Ongoing time and the past simple – when a past action is really complete

ongoing time past simpleI was recently contacted with a question about my Mixed Tenses Exercise, which demonstrates that different tenses can fit into the same sentence structure. The question came from the past simple use in the first example, I played tennis every Tuesday this month. In a sentence with an ongoing time, such as this month, it may seem strange to refer to complete action with the past simple. This is a prime example of a situation where the present perfect is appropriate – to show a complete action that has the ability to influence the ongoing time period. So why is the past simple also appropriate?

When does an ongoing time not suggest an ongoing action?

Let’s quickly compare our two possible sentences:

  • I played tennis every Tuesday this month.
  • I have played tennis every Tuesday this month.

Both of these sentences should be said within the current month, suggesting the month is ongoing. What is the difference? Simply that the past simple tells us the action is completed and will not be added to. The month may continue, but no more tennis will be played. The present perfect tells us that the month will continue with the chance to play more tennis. The most likely difference for using these sentences in practice is that the past simple could be said after all the Tuesdays in the month, while the present perfect could be said with more Tuesdays to go.

More simply put: with the present perfect the time is ongoing and the action may be added to; with the past simple the time is ongoing but the action is definitely finished. 

This is a fairly clear difference in our example, as although the month is ongoing, the Tuesdays in that month may be finished. A similar difference can be seen in this example:

  • I completed one exercise every hour this morning. (The day continues, but the morning is finished, so the action will not be added to.)
  • I have completed one exercise every hour this morning. (The morning is not finished, so I may continue this action.)

More ambiguous cases of ongoing time

The above examples create possible differences because they effectively contain two considerations for time – the time when the action was done (on Tuesdays, in the morning) and the time when the sentence was spoken (during the month, during the day). What if we have a sentence where there is not clearly two different times?

  • I played tennis this week.
  • I have played tennis this week.

In both these examples the sentence is said during an unfinished time, this week. Exactly when the tennis is played is not stated, so the suggestion is that it as the week is ongoing, there is still a possibility to play more. Therefore it makes sense, generally, that the present perfect is appropriate.

The past simple is also correct, here, though, in any situation where we want to make a statement about a completed action. There could be any number of reasons that there is no more possibility to play more tennis, or that this was a one-time event, even if the time period is ongoing. These could include these situations:

  • It is the end of the week and there is no more time to play.
  • You had a goal of playing once a week and that has been completed.
  • You had never played tennis before and are making a statement that this action finally occurred, in this time period.

In all of these cases, the completion of the action is more important than the fact that the time period is not complete. The point being that an ongoing time does not always indicate the possibility for an ongoing action. Just because the time period is unfinished, it does not mean the action can be extended or repeated, or impact present time.

Let’s look at a few more general examples of ongoing time periods that do not necessarily require the present perfect:

  • I completed my English course this year. (the year is ongoing, but this was a single English course that is now finished)
  • I cooked dinner this evening. (the evening is ongoing, but only one dinner needs to be cooked)

These are all areas that show that the decision to choose between the past simple and the present perfect can require some depth, and knowing that the time is ongoing is not always enough to make a clear choice between the two tenses. If you find this topic interesting and would like to learn more, please read more on these situations on this blog, in some of the articles here – or check out my English tenses grammar guide, which has examples of situations like these for all the 12 main aspects of English.

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