Germanisms: Did I do it? Or have I done it?
One of the trickiest things for non-native English speakers is to choose wisely between past tense and past participle (e.g., “several studies showed” versus “several studies have shown”). Here is a little tip to help you remember the right ways to use these two tenses.
Past tense is normally used when an action is already complete, and it is not being talked about as an ongoing activity. For example, if I say, “I ate at that restaurant yesterday,” I am only talking about yesterday, and my purpose in saying that is already achieved when I say it. The action is finished, and whether it will be repeated or not is not the issue. But if I say, “I have eaten at that restaurant several times,” I’m usually expressing something that is relevant to right now (like whether it is a place I would like to go again, or a place I would recommend).
Here’s a slightly different example. Someone who says (or writes), “Participants gave their informed consent” are clearly talking about something that happened in the past and is now finished. But someone who says, “Participants have given their informed consent” is likely to be talking about consent as part of a process that is still going on. It might be the research assistant informing the experimenter that the experiment can proceed now, because all the participants have given their consent. Again, the difference is that we are talking in one case about something that happened and is now finished, and in another case about one part of a process that has taken place, but the process itself may be ongoing.
It’s the same reason that we usually don’t say, “Studies showed…” Instead, we say, “Studies have shown…” The process of conducting studies and publishing findings is ongoing, and the studies we’re talking about are just one part of this ongoing process.
Test your knowledge
Here’s a puzzle for you: If I say, “Early studies [showed/have shown] …” or “Studies in the 1960s [showed/have shown] …,” what do you think the better choice would be?
Take some time to ponder that question ….
Ready for the answer? In both cases, the better choice is “studies showed…” Why? Because the words “early” and “in the 1960s” describe times that have passed. (There will be no more “early studies,” and the 1960s are over.) They separate the present time from those past times. Usually, when an author writes something like this, it is to show that one period was different from others, not part of the current or ongoing trend – i.e., to emphasize that this period is finished. So the past tense is a better choice.
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