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I was watching a World War II documentary, and I came across this scenario (which I've now changed a little bit for the purpose of contrasting the present perfect with the simple past).

Context #1:

Imagine you're the commander of a combat unit in the German army in the Second World War. You and your unit invade Poland in 1939 and you have the order to get across the river Vistula. When you arrive at the site, you see that the bridge across the river has been partially destroyed, and that the Polish army has retreated from there. You report on the radio to your superior:

We have the following situation here. Retreating Polish troops blew up the bridge, but they were unable to ensure its complete destruction. We'll soon repair the damage and continue our advance.

Context #2:

When you arrive at the site, the Polish army is still at the bridge. You can't approach the bridge because they've put up fierce resistance. You look through your binoculars and see that they've partially destroyed it. You report to your superior on the radio:

We have the following situation here. Retreating Polish troops have blown up the bridge, but they've been unable to ensure its complete destruction. We can't advance because they've put up fierce resistance.

Question:

In scenario #1, the Polish troops are far from the bridge, so they no longer have the potential to do anything to it, and so I've used the simple past for both verbs. In scenario #2, they're still there and they still have the potential to completely destroy it, so I've used the present perfect (the situation is still current in this case).

Is my reasoning correct, and do the bolded tenses work in the examples I made up? Thanks in advance.

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    Both of your examples are correct, but your reasoning isn't quite right. The use of these tenses depends on how far back in time these events happened from the point of view of the speaker. Both tenses talk about the past, however we generally use the present perfect for events that happened recently, and which are closely linked to the present situation, whereas the past simple speaks of events further back in time. The choice of which to use in your examples really has nothing to do with the location of those involved or their potential to return.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Jan 23 at 16:36
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    Note that there are no hard and fast rules here for the use of these tenses: i.e. there's no specific cut off time when choosing between the simple past and present perfect. It's up to the speaker.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Jan 23 at 16:50

1 Answer 1

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Your reasoning is not correct.

Polish troops have blown up the bridge. It happened recently and affects the present situation (we can't get across until we repair it).

Polish troops blew up the bridge. It happened at some time in the past, and may or may not affect the present situation.

That's my take as a speaker of British English. Americans tend to use the simple past in some cases where I would expect the past perfect.

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  • Please, please stop saying this thing about PP and Americans. It is simply not true. It may, however, be a perception of people watching the media and movies because there are millions more Americans than Brits. But I think that sociolect to sociolect Americans have the same usage. I mean, I live in the States and hear pp all the time just as Brits would use it from people speaking standard English.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 23 at 17:25
  • @prof1589 To be clear: Since, in your scenarios, it did happen relatively recently and does affect the situation, both tenses are valid (and personally I can't even articulate any reason to choose one over the other). However, for us as 21st-century historians, we wouldn't use the perfect. At least, not for a single event like this. (We could use it for "ongoing situations" even if they've been ongoing for a long time, like "Italians have made excellent wine since before the Etruscans.") Commented Jan 23 at 17:51
  • @Lambie - OK, fair enough. I had the impression that Americans say things like "I just had my dinner" when I would say "I've just..." Commented Jan 23 at 18:49

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