Functional variation in the English present perfect: a cross-varietal study

in English Corpus Linguistics: Variation in Time, Space and Genre


This paper examines the distribution and function of the present perfect construction in contemporary British, American, Australian and New Zealand English. The data are mainly drawn from the International Corpus of English, representing four major registers: conversation, news, academic and fictional writing. In overall frequency terms, BrE and AmE were found to lie at opposite ends of the scale, with AusE sharing more similarities with AmE, and NZE with BrE. Regional variation was shown to be strongest in news, where the frequency of the present perfect is also the highest irrespective of the variety considered. A qualitative analysis of a set of random samples revealed semantic indeterminacy between the categories of continuative, resultative and experiential perfects, lending support to the view that they represent fuzzy functional categories comprising both prototypical and non-prototypical members. The distribution of prototypical members of the three categories was shown to be strikingly similar across varieties but subject to regional variation, with the highest number of experiential perfects found in academic writing, and resultatives in news reportage, a pattern attributable to the semantic types of verbs commonly found in these registers. The analysis also uncovered atypical uses of the present perfect with past time adjuncts and in narrative contexts where the preterite or historical present would normally be the expected form.

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