Is your timing perfect?

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Michael Bulley looks at a common problem with tenses

As greengrocers are famous for their misplaced apostrophes, maybe there should also be the "Footballer's Perfect Tense". On the day after the cup-tie against Chelsea last season, one of the Oxford players was quoted as saying: "Vialli's gone down and the ref's fallen for it" (instead of "Vialli went down and the ref fell for it"). This use of the Perfect for the Preterite is almost universal in the footballing world, and it has spread. In a television interview, a well-known snooker player said:

"Towards the end of the session I have played a bit more like myself." This non-standard usage has been explained, or excused, as the desire to make the report more vivid. You also find it in anecdotes: "So I've taken the car to the garage and the guy's looked at the engine."

Here are two examples from school excuse notes: "Clare has cut her wrist over the weekend" and "Jody has not done her homework last night as she has gone to see her mum in hospital". I have also seen a written report of a school sports tournament that said of one of the teams: "They have been the runners-up."

Perhaps you can forgive football managers, snooker players and the grammatically unsure parents of schoolchildren, but the BBC should know better. The following examples are taken from Ceefax pages: "Nelson Mandela has been stung by bees that flew into his bathroom as he stepped from his bath" and "Gales have damaged the roof of the High Court this afternoon, showering judges in Court 3 with debris". What has gone wrong is the linking of the Perfect with a specified time in the past.

In the gales example, the phrase "this afternoon" throws the sentence into confusion; we knew the roof was still damaged, but can we be sure that the judges are stil not covered in debris?

This usage may just be a grammatical quirk that will pass before long, like some other fashions in language. But if it takes hold, we could be on our way to imitating the French. They too have a Preterite, but it is not generally used in conversation. There, the Perfect usually does for both. So the French "J'ai vu Michel" can be used like the footballer's Perfect tense, to mean "I saw Michel" as well as " I've seen Michel". For the time being, though, I'm going to carry on interpreting the English Perfect tense as I always have, but keep my wits about me when watching Match of the Day.

Michael Bully teaches at the Highworth School in Ashford, Kent

EXPLAINING THE PERFECT (OR PRESENT PERFECT) AND THE PRETERITE (OR SIMPLE PAST)

Perfect: here, you are filling in the whole time from the action up to the present moment. The action described is often really giving information about the present. So "We have arrived" implies that "we are at our destination now". You can't follow a Perfect by saying that something else happened next, as in "We have arrived and then we looked around".

Preterite: here, the time of the action described is separate from the present. It is often part of some information you are giving about something that happened in the past. "We arrived" implies "We were at our destination at that moment". You could follow it by saying that something happened next, as when you are narrating a sequence of events.

Example: The difference between "I have stayed at the Savoy once" and "I stayed at the Savoy once" is that the first (Perfect) says you've stayed there only once in your whole life, and the second (Preterite) says either "Once upon a time, I stayed at the Savoy", or refers to one fixed time when you stayed there.


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