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I have a feeling that when what we are talking about is a general idea, we use the present perfect to refer to the past event instead of using simple past.

Is that the way to look at it?

Is that a difference between British English and American English?

Examples:

(1) When people make friends with other people, people try to understand what others have said / what others said.

I think "what others have said" is more idiomatic than "what others said."


(2) Students in class often listen to the teacher and write down what the teacher has said / what the teacher said.

I think "what the teacher has said" is more idiomatic than "what the teacher said."


(3) When people want to learn cultures of different countries, they have to pay attention to what has happened in the country / what happened in the country.

However, in this case, I think simple past is better.

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For me the decision depends on how far in the past and for how long the action took place.

I would write "have said" in (1).

In (2) I prefer "said" or even "says".

In (3) I would choose "has happened". Just "happened" suggests that you are considering a single event when you are interested in understanding a whole culture.

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  • According to your answer to example (3), isn't the more idiomatic way to say it in (2) supposed to be "what the teacher has said"? – vincentlin Feb 25 at 17:14
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    @vincentlin It's a judgement call. Context matters. I read (2) as happening right after a class, or even during. If the latter I might say "just said". – Ethan Bolker Feb 25 at 18:54
  • Thank you for your reply. So, if I encounter problems about what tense to use for a general idea, I think about how far the event is in the past as opposed to the point of time the first idea sets, am I right? For example, "In my country, students are asked to remember what the teacher told them." The action of telling them is far in the past. However, in this case, "In my country, in every class, students are asked to remember what the teacher just told them." The use of "just told" is because the action is not that far in the past as it happens during every class. – vincentlin Feb 26 at 4:05
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    You're welcome. Your examples here sound right to me. In the general instruction to write things down you could even say "what the teacher tells them" in the present tense, since the action in this case is ongoing and should apply from now on. (My general rule as a native speaker is to write what makes the most sense in the given context rather than trying to find the right grammatical rule. I understand that's a luxury for a new speaker.) – Ethan Bolker Feb 26 at 14:59
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I have a feeling that when what we are talking about is a general idea, we use the present perfect to refer to the past event instead of using simple past.

Is that the way to look at it?

No. That is incorrect. I will answer for British English. I'll choose to discuss example (2)

Students in class often listen to the teacher and write down what the teacher says.

This means that the student write as the teacher is speaking.

Students in class often listen to the teacher and write down what the teacher has said.

This probably means that the students wait until the end of the lesson. Then they write down what they remember of the teacher's words.

Students in class often listen to the teacher and write down what the teacher said.

This seems to mean that the students listen but at the same time they are writing something that the teacher said in a previous lesson. I don't think that students would be likely to do this - it would be very confusing!

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  • "what the teacher has said. This probably means that the students wait until the end of the lesson." I have to disagree on that. I don't see any implication that the students wait until the end of the lesson, only that the teacher has already said something before the students write it. – stangdon Feb 25 at 17:03

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