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What is the difference in meaning between these two sentences?

1: You can not know how much I have written on a piece of paper

2: You can not know how much I wrote on a piece of paper

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  • My first thought is the speaker is more likely to still have the paper in the first one. There are many similar questions; it might be helpful to just read a bunch of them to get a feeling for it. Here's one: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/101489/… Oct 2 '20 at 11:57
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    I would use the first sentence unless the paper is not in my possession (in my hands, or pockets, or in a safe at home, etc.) Oct 2 '20 at 12:01
  • Standard difference between simple present and present perfect.
    – gotube
    Jul 17 at 21:08
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1: You cannot know how much I have written on a piece of paper.

The present perfect tense refers to an action or state that either occurred at an indefinite time in the past or began in the past and continues in the present time.

Your sentence indicates that the action occurred at an indefinite time in the past, since there is no particular time period mentioned. It can also happen that the writer is still in possession of that piece of paper, indicating present tense of the action.


2: You cannot know how much I wrote on a piece of paper.

The simple past tense shows that you are talking about something that has already happened. The simple past tense emphasizes that the action is finished.

The sentence simply denotes the action is already in the past now.


As for your question, difference in meaning, there is no such. The only thing we can be sure about is the fact that the action happened in the past. As pointed out by Colin in the comments to my answer, which I am thankful for, is whether the writer or the speaker includes the present relevance in his speech or not. This reflects that the difference between the past and the perfect is not actually a difference of tense, but one of aspect, of speech and hearing.

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  • No. The perfect indicates that the speaker is choosing to present the events as having a present relevance, and the simple past that the speaker is choosing not to present the events as having present relevance. Your temporal statements are possible interpretations of the differences, but are not the only interpretations; and they imply that the time of the events constrain the speaker's choice: they don't.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 2 '20 at 15:07
  • I am sorry, but I did not understand. I have written the definitions of the present perfect and simple past which denotes what you have written in your comment. Present choosing a present relevance and past not choosing a present relevance. Oct 2 '20 at 15:13
  • And I certainly did not understand the statement, Your temporal statements are possible interpretations of the differences, but are not the only interpretations. I mean is there something more to past tense apart from the action being depicted in the past? Oct 2 '20 at 15:14
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    About the only thing we can clearly state is that the action is in the past. You say "What is different is the the time of action" - but it is not the time of the action that is different, but whether the speaker is choosing to present it as having present relevance or not. When the event happened is part of what the hearer might be able to conclude from the choice of form, but for at least some times, either sentence might be used. (This reflects that the difference between the past and the perfect is not actually a difference of tense, but one of aspect).
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 2 '20 at 15:31
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    You're welcome to edit it.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 2 '20 at 17:00

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