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What's the difference between A and B in each group of sentences?

Suppose you now work and live in America. But you used to work and live in Japan.

A:Where have you worked in Japan?

B:Where did you work in Japan?

A: What have you visited in Japan?

B: What did you visit in Japan?

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The central difference between simple past and present perfect is that present perfect is a present tense. It makes reference to events in the past, but its function is always to talk about the present. Present perfect uses a past event to describe a present condition.

In your examples, the simple past sentences are simply stories about the past.

Simple past questions like yours are invitations to tell stories about the past with no other special meaning.

Your present perfect questions are actually about the present.

Where have you worked in Japan?

This question makes reference to past work in Japan, but the intent of the question is, "What Japanese work experience do you have right now?"

What have you visited in Japan?

The intent of this question is something like, "What Japanese cultural experience do you have right now?" or "What first-hand knowledge of famous Japanese places do you have right now?"

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  • Would you agree with the following statement by an answerer? "If I use Present Perfect here, it means I believe that either the perod of being in Japan is unfinished for you or the period of working in Japan is unfinished (for you)." Thanks.
    – Stephen
    Jul 17 at 0:07
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    @Stephen It's probably true, but not necessarily. It's possible the worker is no longer in Japan, and still speaking of their experiences there. Present perfect has several functions. I inferred your example sentence to have the function of past experience. The other answerer may have inferred it to have the function of event started in the past which continues to the present. It would depend on the context.
    – gotube
    Jul 17 at 1:58
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    @Stephen: To my mind, the present-perfect questions don't imply finality either way. Your answer might be different next month or next year… but it also might not. I'm leaving open the possibility that you might add new experience. The past-simple questions do imply finality: I'm assuming your work in Japan is finished, and future events won't change your answer. Jul 17 at 5:52
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If you were aware that the other person had only worked in one place, you would use B.

However if you were asking a more general question, and really didn't know much about them, and there could have been several places where they had worked,you would use the present perfect - A.

Similarly if you were talking about a specific trip you might use the simple past - "What did you visit?". You would use this even if you expected that they would have visited several places. But if you were asking generally about visits they had made over the years you would use A. "What places have you visited in Japan?"

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  • That's my interpretation too. Question A asks about all previous experience — but in a context referring to a particular time (say, a recent work trip), then question B asks only about that period. (Without such a context, it would mean similar to A.)
    – gidds
    Jul 17 at 16:58
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Very Subtle, in Those Examples

You’re right about your examples: a native speaker could answer those questions either way, and the answers would have almost the same meaning. I think people would normally answer in the same tense as the question, but it wouldn’t be unusual to answer “Where did you visit in Japan?” with “I’ve been to Kyoto,” or “Where in japan have you visited?” with “I went to Kyoto.”

However, there are other examples where that isn’t the case (at least in my native American English), and here are some of the ones I thought of. (Or that I have thought of? Either one works.)

Adding a Duration

The present perfect tense is only for durations up to the present.

  • “I worked at Spacely Sprockets for ten years,” means that someone has worked there for a total of ten years. That might have been at any time in the past. It might not even have been ten continuous years. I might have left and come back, as long as I accumulated ten years of employment there.
  • “I have worked at Spacely Sprockets for ten years,” unambiguously means that I was employed there for the previous ten years, up to the present.
  • There’s one weird corner case that I only just realized when I thought about it right now. I cannot say, “*I have worked there ten years ago.” I would need to say, “I worked there ten years ago,” or “I had already worked there by then.” But I could say, “I have worked there, ten years ago.” I think the allowed sentence is not actually present perfect tense, but using the helper verb have for emphasis, so that the actual meaning was, “I indeed worked there, and that was ten years ago.”

At Least Once Ever, That Time, or Repeatedly

The present perfect tense is for things you have done at least once, or have not done even once, ever. The simple past tense is what you use when you talk about a specific occasion in the past, or what you typically or repeatedly used to do.

If you ask me, “Did you visit Kyoto on your trip to Japan?” and I say, “I didn’t go to Kyoto,” I only told you that I did not go there on that occasion. Perhaps I didn’t go to Kyoto then, but I have been there before. If I say, “I haven’t been to Kyoto,” I’m unambiguously saying that I have not ever been to Kyoto, at any time.

If you ask, “Where are you going on your trip to Japan?” and I say, “I have only been to Tokyo, and I would like to see Kyoto,” I’m saying I have been to Tokyo at least once, but maybe more often than that, and to no other location (implicitly, in Japan) in my entire life. The implication is that it’s like there’s a list of places I want to see, and I put a check mark next to Tokyo on that list. If I say, “I went last year and only saw Tokyo, but I’d like to visit Kyoto again,” I have previously been to other places in Japan, but not during the trip that I am talking about.

If you ask, “Did you go to Koganei Park when you lived in Tokyo?” and I say, “I’ve been to Koganei Park,” I’m only telling you that I went there at least once. If I don’t say anything else, the implication’s that I didn’t go back much or at all. If I say, “When I lived in Tokyo, I walked through Koganei Park and enjoyed the cherry trees,” I’m implying it was someplace I went often or habitually, always enjoying the trees. (This implication is even stronger with “I used to go to Koganei Park,” or “I would go to Koganei Park,” and with some verbs, such as “hung out,” more than others, such as “went to.”) It’s possible to override this by giving more detail, though: “I’ve often gone to Koganei Park,” or “I went to Koganei Park once,” clarify that it’s really the opposite. If that’s what you meant, leaving out the quantifiers would sound misleading.

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Not a native speaker, but from my undertanding we are dealing with the basic use of Present Perfect here ("complete action within unfinished timeframe") However, the timeframe (either finished or unfinished) is often assumed and not stated in the speech (like in your sentences)

Where did you work in Japan?

implies "where did you work when you were in Japan?" or "where did you work when you worked in Japan" that is a finished timeframe thus Past is used. This question will be commonly asked if the speaker knows you are not in Japan anymore or that you have no plans of working in Japan anymore. The period of being in Japan and working in Japan is finished if I'm asking this question in Simple Past.

Where have you worked in Japan?

implies "what jobs have you already had while you ARE in Japan?" For example, I can ask you this question if you are still in Japan (which is not the case in this context) or if I want to employ you for work in Japan (for example) Question B requires more specific context and thus will not be used as often as A. If I use Present Perfect here, it means I believe that either the perod of being in Japan is unfinished for you or the period of working in Japan is unfinished (for you). It can be used if you've come to my U.S. office looking for a job in Japan.

What have you visited in Japan?

Implies "while you ARE in Japan" (unfinished timeframe) and will commonly be asked if you are still in Japan. Otherwise, it might be asked if I know that you plan to go to Japan and visit some more places that "you have not visited yet". This question is very similar in meaning to "What places have you already visited in Japan and what places have not visited yet?" By using Present Perfect here I demonstrate that I believe that either the period of "being in japan" is unfinished or the period of "visiting places in japan" is unfinished (i.e. you still plan to visit more places)

What did you visit in Japan?

implies "when you were in Japan" (finished timeframe) and will likely be asked if are not in Japan anymore. It some specific contexts it might be asked if you are still in Japan but, as a speaker, I am sure that you have no plans to visit any more places here. Then the implication would be "What did you visit when you were visiting places? (I know you've stopped visiting historical places in Japan), the period of "visiting historical places" is finished, thus Simple Past.

If you are not in Japan anymore Past Simple will be much more likely in those questions unless you have some very specific context (which I mentioned above) which validates the use of Present Perfect.

More basic examples of finished/unfinished timeframe would be the following: during the football match I can say

"Ronaldo has scored 3 goals (so far during this match)"

(because the match is still unfinished)

after the same match I can only say

"Ronaldo scored 3 goals (in total during that match)"

(because the match is finished)

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  • I don't agree with this part: "If I use Present Perfect here, it means I believe that either the perod of being in Japan is unfinished for you or the period of working in Japan is unfinished (for you)."
    – Stephen
    Jul 17 at 0:08
  • Your criticism is always welcome and I'd be interested to hear your reasoning for that Jul 17 at 7:36
  • @Stephen The most common way to ask a person who used to live and work in Japan about his experience there would be in past tenses. Present Perfect would require the speaker to have specific context in mind. For example, If you come to my recruitment office in U.S. looking for a job in Japan I might ask you "where have you worked in Japan" because in this case the period of "working" is unfinished (despite you being out of Japan for a while) since I know that you have plans to go back to Japan and continue working there, thus I, as a speaker, consider the period of working unfinished. Jul 17 at 7:52
  • Don't take my disagreement as criticism. It's just a different opinion. Let me take one more example. If I asked a friend, "Where have you travelled", I was asking about their experience of travelling. I didn't assume their travelling was unfinished.
    – Stephen
    Jul 17 at 9:05
  • It's all good. In my original post I was talking about "action within unfinished PERIOD".. Present Perfect can be used with both finished actions and unfinished actions, but they must be within UNFINISHED PERIOD. "Where have you travelled?" implies "Where have you travelled during yourlifetime?" (which is an unfinished period, since your life is not over yet). Similarly, when the class is in session I can say "Mr. Brown has asked me this question 5 times" and after the class I can only say "He asked...". Action is complete and finished in both sentences, but period is finished only in 2nd. Jul 17 at 12:54

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