I met the following two samples while doing grammar exercises.

The first:

‘Mr Jones has been arrested by the police.’ ‘My goodness. You don’t say. What has he done?’

The second:

“I’m going to see Mr Warren,” she said. “He’s in St Joseph’s Hospital.” Her father turned from the TV. “What happened to him?”

What's the difference? Why is there Present Perfect in the first, and Past Simple in the second?

  • Questions about the present perfect and simple past abound on this site. I've given a quick answer below, but if you search this site, you will find extensive discussion of the topic.
    – TimR
    Commented May 22, 2016 at 11:02
  • @TRomano Yes, I know there is already a lot of similar questions, but one may need to have deep understanding of the grammar to see how the same idea is working for them all. I can't. It's like having read how to drive, but still being unable to drive. To be able to drive through any crossroads safely and in the right way you need to learn in practice how to drive through a hundred of them. I've got a textbook, I've done a lot of exercises, I can explain the choice of tense in many cases, but still not always. That's just how my language grammar is different from English. Commented May 22, 2016 at 13:18
  • The choice of tense (past or present perfect) is not governed by the facts but by how the speaker perceives or is presenting the facts. Simple past and present perfect could be used in your examples. One is not more correct than the other. The choice puts a "spin" on the statement.
    – TimR
    Commented May 22, 2016 at 13:21
  • Speaker's presentation also takes context into account. So it's "speaker's attitude in context".
    – TimR
    Commented May 22, 2016 at 13:43
  • Does this answer your question? "Did you watch this movie?" or "Have you watched this movie?"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 30, 2022 at 16:45

1 Answer 1


The simple past expresses the past action or event as something that occurred in the past. The present perfect expresses the past action or event as something that occurred in the past, but from a point of view that recognizes its implications for the present.

With What has he done? the speaker casts his deed in the light of its implications for the present. The deed is not over and done with. (There will be ongoing consequences. He will have a trial, the newspaper will run stories, and so forth.)

With What did he do? the speaker is expressing interest in the particulars of the deed without reference to their ongoing implications.

What happened to him? wants to know what befell him, an accident or an acute medical condition, etc.

What has happened to him? wants to know what put him in the hospital and whose effects he continues to suffer from. If we learn that someone has died in the hospital, we would not be likely to ask "What has happened to him?"


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