Sunday, July 15, 2012

More English as she is spoke

While we are on the subject of real-life grammar that doesn't follow the rules, here's something else I've been noticing recently: the use of the present perfect in narratives about past events. Now the present perfect is a notoriously difficult tense for French speakers to master and I usually stick to some very simple rules when I'm teaching it. Basically, I tell my students that the present perfect is used to talk about the unfinished past (I have lived in Bordeaux for a long time); something that happened in the past but has an effect now (I have put on several kilos); and to talk about experience (I have never been to Kefalonica). [I'm being deliberately unimaginative. I've often thought that the example sentences I come up with spontaneously in the classroom could be used as a sort of free-association psychological test with very disturbing and perhaps incriminating results]. 
However, I know that many Americans don't use the present perfect in instances where we Brits would expect it; and now it appears that Brits are using it to recount stories that I would normally expect be told using the simple past. So that instead of: 
"He was walking down the road with his pitbull, and suddenly a puma appeared from nowhere and mauled them both."
you might hear:
"He's been walking down the road with his pitbull and suddenly a puma has appeared and it's mauled them both." 
     I think this might be more of a North of England thing, but I'm not sure and I also suspect that it is a way of making the narrative more immediate and real — much like the use of the present tense to recount past events. But I'm not sure. Any ideas? Any whacky example sentences for us to judge you by?

PS. Oh, and if by any chance you're one of my students, sorry I fibbed about those rules being hard and fast but I'll still take off marks if you write a a narrative essay using the present perfect.


engelsk said...

I can imagine it in examples of repeated actions that could theoretically occur again, where there's ellipsis of, for instance, "There have been times/cases when...". But I can't say I've noticed it in particular, and especially not as a replacement with perfect aspect instead of simple or continuous aspect.

Having said that, I'll now probably notice it constantly when I'm next back visiting my parents in Yorkshire. Although to be honest I'd still expect to hear: "Ah wor walking down street when..." ;-)

As to what happens on "t'other side o' Pennines", well...

Jordan said...

I'm okay with using the present continuous in that kind of narrative, but present perfect? WEIRD.

Stella said...

That's what they call "footballers' tense" because a lot of sports people use it in post-game interviews. I want to know how these things catch on? It's v prevalent in Australia too. Drives me crazy.

Lesley said...

Footballers' tense! Oh, that's brilliant. And it's exactly in that sort of context that I'd expect to hear it (mis)used i.e. when giving a blow-by-blow account. I wonder if police reports are similar ("and then he's bitten off my ear, officer")?

Stella said...

Yes, you definitely hear the police using it too. I have an Australian friend who speaks almost exclusively like that. "So, I'm standing there, holding my money, and she's just talking on the phone. Then, the manager comes over and....."

engelsk said...

I think this is very interesting, and I'm trying to work out what might be happening. When I've been back in Britain in recent years I've often noticed people using the present perfect and then suddenly adding a specific time phrase that doesn't go with it, eg "I've been there... yesterday". The gap between the main sentence and the afterthought is sometimes very slight. Could this be related to what you've observed?

Otherwise, it's quite hard to see how perfect aspect is being used in a different way. We already have, for instance:

1) Talking about the very recent past in a way that makes it unfinished and present, eg at lunchtime you can say: "I've been reading a book this morning" - as if 'this morning' hasn't really properly finished yet. The same sentence isn't possible in the evening, as too much time has passed - or is this part of the change that's been noticed? (I suppose this must be what footballers do in post-match interviews.)

2) Announcing new developments, newsreader-style, albeit following the same rules as noted in point (1), eg: "Mr Blogs has been called before the European Court of Human Rights." (But: "He was called yesterday.")

3) The use of the present tense to tell a story - including the present perfect, eg: "So there we are in the hotel, right? And we've already been staying there for about a week, and nothing strange has happened until now, when all of a sudden a giant squid jumps out of the sea and lands on the roof."

So what are we talking about here? Is it excessive use of the anecdotal present, or has the gap between present perfect and 'afterthought time phrase' completely disappeared? Or is it something else?

Oh, I've just realised: I can imagine a footballer being interviewed: "So what happened out there?" "Well, he's kicked the ball to me, and then I've headed it back to him, and it's gone into our own goal by accident." This is indeed different to speaking generally ("I've been reading a book this morning"), as it's a row of completed actions, possibly said while looking at a monitor showing the incident in question, and thereby bringing it more to life - but that's my conjecture! I think I'd just put it down as the anecdotal present possibly being used in different contexts than we remember it being used.

Oops, long comment. Sorry!

Lesley said...

Yes, it's a fascinating shift isn't it? Or perhaps it's a historic use that has been rehabilitated? I think it's clear, however, that this is a use that is found mainly among people who have not been over-educated, and in contexts in which they want the action to seem immediate. So yes, perhaps we could call it the anecdotal present-perfect. Actually I just Googled that term and I came up with an article by a colleague in France who uses the term "narrative present perfect". I don't have time to read it right away but maybe someone else will.

engelsk said...

Very interesting! Thanks for putting the link up.

deborah said...

Read two articles in the Guardian just now, one had this :

'... read to by a group of assistants who included his grandson'

and another
'... the four favourites who included Mustafina and the US team captain'

Why do I have a desperate urge to replace 'who' with 'which'?

English as she is writ ...

Betty C. said...

I'm starting to think there are no rules. Of course, the person could tell the story in the present simple too. And I can even imagine the person telling the story in the present continuous, or with "going to..."