"Did" and "Have Done":
The Feelings

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We've already talked about the grammar of the present perfect and the simple past. Would you be surprised if I told you that the grammar was the easy part? Talk to any American for twenty minutes and you'll start to think that he doesn't know anything about his own grammar! You'll hear him say things like "I ate breakfast today," when you know he should have said "I have eaten breakfast today," and any number of other mistakes.

If you tell the American that he speaks bad English, he'll look at you and say "I guess you don't know as much as you think, do you?" After reading and practicing the grammar rules, you're sure he should have said have eaten, and he's sure that ate "just sounds better" in the sentence above. Who's right? You both are.

Grammar purists will insist that, with unfinished times, you have to use the present perfect. Most Americans, on the other hand, will say that often the simple past simply "sounds better." My advice to you is this: nobody likes a grammar purist! And believe me, I know: I'm a purist.

So, is it possible to learn what "sounds good" and what doesn't? Is it possible to learn a "feeling?" It is.

A woman reading a book

There are four guidelines to remember. It seems like a lot at first, but it's not more than you can learn with practice, I promise.

  1. We will sometimes use the simple past where the grammar purists say we should use the present perfect. The sentence "I ate breakfast today" is a perfect example. We will not use the present perfect where we should use simple present. Why? I don't know, I think it's because the present perfect has one word more and we're all lazy people.

  2. We use the present perfect for something that happened in the past, but still has an effect right now. So, if I just finished eating breakfast and I'm still full, I would say: "I've eaten breakfast today," because I'm still feeling the effect of my eating. If, on the other hand, I finished eating breakfast ten hours ago and haven't eaten anything since, then I'm not feeling the effect of my breakfast anymore, I'm feeling hungry. I would say "I ate breakfast today." It simply sounds better.

  3. If you name a finished time, you have to use the simple past. This is a common mistake for Germans, but when you say 'yesterday' or ''last weekend' you have to say 'ate' or 'partied.' 'Have eaten' and 'have partied' will always sound wrong.

  4. If you don't name a time, you have this rule to follow: simple past for finished things, present perfect for not-quite-finished things. It sounds complicated, but it's not.

    If I say "I planned a trip for this weekend," then it sounds like the plan is finished, period. If my wife has comments or suggestions, she's too late, the plan is finished. (You can guess how my wife would feel if I said that.)

    If, however, I say "I have planned a trip for this weekend," my wife thinks I'm a wonderful guy. It sounds like I did the planning (it's past, after all) but it's not set in stone. When I use the present perfect, I let her know that I'm open to her ideas.

    If you're at work and your boss asks you how a certain project is coming along, how would you answer? Did you finish the whole project? If you did, use the simple past: "I finished it this morning, boss. Got anything else for me?"

    If you haven't finished it, yet, of course, you don't want to use the simple past. You use the present perfect to talk about the parts that are finished: "I've done the groundwork and started the marketing plan. I still have to meet with a guy in development to talk about specifics."

    See? That's how easy English is!

Does it seem like a lot to learn? I bet it does. My advice is to read over the guidelines, try to think about them when you're speaking, and to expose yourself to as much 'native' English as possible. Then, when you hear – or read – someone using the simple past or present perfect, ask yourself why they used it. With time, it will become automatic and you'll be talking – and writing – with the "English feeling."

A woman writing

I know that you'd be upset if I let you leave without a little bit of practice, so here are some practice exercises:

  1. You finished an English course three years ago and now you feel confident speaking English. Would you say "I took an English course" or "I have taken an English course"? Why?

  2. Your best friend took the same English course, but he didn't speak any English at all in the last three years. Now, he doesn't feel confident at all. What would he say? Why?

  3. What did you do yesterday? Which verb form do you use? Why?

  4. What did you do on your last vacation? Which verb form do you use? Why?

  5. What have you done since the weekend? Which verb form do you use? Why?

  6. In the middle of the day you meet your best friend for lunch, would you ask "What did you do today?" or "What have you done today?" Why?

  7. You go to the beer store and meet your English teacher. He asks if your homework is finished. You want to tell him about the five exercises that are finished, from the seven he gave you. Which verb form do you use? Why?

  8. Now, it's late at night and you're getting ready to go to bed. Your best friend calls you to ask about your day again. Would he ask "What did you do today?" or "What have you done today?" Why?


Purist: Do you know anyone who takes every rule to an extreme? If they speak English, they follow every rule of grammar perfectly. If they play chess, they only use openings that grand masters have used. Everything they do seems to be better or "more pure" than what the rest of us do. They're purists, and nobody likes them.

A grammar purist would be the person who still says "whom" when everyone else says "who." And a purist would say "which" when I would say "what." It's okay to be a purist, if you don't want to have any friends. It's never fun to talk to a purist.

Guideline: We're all familiar with rules. Rules are clear: do what the rule says, and you're right. Do something else, and you're wrong. But what about a 'loose rule,' like "one kilogram is two pounds." (It's actually 2.2 pounds, but two is a lot easier number for mental math.) That's a guideline.

A guideline isn't like a rule. It won't always make you right. It makes you right most of the time. And, unlike a rule, you can decide if you want to follow a guideline or not. If they say at work "as a guideline, you should wear a tie," it means it's a good idea to wear a tie, but you won't lose your job if you don't. (After all, you don't want to be a purist, do you?)

As a guideline ten or fifteen minutes of thinking in English per day will help you keep what you've learned, and maybe learn an extra thing or two.

Set in stone: Some things, like gravity, can't be changed. They're set in stone.

Imagine you spend months carving your girlfriend's name into a stone (women don't think that's as romantic as we men like to believe) and, when you're finished, you realize that you've spelled her name wrong! How easy will it be to fix? Almost impossible, right? What's set in stone is very difficult to change.

When I was a boy, what my father said was set in stone. If he said it was time for me to go to bed, I could argue, but only on my way to bed. I feel like not as many things are set in stone as they used to be, and I think it's good that way. I like things a little more flexible.

This lesson was written by Toby, an American English teacher that lives in Germany. Toby is the creator of Bite Sized English.

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