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I already knew that we use the present perfect for an action in the past with a result now. Consider the following questions:

  • "I'm looking for Paula. Have you seen her?"
  • "I'm looking for Paula. Did you see her?"

Is there any difference between these two questions for this specific action (verb)? What is the result of "seeing" action which can't be represented by simple past?

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    I don't have the energy to write a full answer explaining the difference, but anyone who wants to can probably look up the experiential perfect, which is typically contrasted with the simple past. – snailboat May 12 '14 at 16:07
  • @snailplane Disagree. I'd say rather look up perfect of recent past. Both types can be found with citations in Section 3.1 of this lecture note. – bongbang Sep 22 '16 at 4:19
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The simple past, as in "I saw her" or "Did you see her?", generally implies a specific time, or inside a specific time-range that ends before the present. For example, I might say, "I was looking for her all of yesterday, but I didn't see her." This means that I didn't see her yesterday — but it doesn't say anything about whether I've seen her today. The following sentence could easily be, "So I guess she must have left town; I don't know if I'll ever see her again", or it could just as easily be, "But then I ran into her five times today, when it was already too late to invite her."

By contrast, the present perfect, as in "I've seen her" or "Have you seen her?", implies that the time-range of interest ends at the present. For example, one might say "I've been looking for her all day, but I haven't seen her."

It is possible to have two sentences that are identical except for this distinction, in which case the verb form conveys an important nuance of meaning. "I didn't see her today" implies that "today" has finished in some way — perhaps she is a coworker, and what I mean is that I didn't see her at work today, even if it's possible that I might run into her at the grocery store in the evening — whereas "I haven't seen her today" implies that there's still a chance that I will see her later today.

In your example, however, I would say that only "I'm looking for Paula. Have you seen her?" is acceptable. I cannot think of a context where "I'm looking for Paula. Did you see her?" would make sense. "Did you see her?" implies that you are referring to some specific past time or some specific past time-range; but since it doesn't explicitly indicate the time-range, that must be inferred from context. The problem is that the previous sentence, "I'm looking for Paula", implies that the time-range of interest is now, and the "did" version must end before now, so it's not compatible. As a result, saying "I'm looking for Paula. Did you see her?" makes about as much sense as "I'm looking for her. Have you seen him?" — the second part must be referring back to something, but it clearly can't be referring back to the first part, so the whole thing comes out sounding like gibberish.

  • You're too harsh on "Did you see her?," which is common and perfectly acceptable in American English. The substitution of the present perfect with the simple past is a well-known feature of the dialect, although I personally prefer the former in this context. – bongbang Sep 22 '16 at 4:35
  • @bongbang: That link is interesting, thanks! I'm American, and while some of their examples sound OK to me (albeit more colloquial / less formal than versions with the present perfect), others just sound wrong to me, and I'm not sure why. For example, "They already saw it" sounds fine to me, but for some reason *"No, I didn't read it yet" strikes me as a non-native-speaker error. (But this may just mean that there's dialectal variation within American English.) And as you've seen in my answer, I put "I'm looking for Paula. Did you see her?" in the latter category. – ruakh Sep 22 '16 at 7:01
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Too close they are. I'm talking about this context now.

Though both mean the same, I think putting have there gives a flair of something that has recently happened or at least the effect is remaining. If you are asking for Paula to someone just now, have looks better. On the other hand, did is a bit more past. Something like did you go there and have you gone there?

Consider this...

After two days of visiting some school

That digital board with the latest technology was very nice. Did you see/observe that the teacher was using a laser pen to write on it?

Just after coming out of the classroom of that school

That digital board with the latest technology was very nice. Have you seen/observed that the teacher was using a laser pen to write on it?

The question is close to asking about experimental perfect aspect (Thanks snailplane, I just wanted to say this but could not find the term for it).

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    I think saying "did is a bit more past" is misleading. Consider this: "What did you just say?" and "What have you just said?" I'm not sure which one is your natural choice, but mine is the first one. – Damkerng T. May 12 '14 at 15:44
  • @DamkerngT. clarified. I think it makes better sense now. – Maulik V May 12 '14 at 15:48
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    I'm changing the sentences a bit but: "What did you say?" is a question asking a person to repeat what they just said.. "What have you been saying?" is a question asking for clarification. – Phil May 12 '14 at 19:15
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    @Phil: "to have been Xing" is completely different from "to have Xed". – ruakh May 19 '14 at 7:44
  • @Phil what you have been telling. shows continuity as I already said. Check this - What you have been saying for the past two years now actually happened. He left her for no reason! – Maulik V May 19 '14 at 8:49

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