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The Quirky Australian Present Perfect Tense

Australians use the present perfect tense in a way you won't hear in British or American English, and you'll most often hear it in crime reports.

By
Mignon Fogarty
Episode #727

A listener named Milton asked why Australians use the present perfect tense for the past tense. For example, he said Australians would say, “He has skulked,” instead of “He skulked.” That’s the present perfect tense: the verb “has” or “have” combined with the past participle: “has skulked.” And somewhat confusingly, even though it’s called the “present perfect” tense, it’s usually used to talk about something that happened at an unspecified time in the past.

I’ve spent significant time with a few Australians over the years—my lab mate in grad school was from Adelaide, and a good friend is married to a man from Sydney and we all worked together at a startup—but I had never noticed them doing what Milton described, so I knew I had to look into this more.

First, although you’ll find some sources on the internet that say it’s a myth that Australians talk this way, papers published in the “Australian Journal of Linguistics” by Dulcie Engel and Maria-Eve Ritz in 2000 and in the journal “Linguistics” in 2008 found that Australians do use the present prefect tense in more situations than people from other English speaking countries.

Americans and the British Use Present Perfect Tense Differently

Let’s look at the data about British English and American English first. Americans are much less likely to use the present perfect tense than the British. 

We just don’t seem to say it. For example, a 1974 book by Frank Palmer called “The English Verb” said that while the British would use the present perfect tense and ask before dinner, “Have you washed your hands?” an American was much more likely to use the simple past and ask, “Did you wash your hands?”

A database of spoken American English didn't have any instances of people using the present perfect tense.

In fact, researchers trying to study the use of the present perfect tense in speech had to rely solely on British examples because their database of spoken American English didn’t have any examples. And according to Engel and Ritz, many other studies have also found this difference between British English and American English. 

So people in these two countries use the present perfect tense differently. What else do we know?

The Present Perfect Tense in Australian English

It turns out that in at least some cases, people who speak Australian English use the present perfect tense even more than British people do, and they use it in an even more different way. 

The paper has lots of examples from radio shows, but this one stood out to me as one that as an American, I would definitely never say this way: 

“After the collision, the vehicle has sped off.” 

I would say the vehicle “sped off,” but in Australian English, it’s apparently not uncommon to hear something like “has sped off.” The difference is that if you remember what I said before—that the present perfect tense is usually used to describe something that happened at an unspecified time in the past—now Australians are using it to describe something that did happen at a specific time: after the collision.

Here’s another example from Engel and Ritz’s paper that uses the present perfect tense with a specific time. A person on the radio said, 

“He has now met with Ayres this morning.”

Again, that’s a very specific time: this morning.

They also note that the use of the present perfect, such as “has sped” and “has met” is especially common in police reports of crimes. Here’s part of another example from a crime report on a radio station:

“…A 15-year-old…boy was on his way to school, […]. As he reached the steps leading to the shops, he has been tapped on his shoulder. As he has turned around, a young man has punched him.”

This type of phrasing is also especially common in narratives, and even more especially in the parts of stories that people want to show are especially important or exciting.

The researchers also compare this type of wording to what we call the historical present in American English, which we also use when we’re telling a story or laying out a narrative like the police do when they’re describing a crime. The historical present is when we tell a story about the past, but use the present tense, as in “Abraham Lincoln walks into the theater and takes his seat.”

The researchers finished with some examples that really surprised me, and I think will surprise you too, at least if you’re not Australian. You know that sometimes when we’re talking casually to friends we might use the words “go” or “went” instead of “said,” especially when we’re telling a story and are using the historical present, like 

“Aardvark goes, ‘Don’t you touch my fishing pole,” and Squiggly goes, “Give me a break, I haven’t taken it in years.” But then Squiggly does take it!”

In Australian English, the researchers found examples of people using “go” and “went” like this in place of “said,” but with “has” and “have”—like the present perfect tense. Here’s one of their examples from a radio show:

I’ve said, “How much is this?” You know what he’s gone? He’s gone, “Mate, I’ll tell you what,” And then this is what he’s gone. He’s gone, listen to this, he’s gone, “I had to get my neighbor.”

I’m not sure what’s actually going on in that story, but it’s definitely not a use of the present perfect tense that I think you’d hear in American English.

Why Do Australians Use the Present Perfect Tense Differently?

So Milton was right. Australians do use the present perfect tense more often and differently from Americans, especially in crime reports and when they’re telling exciting stories. As to why they do it, researchers think that, at least in some cases, the use of present perfect in story telling “makes the narration more vivid and instructs the hearer to imagine that s/he is there now.” 

They also say, “Part of the answer may lie in the extensive use of an informal style in Australia, in particular in the media and the radio more specifically with presenters making use of further devices to attract their listeners’ attention and to express a sense of solidarity with them.”

Finally, they say that the use of the present perfect tense is a particularly active area of language change and that it can be ambiguous, and that Australian English is farther along than American English in adopting this new use of that particular tense.

This also explains why it’s not such an easy answer when people who are learning English as a second language want to know when they should use the present perfect tense. When should they say, “He has skulked,” instead of “He skulked”? The answer, at least in part depends, on where you live and which version of English you’re trying to learn. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times bestseller, "Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing."

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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