I'm trying to work out the logic on this one. I'm an English teacher and I've always taken for granted the fact that we use the present perfect for achievements, as in the following examples taken from the internet.

  • I’ve written a book.
  • I’ve won a Nobel Peace prize.
  • Man has walked on the Moon.
  • Scientists have split the atom.

However, today the example of "Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook" occurred to me. I know he didn't but let's say for the sake of argument that he did. So what's the difference here? We could clearly say "X has won the Nobel Peace Prize" (provided they're still alive naturally) regardless of how long ago it was and that's another third person singular. Is inventing something not an achievement? I'm getting very confused!

  • Each of these really needs more context to decide. The "I" statements as written should be simple past (statements of fact). The group subjects "man"(really "men") and "scientists" would be assumed to be continuing actions as long as some people keep doing them. – user3169 Jul 12 '16 at 16:26
  • On the side, I don't think people would say websites/software are invented, rather created. – user3169 Jul 12 '16 at 16:49
  • Of course you can say "invent Facebook". What a ridiculous comment! – kerrytaylor101 Jul 13 '16 at 10:56

We use the past with a dead person's achievements, and the past with a live person's actions that took place at a point-in-time in the past, that is, when we're referring to them in the aspect of when they took place, rather than as an achievement of the living person.

But you needn't think of the choice of tense in terms of these non-temporal "buckets" (achievements, inventions, etc). The determining factor is whether the statement refers to the action as having taken place in the past, or refers to it in a more nuanced way, as something that took place in the past but which is seen from the point of view of its bearing upon some aspect of the present.

I went to London fifteen years ago. I have been to London.

When did you go to London?
-- It was fifteen years ago.

Have you ever been to Paris?
--No, but I have been to London. I can say I've been there.

Who invented the telephone?
-- Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

Can you name some of the things Elon Musk has invented?
--He is the founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, right?
That's right. Do you know how old he was when he founded Tesla?

  • Hi, thank you for your input. However, I'm not really sure how I see the Zuckerberg example as referring more to "the aspect of when they took place" than the other examples. Nor do I even see how it has less bearing on the present than man landing on the moon or somebody winning a prize, for example. – kerrytaylor101 Jul 12 '16 at 16:52
  • The sentence itself is telling you how its speaker or author is perceiving the event. If it uses the simple past (Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook.) then it is simply referring to a past action, the invention of Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg. The speaker is not making any verbally-marked connection to some aspect of the present. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 12 '16 at 17:18
  • And by "the present" I do not mean "present times". And I'm not talking about *relevance" but about some relationship the statement has to something that exists at present. I have been to London refers to my state of being NOW as someone who, in his lifetime, has been to London. At this moment I can claim to have had that experience. It is among my experiences. I went to London 15 years ago refers to a trip I made fifteen years ago. The statement makes no attempt, by its choice of tense, to implicate that trip in some present aspect of my being. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 12 '16 at 17:20
  • I ate this morning versus I have already eaten. Simple past, you might be hungry now. The sentence does not talk about your present state. Whereas present perfect implies that you are presently someone who has eaten, someone with food in his or her belly now. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 12 '16 at 17:26
  • That nuanced difference between the two tenses is why I already ate sounds a little jarring, a little crude, because it mixes a tense that refers to something from the past in a manner that says it has no bearing on the present, ate, with already, which refers to the past from the point of view of the past's bearing on the present: "No thanks, none for me. I've already eaten." – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 12 '16 at 17:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.