Why do we say "The dog ate my homework" without the perfect present?

I know the perfect present is used to describe an action in the past that influences the present (an explicit call to action). So should it be "The dog has eaten my homework (so I cannot read them out loud)". No?

Having that said, most of the time we tell about the past in relation to the present. I mean it seems most actions in the past have an influence to the present when we mention them. I feel I overuse it.

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    My guess is it's just that non-native Anglophones wouldn't be at all likely to use this extremely tongue-in-cheek excuse. And only a non-native speaker would think of using the more complicated verb form here, because only a non-native speaker would be thinking of that "rule" about using Present Perfect to reflect relevance to time of utterance. Native speakers (especially, the ones who don't do their homework! :) are much more likely to stick to Simple Past in a context like this. – FumbleFingers Mar 29 at 16:43
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    ...here, by the way, is "evidence" that OP is quite right - almost no-one ever says The dog has eaten my homework, even though the context is almost always one where the past action is extremely relevant to "time of utterance" (precisely because it's being given as an excuse). It's an interesting question though! :) – FumbleFingers Mar 29 at 16:45
  • I just ask why was this rooted in past simple the first place. We are all used to say "where have i heard this before" or "where have you been" but why are we used to past simple here? – Elad Benda Mar 29 at 17:27
  • There is much understanding regarding the fact that the present perfect is used to mean in the past without mentioning when or referring to a specific act. So, it all boils down to how you want to say it. Do you just want to signal the past at time of speaking?? OR: Do you want to refer to a one-time event in the past?? That is the difference between the two. And this question has been answered many, many times on this site. – Lambie Mar 29 at 17:40
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    I don't see why a sarcastic teacher might not say, e.g., 'the dog has been eating your homework a lot lately'. – Michael Harvey Mar 29 at 18:03

It is commonly taught that the present perfect tense in English means "happened in the past but relevant in the present", but I think this is not quite right, as shown by your question. The present perfect indicates to the listener that you are thinking of the event in relation to a certain time interval, which begins somewhere in the past and extends to the present and possibly beyond. The event happened somewhere in this time interval, possibly even just now, as in "Jones has won the race!" (spoken as Jones crosses the finish line). Exactly what time interval is understood depends heavily on context. For more information, see this answer.

The reason we don't say "The dog has eaten my homework" is because that would suggest that it still might be possible to do something about it. We say "The dog ate my homework" because that places the event clearly in the past, severed from the present, implying that it is over and nothing can be done about it.

"The dog has eaten my homework" suggests that something could still be done about it, because it leads the listener to view the event as part of a time interval or process that continues up to and possibly beyond the present moment. For another example of this, see the "Lost keys" section of this answer. The simple past does not evoke that time interval, so it's a clearer way to imply that the homework is irretrievably gone. If there were still several hours until the deadline, you might say to another student, "The dog has eaten my homework" to ask for help—perhaps there is still enough time to redo the homework or maybe even recover it from the dog (the sort of thing that might happen in a comedy).

Note that there is no rule here, beyond "the present perfect invites the listener to think of the event within a time interval that continues up to and possibly beyond the present". There is no rule that the present perfect implies that something could still be done to change the result, nor a rule that the simple past tense implies that nothing can be done to change the result. The implications of the time interval vary enormously from context to context, calling upon understanding of the topic, what's at stake, other conventional usage, etc.

You should know that linguists and schoolteachers commonly hold to the theory that the present perfect means "happened in the past but relevant in the present". So, if you point out a time interval on an exam, you will likely be marked wrong. And you should know that linguists and schoolteachers are often wrong. But I could be wrong, too, of course. Much of English grammar is still not well understood scientifically, and no authority is completely reliable. I think you are taking the right course: learning from real usage, one sentence at a time, thinking about it, and sometimes asking what other people think. That is how everyone has learned how to really speak any language.

  • Past perfect= a thing happened in the past without specifying when at the time of speaking. The dog eating the homework is not the usage where the thing extends to the present. It is the usage where the action occurs at a non-specified time in the past at the time of speaking. – Lambie Mar 29 at 18:23
  • What about "I have heard you" - it's completed and there is nothing to do about it. – Elad Benda Mar 29 at 19:25
  • @Lambie so I'm confused. No specific time, but still past simple? "ate" – Elad Benda Mar 29 at 19:26
  • @Etad Benda Yes, I ate it. [But I am not telling you when: this am, last night, last week]. Try to think about past perfect and the "time of speaking"; I suggest you look up my many posts on this subject.....:) – Lambie Mar 29 at 19:32
  • @EladBenda See the paragraph that starts "Note that there is no rule here" (and the linked answers). We would need to know more context to understand why someone chose to say "I have heard you" instead of "I heard you." Something nice about the dog/homework example is that a pretty rich context is clearly implied. – Ben Kovitz Mar 29 at 20:20

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