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  • Chris Wylie

Simple Past, Present Perfect, and Carpentry


“But, teacher, I don't understand the difference between simple past and present perfect. When do I use one or the other?” I have a few “But, teacher” tales. They are often created when I have to clear up a complex concept or apparent contradiction (a contradiction in grammar? Quelle horreur!). I love this question because I get to share with students my story about tools, expanded here for your reading enjoyment.

*****

It seems a man had a piece of wood, a plank, actually, two feet by three feet and two inches deep. So, he went to the hardware store to get a tool. In the store a polite and courteous clerk stood ready to help.

“How can I help you,” said the clerk with a smile.

“I have a piece of wood,” said the man, “a plank, actually, two feet by three feet and two inches deep, and I want to buy a tool.” He looked at the clerk, expectantly.

The clerk could only blink a bit because there wasn't enough information. “What kind of tool would you like?”

“Nothing fancy,” replied the man, “what would you recommend?”

“ It depends on what you want to do with the piece of wood...,”

“Actually, it's a plank,”corrected the man.

“I'm sorry,” the clerk apologized, “the plank. It depends on what you want to do with the plank.” The smile faded the smallest amount, but the clerk's politeness and courteousness stood resolute in the face of adversity. “There are a few tools you can use but it really depends on what you want to do. Maybe you want to turn your one piec... plank into two planks. You'd need a saw to cut it in half.”

“Quelle horreur!” said the man, “how violent.”

“And dusty,” said the clerk, “But maybe you want to turn two planks into one. Then you'd need a hammer to nail them together.”

“Quelle horreur, again! That doesn't sound much better.” The man threw his fists into the air and shook them at the universe, “I have this beautiful plank, two feet by three feet and two inches deep, and I can't find a tool to use with it!”

"Well, sir,” said the clerk, “if you like the plank so much you can take a screwdriver, drop a couple screws into it, wrap some wires around those and hang it on a wall. You could call it art.” Sarcasm, despite what you may have heard, is not a liquid. It does not have any viscosity, it does not flow. That said, sarcasm does not lack viscosity either as it has no fluid state. All of this is to say that, if we described the clerks words as dripping with sarcasm, we would be using the metaphor incorrectly. Yet, drip they did.

“Eureka!” said the man, “What an excellent idea and it is decided. You are a most polite and courteous clerk. I shall take a screwdriver.”

“Right this way, sir. Phillips or flat head?”

*****

At this point my students blink a bit because there isn't enough information to answer the question. But there is. A sentence is a piece of wood, to use a metaphor incorrectly. Verbs are the tools we use. Like we choose a tool based on the job to be done, we choose a verb based on what we want the sentence to do. Do we want the sentence to say something happened in the past and doesn't affect us now? That tool is simple past. Do we want to say something happened in the past but has an affect on the now? The tool we want is present perfect. Or, you could just take your sentence and hang it on a wall. Quelle horreur!


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