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I've got five similar sentences that I'd like you guys to check. Below each one I'll write my take on the meaning. Please, tell me if they all are correct and if my understanding of them is correct as well.

  1. Did you see what they did to our city?

The most basic question, this one is 100% correct and neutral.

  1. Did you see what they had done to our city?

This is the question I'd pose when someone would return from "our" city to the place we currently live in. It refers solely to the past experience.

  1. Did you see what they have done to our city?

This is the one that's bugging me. I'm not entirely sure if I can use the present perfect after the past simple without violating the sentence consistency. In terms of the meaning this inquiry focuses on learning whether the subject saw what has been done to "our" city. It's more emotional, as I emphasize the changes that occured to that place. But so does:

  1. Have you seen what they have done to our city?

So is there any difference between this one and the previous one?

  1. Have you seen what they did to our city?

And the last one conveys the intention of learning whether the subject of the question saw and was shocked/startled because of the changes in "our" city. The question concentrates mainly on the effect the experience of seeing this place had on the person.

Now, is everything what I said correct and on point? I'd appreciate it if you could also point any grammar mistakes you managed to find - should any appear of course.

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As a native speaker, I have to say that I would never use the second sentence, "Did you see what they had done to our city?", except to describe a state of the city that has passed. For instance, if someone had painted a wall, I would ask a friend, "Did you see what they have done to our wall?". If that paint was then washed off, the question would be "Did you see what they had done to our wall?" as that state of "painted" has passed.

As for the difference between sentences three and four, I do not see any. It's just as correct to say "Did you see what they have done to our city?" as it is to say "Have you seen what they have done to our city?". However, I would say that if you asked somebody returning from the city, you would say sentence three rather than sentence four, as "Did you see" implies that they could have seen as opposed to "Have you seen" which implies that they may not have had the chance yet.

For instance, if somebody went to a cinema the same day that a new film was showing, I'd ask "Did you see that film?". If we were talking about the film, and I didn't know that they'd been to a cinema, I'd ask "Have you seen that film?".

As for the fifth sentence, you're absolutely on point.

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  1. Did you see what they did to our city?

OK.

  1. Did you see what they had done to our city [before they pulled out]?

OK. But requires some additional temporal context.

  1. Did you see what they have done to our city?

OK.

  1. Have you seen what they have done to our city?

Unlikely to come from the mouth of an AmE speaker because the repetition of pres-perf is clunky and a bit jarring time-wise..

  1. Have you seen what they did to our city?

The winner.

P.S. In response to a followup question about questioning those returning from "our" city:

This is the question I'd pose when someone would return from "our" city to the place we currently live in.

If you're asking about the statement itself, it's OK, but a bit jumbled temporally. It seems to start out as an explanation of your prior practice, i.e. what you used to do. But then the final words "to the place we currently live in" wrest the sentence out of the past and turn it into a future conditional, i.e. a statement of what you intend or would hope to do. So I'd probably rewrite:

to express future intention: I'd pose this question to someone who were returning from our city to where we live now.

To express past practice: I'd pose this question to someone who had returned from our city to where we were then living.

  • Helpful as always! :) I wouldn't want to create another thread just to ask the question regarding a short grammatical issue I had with my original post here, so if you don't mind me asking: do you also think everything's alright with the utterance I wrote between sentences 2 and 3: "This is the question I'd pose when someone would return from "our" city to the place we currently live in"? – Bebop B. Feb 9 '15 at 14:25
  • My answer is too long for a comment. I'll add a P.S. to the answer. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 9 '15 at 14:45
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    As as AmE speaker myself, I don't see anything unusual about #4, "Have you seen what they've done". It might be a little less common than "Have you seen what they did", but there are cases in which I would certainly use #4, like "Have you seen the work that they've done on the new house so far?" – stangdon Feb 9 '15 at 14:58
  • What about "Do you see what they have done to our city"? – David Washington Feb 9 '15 at 15:03
  • @standgon: minor changes can make big differences: "new house" ... and so far affect the time-sense and mitigate the issues I was alluding to with the repeated pres-perf in that statement. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 9 '15 at 15:43

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