Please explain what is the difference between "what happened" and "what has happened?" I know that "has happened" indicates the action completed recently and "happened" refers to the action finished in the past, but I still doubt.

For example:
A: Hi, Carla. It's Jake.
B: Jake! I have not heard from you for two weeks. How are you?
A: Not very good actually.
B: Why what "has happened" or "what happened?"

Which one is possible here?

And one more thing:
A: I had an accident and I have broken my leg because I had forgotten to put my helmet on.
B: I hope you "have learnt your lesson" or "learnt your lesson".

  • 1
    As StoneyB says in one this answer * There is no simple answer. Formalizing the preterite-perfect opposition has been continuously debated by linguists since the early 1970s. * You should really read his long - although non exhaustive answer on the subject. And if you browse through the [present-perfect] [past-tense] and [past-simple] tagged questions you will probably find other answers that might answer your query.
    – None
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 10:40
  • Here's another attempt to explain why there's no simple answer (which is also an attempt to provide a simple answer).
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 22:13
  • As an aside, a more natural expression to use is Why? What's going on? And the progressive here covers both recently in the past and the present.
    – user6951
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 3:17
  • Aside from the grammar issue, either works because you make your point and are fully understood. However what's up with breaking a leg because you forgot your helmet? :wink:
    – WRX
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 15:23

6 Answers 6


I think "What has happened?" is the normal thing because you ask for something new. But "What happened?" would also be possible because you ask for something that happened maybe a week or two before.


Present perfect must have some 'contact' with present; if I see a bandage on your hand, then I would say 'What has happened?' If you say you had an accident in the past but now everything is fine then I ask you 'Why, what happened?' At least grammar says so, but language is alive and changes with context and speakers, so the rules are one thing and the usage another.


"What has happened?" (usually contracted to "What's happened?") is normal usage in the UK in cases where there is some connection between the event and the present moment. I think "What happened?" is more of a US usage, though it is catching on on this side of the Atlantic as well. An example: if you suddenly heard a crashing sound in the kitchen (in the UK) you might shout: "What's happened?"

Another example is: "Did you forget your password?" If Microsoft were full of British English speakers that would probably be: "Have you forgotten your password?"

If you ask "What happened?" in the UK you are usually referring to an event that has no connection with the present moment. For example: "What happened at school yesterday?"

So, going back to the original question, a British English speaker would probably use "What has happened?" (contracted to "What's happened?") in both cases, because there is felt to be some connection between the feeling ill or the broken leg and the present moment. The person is still suffering from both.


what has happened will come in present perfect tense. Whereas what happened comes in simple past tense.
In the first question you have asked, the correct option would be what happened as the work isn't affecting the present now and in the second question the correct one would be have learnt your lesson as you will have to use have with you.
and yes, that's affecting the present.

off topic but, what is the relation between having a broken leg and not wearing the helmet. 😊


For your second question, I think the most natural conversational response in US English would be

I hope you learned your lesson!

(Although, I don't quite see how the lack of a helmet led to a broken leg :-)


"What has happened" is extremely formal and a little archaic; "What happened" is used in almost all cases.

Also, for your second question, 'your' is always spelled with one U.

  • 1
    Saying the use of the present perfect is "extremely formal and a little archaic" is a point of view that not all non US speakers of English will share. Your answer should be more comprehensive.
    – None
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 10:28

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