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When it comes to using present perfect, just how much relevance to the present do I need to take into account?

A: "You should be happy that she has at least given you a C."

B: "You are right, I should be happy that she had/has given me a C on the practice exam. But now that she has called/called off the actual exam, I don't know why I spent so much time being depressed about the practice exam."

How do you determine what is still relevant? It seems like the most of the things you say now about the past is somewhat relevant to the present.

Edit: I don't see how people determine the relevance in sentences such as "I just wanted to let you know that he has agreed to do it" when I think "agreed" would suffice. Also, in "he told me that the trip has been cancelled", why shouldn't it be "was cancelled"? I don't know, it feels like just about everything should be in present perfect...

  • I would say, in order for each of your bolded statements: gave, has called off, don't know, and spent. (So the last two were right! :)). I'll let someone else give a more involved answer, but you've got the answers at least :) – WendiKidd May 2 '13 at 3:16
  • There is a lot of room between things that should clearly be present perfect, and things that should clearly be past. Both tenses are fine in these cases. – Peter Shor May 7 '13 at 21:18
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According to Wikipedia,

The present perfect in English is used chiefly for completed past actions or events, when no particular past time frame is specified or implied for them (it is understood that it is the present result of the events that is significant, rather than their actual occurrence)

In your initial example, the most obvious "relevant event" is the actual exam. Things having to do with the actual exam can be cast in perfect tense, while the more peripheral events (like the practice exam and its effects) can be cast in simple past. So the most natural form would probably be:

A: "You should be happy that she at least gave you a C."

B: "You are right, I should be happy that she gave me a C on the practice exam. But now that she has called off the actual exam, I don't know why I spent so much time being depressed about the practice exam."

To complicate things a bit, though, the present perfect can be used for at least one other common case: an action or event which has just happened. (See here for details.)

So if the conversation in question happened just moments after person B is told by the professor that she has given him a C, then referring to that event in the present perfect is also natural:

A: "You should be happy that she has at least given you a C."

B: "You are right, I should be happy that she has given me a C..."

(Note, you would never switch mid-conversation from present perfect ("has given") to past perfect ("had given") while referring to a single event.)

The other factor is: Where (in time) you are, relative to the expected or scheduled event. In the initial example, the actual exam is obviously still in the future, so the present perfect is called for. In your subsequent examples, the use of present perfect for the agreement and the cancellation indicates that the actions (what is agreed to and what is cancelled) are still in the future; use of the simple past would place the actions in the past.

In other words, if your friend was planning to go on a trip and the trip was supposed to take place next week, you would find out today that it has been cancelled. (The cancellation took place in the past, the trip would have taken place in the future.) If the trip was supposed to take place last week, you would find out today that it was cancelled (both the cancellation and the trip are in the past).

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In this case, a lot of times either way is possible. For example, it would be perfectly acceptable to say, "You're right. I should be happy that she gave me a C on the practice exam."

In your "agreed" vs. "has agreed" example, usually one would use "agreed" for something that was done in the past. For example, "We completed the transaction because he agreed to the terms." On the other hand, "has agreed" would be used for something that has not yet happened, and therefore his agreement is still relevant. "He has agreed to the terms, and now we are waiting for the transaction to be completed."

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The primary justification for using Present Perfect in A is that it provides a suitable word to carry stress.

"You should be happy that she has at least given you a C."

But note that (as pointed out here by Grammar Girl) the stress can be (and more often, is) just as easily be achieved using to do as a "helper verb" (plus infinitive)....

"You should be happy that she did at least give you a C."

It's worth pointing out that in this construction, the words at least can carry that stress with Simple Past...

"You should be happy that at least she gave you a C."


There's no justification for anything other than Simple Past in B:1, but Present Perfect is pretty much required in B:2 because of the word "now" (which forces a strong connection between what she did then and the situation now).

I don't understand why OP has highlighted B:3 (I don't know), since there doesn't seem to be any tense issue involved there, but B:4 can be either Present Perfect or Simple Past depending on whether the speaker wishes to emphasis his depression as extending through to the time of speaking, or as being something that's now over and done with.

"You are right, I should be happy that she gave me a C on the practice exam. But now that she has called off the actual exam, I don't know why I [have] spent so much time being depressed about the practice exam."

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A: "You should be happy that she has at least given you a C." (This is correct although it could simply be the simple past "gave" because we presumably know when she gave you the C and what you got that C on; however, the present perfect is fine here as well because the speaker is not specifically telling us when you got the C and what you got the C on or in.)

For example: "I got a C on my report card." I know when I received my report card, so it wouldn't be in the present perfect unless I wanted to say, "I've gotten a C on my report card before."

B: "You are right; I should be happy that she has given me a C on the practice exam. But now that she has called off the actual exam, I don't know why I spent so much time being depressed about the practice exam."

Okay, B is more difficult only because "she has given me a C on the practice exam" makes more sense in the simple past, but it's not wrong; it's just unnecessary. It would not be correct by itself, but the emphasis is on "I should be happy" and the time in the past that you received the C on the practice exam is unimportant, so your choice is fine; however, I don't think I would ever say it that way, but I've heard it said that way and I know it's not incorrect; just unnecessary. I can't explain this one; for once, I'm stumped. I'll get back to you on this one.

I don't see how people determine the relevance in sentences such as "I just wanted to let you know that he has agreed to do it" when I think "agreed" would suffice. ANSWER: "he has agreed" is correct here because there is no mention of when he agreed to do it. "I just wanted to let you know that yesterday, he agreed to do it."

Also, in "he told me that the trip [had] been cancelled", why shouldn't it be "was cancelled"? I don't know, it feels like just about everything should be in present perfect. ANSWER: Present perfect is wrong here; Both past perfect and simple past are fine, however; it just depends on what he told you. Did he tell you, "The trip is cancelled" or "The trip has been cancelled"? They basically mean the same thing although "the trip is cancelled" could mean that he decided to cancel it right then and there in front of you, but it doesn't necessarily have to mean that; he could just mean the present perfect. It would be fine if it were written:

He told me, "The trip has been cancelled."

FumbleFinger's answer is well put. Follow his advice. He agrees with me for the most part and I completely agree with him.

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