeHound Apr 25 at 11:11
  • @TripeHound I guess I understand that in this case „I was fired.“ is the better choice. But I understand it like this: I got fired and I still feel the consequences because now I no longer have a job. So could I say for example: I have been fired and I’m looking for a new job now. Or: I have been unemployed for two weeks now. – Heda Apr 25 at 16:18
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    For a short time after the event you could say "I have been fired" (or "I have just been fired") but after not long, "I was fired" or "I was fired recently" would be better. – TripeHound Apr 25 at 16:34
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Can I also say "My boss was furious with me and I have been fired."?

That's an error, but it's not a grammatical error, more of a style error. "My boss was furious" is simple past. "I have been fired" is present perfect. Present perfect is a mixture of past and present; it discusses things that happened in the past, but does so with respect to the current situation. "I have been fired" means "My current state is fired". While the firing happened in the past, the focus is on the current state of unemployment. Thus, this breaks up the connection between the two clauses. "My boss was furious with me and I was fired" presents the two clauses as two connected facts: my boss was furious -> my firing resulted. "My boss was furious with me and I have been fired" breaks up the flow and makes these sound like two random facts you've decided to put in one sentence, rather than causally related.

Could I say "What to do right after you go fired?" too?

No, "go" can't be used that way. You can say "What to do right after you get fired?" or "What to do right after you are fired?"

You might want to post this on the German SE to get the perspective of people fluent in both languages as to how they compare.

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    Just to add concerning German language. No, also in standard German the use of Vergangenheit would be an error due to the same reason. It is just that Bavarian dialects do not have another choice, because Mitvergangenheit does not really exist there. – rexkogitans Apr 24 at 19:26
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If the speaker were talking to someone soon after the firing, the "was...have been" construction would be appropriate.

The "have been" verb is in the present perfect tense, which describes an action that began in the past and continues in the present.

This usage is right in the recent-firing case because the status of being fired and accepting it is still on the speaker's mind as being processed but isn't over yet.

"Was fired" is a usage that says, yes, the person got fired at that past point, and they've processed that and have moved on.

Compare "I have been dumped by my paramour" (still dealing with it) and "I was dumped" (that's in my past now and I've handled it).

Edited to get the tense correct, per comments (thank you!).

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    It's NOT perfect progressive, but simple perfect. The progressive way would have been I have been being fired... which sounds, to me, plainly peculiar. – iBug Apr 25 at 5:05
  • @iBug: It only sounds weird because of the double copula. If you do it with an active verb instead of a stative verb, it's perfectly reasonable: I have been eating. – Kevin Apr 25 at 5:41
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    @Kevin Yep. But anyway, I've been fired should be simple present perfect and not progressive, which is the main point I'm standing. – iBug Apr 25 at 6:01
  • By comparison, you could use "it has been fired" of a clay pot for all time, since in that case the state of "being fired" is a permanent thing (hardened clay). – TripeHound Apr 25 at 11:15
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The answer depends on what language you are asking about.

In English, "...have been..." is a statement about the present as well as the past. It talks not only about what happened, but also about what the state of affairs is now. For instance, in English, "The software has been installed" means "The software is in a state of having-been-installed" - or, to be less eccentric about it, it means that both (1) "The software was installed" and (2) "The software is still installed". On the other hand, in English, "...was..." is a statement purely about the past. It says nothing about the present.

In American, this distinction is rarely made. The form "...have been..." is rarely used, and "...was..." usually replaces it. This often causes confusion. For instance, when an American-speaking computer pops up a message saying "The software was installed", an English-speaker will think "Why did it not say the software has been installed? Does it mean that the software was installed but then something went wrong afterwards?".

So in your case, as a foreigner, the best thing is to learn the more precise distinction - thus, using "have been" if you have been fired and are still fired and it happened recently, and "was" if you are talking about a more distant past, or you already have another job. This is correct English, and speakers of American will understand it without thinking it strange.

(Interestingly, there is exactly the same Atlantic split in Spanish: in Europe, me han despedido means it was recent and I haven't got another job since, while me dispidieron means it was further in the past or I do have another job; in Latin America, they use me dispidieron for everything).

  • You beat me explaining the difference between UK English vs US English, +1 – Rui F Ribeiro Apr 25 at 14:39
  • Thank you very much for explaining this subtle difference to me. I am always worried to chose the wrong tense which will result in the fear that people might not understand me or think I’m „nuts“. – Heda Apr 25 at 16:07
  • I agree with Rui F. Simple and comprehensive explanation also+1. – Kentaro Tomono Apr 26 at 12:17
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I agree with (most) other posters that both sentences are grammatically fine. However, I think there is an additional distinction which hasn't yet been mentioned. In

my boss was furious with me and I was fired

you are using exactly the same tense for both things, and this suggests that they happened at the same time.

However, in

my boss was furious with me and I have been fired

you are using the past progressive for the fury (this was happening then, when you were late for the meeting) followed by the present perfect for the firing (that has happened by now). The suggestion is that your boss was furious, and at some point between then and now you got fired.

  • Thank you very much for your comment. So I guess in this case it certainly is better to use „I was fired“ in this case. – Heda Apr 25 at 16:05
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Your sentence is set in the past "By the time I got to the office...". That is why the past tense is used, I think. There is also a sequence of events: 1.the meeting began 2.you got there late 3.boss was furious 4.you got fired. Past simple is also used for sequence in the past.

"I have been fired" could be used to announce this recent fact (announcement of news) which is on your mind now because it affects the present = you have to look for a new job.

"when you have been fired" is a passive sentence. Someone else has fired you, you have been fired by your boss.

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'I have been fired' means it is completed by the present. 'I was fired' means it has completed. Would you mean it has completed? Also, I agree with Davo's and MartinKochanski's comments.

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