The president has died

One common use of the present perfect tense is to report recent news (‘hot news’). An example would be if someone states ‘the president has died’. At first sight, this use of the present perfect is surprising. Other uses of this tense require some clear connection to the present time. I discuss the following below:

  • uses of the present perfect
  • the present perfect is both present and past
  • is the hot news perfect like other uses of the present perfect?
  • criteria for defining the hot news perfect

Uses of the present perfect

As I have mentioned before, researchers have identified 4 main uses of the present perfect tense:

  • perfect of persistent situation (or universal perfect):
    (Kati has lived in Budapest since last year [and still lives there])
  • perfect of result (or stative perfect):
    (Kati has already arrived in Budapest [and is still there])
  • experiential perfect (or existential perfect):
    (Kati has been to Budapest at least once [but currently is no longer there])
    I discussed this use in an earlier post, in the context of Hungarian. https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/09/existential-perfect-in-hungarian
  • hot news perfect (or perfect of recent news):
    (the president has just been assassinated)

Researchers generally state that the hot news perfect is used to report news of a recent event.

The present perfect is both present and past

The present perfect differs from both the simple past tense (which refers to an event that occurred in the past) and the present tense (which refers to an event or state occurring in the present.) Unlike those 2 tenses, the present perfect refers to both a past event and the present time.

Some languages, including English, convey those 2 components of meaning by morphology that has both a past component (in English: the past participle) and a present component (in English: present tense endings on the auxiliary verb have).

Is the hot news perfect like other uses of the present perfect?

I described above 4 uses of the present perfect. For each of the first 3 of those uses, it is clear how the present perfect relates the past event to the present time:

  • The perfect of persistent situation applies to a state that has been persisting throughout a specified period up to, and including, the present time. (This use of the present perfect does not mention explicitly whatever past event caused the start of that situation.)
  • The perfect of result applies to an event that (a) occurred in the past; and (b) led to a state that is still persisting.
  • The experiential perfect applies to an event that (a) occurred in the past at least once up to the present, but without leading to a state that still persists (so this is not a perfect of result); (b) and could recur in the future.

It is much less clear whether the hot news perfect relates the past event to the present time. The rest of this post considers that topic.

A sub-category of another use of the present perfect?

Could the hot news be a sub-category of one of the other 3 uses of the present perfect, or a variant of one of those of those uses?

  • The perfect of persistent situation reports a state (and does not mention explicitly whatever past event caused the start of that situation.) In contrast, the hot news perfect reports on an event. So, the hot news perfect is not a sub-category (or variant) of the perfect of persistent situation.
  • Some researchers have analysed the hot news perfect as a sub-category (or perhaps variant) of the experiential perfect. Other researchers have analysed the hot news perfect as a sub-category (or perhaps variant) of the resultative perfect. I don’t find either of those analyses convincing.

Criteria for defining the hot news perfect

Below, I discuss criteria for defining the hot news perfect, under the following headings:

  • must the ‘hot news’ event result in a state?
  • must the event be unique?
  • can the state reverse?
  • must the event be recent?
  • must the event surprise the hearer?
  • must the event have surprised the speaker?
  • can the time or date of the event be stated explicitly

Must the ‘hot news’ event result in a state?

In many cases, when an event is reported using the hot news perfect, that event results in a state still persisting at the time when the speaker utters the sentence (‘utterance time’). For example:

  • if the event was a death, the person becomes dead and is still dead at the utterance time.
  • if the event was the result of a sports match, the competitors enter the state of being the winner or loser of that event. That state also persists at the utterance time (leaving aside unusual cases, such as subsequent retrospective doping bans or other subsequent rulings that overturn the original result).

Nevertheless, even if the event does result in a new state that persists at the utterance time, that fact cannot be enough to permit use of the present perfect, and so cannot be a defining feature of the hot news perfect. Consider the following examples:

(1) The country’s president has died.
[spoken a few minutes after the death]

(2) * ‘Julius Caesar has died’
[spoken in 2022].

The asterisk * denotes a sentence that is not grammatically acceptable.

Sentence 1 is grammatically acceptable, but sentence 2 is not. Sentence 1 is an example of the hot news perfect.

In both cases, a state results from the death. Both the country’s president and Julius Caesar are dead and will remain dead for ever. If the state of being dead were sufficient to permit use of the present perfect to report the event of dying, sentence 2 would be acceptable—and would be an example of the perfect of result. But sentence 2 is not acceptable. So, the existence of that state of being dead cannot be what makes sentence 1 acceptable but sentence (2) unacceptable.

Thus, a state resulting from the event reported as news cannot be a defining characteristic of the hot news perfect.

Must the event be unique?

The event reported by an experiential perfect occurred in the past and it must be possible for the event to recur. Sentence 3 is acceptable because the president could visit France again. Sentence 4 is unacceptable because Julius Caesar is no longer alive and so cannot invade Gaul again. So that event would have to be reported using the simple past, as in sentence 4a.

(3) The president has visited France.
[experiential perfect]

(4) *Julius Caesar has invaded Gaul.
[not grammatically acceptable]
(4a) Julius Caesar invaded Gaul.
[simple past]

Sentence 5 is acceptable, even though the president cannot die again. So, the possibility of recurrence cannot be a defining characteristic of the hot news perfect. On the other hand, the hot news perfect is not ruled out if the event can recur, as sentence 5a illustrates. 

(5) The president has just died.
[hot news perfect]
(5a) The president has just visited a factory.
[hot news perfect—and the president could visit a factory, or indeed the same factory, again]

Can the event reverse?

For the experiential perfect, the state resulting from the event must no longer persist, as sentence 6 shows. On the other hand, for the perfect of result, the state must still persist, as sentence 6a shows.

(6) The president has visited France.
[and is no longer there] [experiential perfect]
(6a) The president has arrived in France.
[and is still there] [[ perfect of result]]

For the hot news perfect, there may be a state that persists at the utterance time (as in sentence 7), but also there may not be such a state (as in sentence 7a).

(7) The president has just died
[hot news perfect, the state of being dead persists]
(7a) The president has just made a short visit to France.
[hot news perfect, the state of being in France no longer persists—though perhaps the visit has led to some intangible benefits which do persist]

So, although many events reported using the hot news perfect do lead to a state that persists at the utterance time, the existence of a persisting state cannot be a defining characteristic of the hot news perfect.

Must the event be recent?

All descriptions of the hot news perfect say that it is used only for events that are recent. Typically, such descriptions acknowledge that it is not possible to say what makes an event recent enough to qualify.

Some researchers suggest that a recent event is so close to the present that the report of the event can reasonably be viewed as having both elements required for the use of the present perfect: links to both the present and the past. To me. that explanation seems contrived.

I will approach the topic of recency from a different angle. I suggest that the hot news perfect can be used in reporting an event if the speaker (or writer) believes that:

  • before the event occurred, the hearer (or reader) had a mental model of the world. In that model, the event had not occurred.
  • the hearer has not heard the news.
  • when the hearer receives the news, the hearer will update her/his mental model to include the news.

Those criteria might be met if the event is recent. They are very unlikely to be met if the event is not recent. Thus, in this approach recency might often accompany situations in which the criteria are met, but recency itself is not a defining characteristic.

How long can elapse before those criteria are no longer met? That will depend on the circumstances. If the event has a high profile, the hearer would discover quickly that it has occurred. But if the hearer might not hear about an event for some time, the event could qualify if it occurred longer ago. For example, saying ‘The second world war has ended’ could be an appropriate use of the hot news perfect speaking in 1950 to a soldier who was on a desert Island and had been cut off from any source of news since 1944 [example from Comrie (1976)].

Must the event surprise the hearer?

Some researchers have suggested that the hot news perfect can be used only if the speaker believes that the report of the event will surprise the hearer. However, I don’t view surprise as a separate defining criterion for the hot news perfect. In the suggestion I made above, what matters is whether the speaker believes that the hearer has already heard the news and has built into her/his mental model of the world. Events can lead to an update of a mental model of the world without being surprising.

For example, consider death. Someone’s death might be a surprise, for example if it occurs in an accident or if the person is assassinated. But even if it is not a surprise, a death could still be reported appropriately using the hot news perfect. Consider a president with a terminal illness, whose imminent death was known to be inevitable. Sentence 8 would still be an appropriate way to report the death when it does occur, even though it is not a surprise.

(8) The president has now died.
[hot news perfect]

Although the event was not a surprise, a speaker can use the hot news perfect if the speaker believes that:

  • before the death occurred, the hearer had a mental model of the world. In that model, the president has a terminal illness, and the president’s death is inevitable and imminent.
  • the hearer has not heard the news of the death.
  • when the hearer receives the news, the hearer will update her/his mental model to include the news that the president is dead.

Another similar example would be where it is highly likely that a particular team will win a sports match. The hot news perfect can be used to report the result if that team does win—even though that result is not a surprise.

Must the event have surprised the speaker?

Ritz (2017) investigated what she calls a non-canonical use of the hot news perfect by speakers of Australian in reporting news to a hearer who doesn’t know the news. She says that those speakers use this form to convey both ‘mirativity’—that the speaker found out about the event only through indirect evidence—and the speaker found the event surprising on finding out about it. I haven’t looked at that suggestion in detail.

Can the time or date of the event be stated explicitly?

One feature common to all uses of the present perfect is that the precise date or time when the event occurred is not specified explicitly.  For example, it is possible to say ‘I have seen John recently’, but not ‘I have seen John yesterday’, nor ‘I have seen John at 3 o’clock’.

It is possible to say ‘I have seen John today’, because ‘today’ refers there to an interval ending at the present time.

Summary

My provisional conclusion is that a speaker can use the hot news perfect if the speaker believes that:

  • before the event occurred, the hearer had a mental model of the world. In that model, the event has not occurred.
  • the hearer has not heard the news of the event.
  • when the hearer receives the news, the hearer will update her/his mental model to include the news that the event has occurred.

In addition, as is the case for all uses of the present perfect, the sentence containing the present perfect must not (in English) specify the time or date on which the event occurred.

Many events reported using the hot news present give rise to a state that continues when the speaker reports the hot news to the hearer. Also, many of those events will be unique, non-reversible, recent and surprising. But none of those characteristics define the hot news present.

Some of the characteristics mentioned in the preceding paragraph could, if present, create a clear link between the past event and the present time when the hot news is reported. Only one property relating to the present time must always exist if the criteria I suggest are met. That property is that the speaker believes that the hearer will update her/his mental model of the world on hearing the hot news.

Sources

Perfect Tense and Aspect, Marie-Evitz Ritz, in The Oxford Handbook of Tense and Aspect (2012)

‘Hot news’ and perfect change: mirativity and the semantics/pragmatics interface, Marie-Eve Ritz, Catalan Journal of Linguistics 17 (2018)

Aspect, Bernard Comrie (1976)

Sources quoted by Ritz

Ritz (2012) cites McCoard (1978) and McCawley (1981) as analysing the hot news perfect as a sub-category (or perhaps variant) of the experiential perfect. She cites cite Fenn (1987), Michaelis (1994) and Kiparsky (2002) as analysing the hot news perfect as a sub-category (or perhaps variant) of the resultative perfect.

Without providing a detailed analysis, both Michaelis (1994) and Kiparsky (2002) refer to Michaelis’s doctoral thesis. I haven’t gained access to Michaelis’s thesis, nor to McCoard (1978), McCawley (1981) or Fenn (1987).

A Semantic and Pragmatic Examination of the English Perfect, Peter Fenn (1987)

The English Perfect: Tense Choice and Pragmatic Inferences, Robert W McCoard (1978)

The Ambiguity of the English Present Perfect, Journal of Linguistics, vol. 30, Laura Michaelis (1994)

Event structure and the perfect, Paul Kiparksy, in The Construction of Meaning, edited by David I Beaver, Luis D Casillas Martinez, Brady Z Clark, & Stefan Kaufmann (2002)  

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