US English Has Never Been Perfect

The present perfect tense and its aspects are used more often in British English than in US English

It is one of the subtle distinctions between the two most spoken forms of English, and why it is important for a writer or author to be careful to maintain a consistent grammatical form, lexical style and voice. Look at the use of the present perfect in the following paragraph.

“While I have only ever been to the United States five times, an American friend told me that he only went to Europe twice. Although having had a number of enjoyable holidays in the South of the US, I hadn’t travelled at all to any of the Northern states. He told me that I missed some of the best parts of the country, and I agreed that I probably had. We’ve kept in touch since. He calls me on his cell, and I call him on my mobile.”

Simple past or present perfect?

The simple past is used more often in US English to talk about life experiences, whereas in British English, the present perfect is almost always used to express similar notions, because of its tense concept of unfinished time.

In the sense of experience, the unfinished time is the speaker’s life. Also in the small example above, the gerund form of the present perfect (having had) is less used in US English, yet it is extremely common in British English, especially in writing.

Then there are vocabulary and spelling differences, and it is in these two elements that the two big English speaking worlds divide dramatically.

The diversity of the English language

There are many differences between the most common forms of Standard English – US, British, Australian, South African, Canadian and Indian. But there are many forms of Standard English as this list on Wikipedia illustrates, as well as in the image below.

Standard English and present perfect

 

Standard English is not as standard as it sounds because English is far from standard. What it actually means is that whatever form of the English language is used and accepted as a national norm in an English-speaking country, it is accepted as Standard English. This encompasses all the language points of grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.

Another factor adding to the variations in the English language are in parts of the world where English is used widely, but as a second language.

In Europe in particular, the use of English is becoming quite normal, however is it evolving into a totally different form of English because it is being used by people who have such a wide range of first languages.

I have written a post on European English previously, outlining the variation in forms that are becoming accepted, but European English is not a Standard English as yet. If you have an interest in the evolution of European English, this English Style Guide produced by the European Union is worth reading.

All of these different forms of Standard English pose a problem, not only for writers but also for copy editors and proofreaders. Maintaining one style or form of Standard English in a book, or even a blog post, is more difficult than you may think, and it takes a lot of effort to find errors in consistency.

I have read a number of books that were written in British English, only to find words such as, realized and color in US spelling, and then in other chapters they reverted to realise and colour.

Mixing forms of Standard English in writing, especially in spelling, is an annoyance and distraction for readers.

So, has your English writing been (present) perfect recently?

Derek Haines

Derek Haines is an Australian author, living in Switzerland.

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