Learn English – “Have you heard?” vs “Did you hear?” and “Sally broke/has broken her leg”


Earlier today I had a private lesson with an Italian student—intermediate level, who has been studying the present perfect vs. past simple tense. His teacher had given him an exercise where a list of Italian phrases had to be translated into English. One of the sentences was the following:

Hai sentito che Sally si è rotta una gamba?

It looks deceivingly simple to translate (for a native speaker) but I found myself with five versions, all of which I am certain are idiomatic and grammatical.

  1. Have you heard that Sally broke her leg?
  2. Have you heard that Sally's broken her leg?
  3. Have you heard about Sally breaking her leg?
  4. Did you hear that Sally broke her leg?
  5. Did you hear that Sally's broken her leg?

The actual moment when Sally broke her leg happened at a specific time in the past, hence the past simple seems to me appropriate but we also say, Sally's broken her leg to express an action that occurred in the past but whose consequences are still felt in the present so…

  • Which sentence tells the reader that Sally's leg is still broken?
  • Which tense is more appropriate; the present perfect, Have you heard? Or the past simple Did you hear? Both sound acceptable to me. How is the meaning affected?
  • Is it preferable for both verbs to be in the same tense? Why or why not?
  • Ignoring the Italian translation and focussing on the five sentences, how would you interpret each one? Do they mean the same?

EDIT (updated September 1 2014)
Let me explain, more fully, why I posted this question. There was an Italian phrase which had to be translated (the first line in a short exchange) the rest of the dialogue was easy enough for my student and I to translate but he had difficulties with this first line.

In the exchange we learn that Sally broke her leg while skiing.

A: Have you heard/Did you hear… etc.
B: How did it happen?
A: She was skiing when she fell.

When I thought carefully about how the first sentence could be translated, I came up with five versions. I had a problem explaining to myself why they all sounded equally valid to me, in fairness sentence number 3 sounded the weakest candidate to me because it seems that the news of Sally's accident is very recent and conveys greater intensity.

As I tried to explain earlier, I was wondering how switching the past simple with the present perfect might change the meaning of the first line. If I say: Sally broke her leg, I might be thinking about the precise moment when this accident occurred. The event is established in the past and cannot be repeated. If I say: Sally has broken her leg it is plausible that her leg is still broken, seeing as a broken leg takes about a month to heal, and I am concerned with the results of that action which are felt in the present i.e. Sally now has her leg in a plaster/She cannot walk properly/She is currently injured, etc.

If the first verb is in the past simple, Did you hear…? does it affect how I write the rest of the sentence? Is Have you heard…? more colloquial?

Finally, I am NOT asking about translation, nor how to use the present perfect or the past simple.

Best Answer

To indicate that Sally's leg is still broken, stay away from the past tense (your examples #1 and #4). If you use the past tense the leg could still be broken, but past tense doesn't indicate that fact. If I say "Sally broke her leg yesterday" maybe you can guess it probably is still broken but if I say "Sally broke her leg 6 months ago" there's a good chance it's healed by now and past tense gives you no indication of whether it is still broken.

Similarly, to indicate that Sally's leg is still broken, stay away from the participial phrase form (your example #3). Especially in this context, a sentence starting, "have you heard", there is no indication that the action being described is still happening. If I ask you "have you heard about the mariner shooting the albatross?" you should not conclude that the mariner is still shooting the albatross. It could have happened a really long time ago!

The present perfect form (your examples #2 and #5) indicates that something happened in the very recent past so for something that takes as long to heal as a broken leg it should reasonably indicate that the leg is still broken, but to be absolutely clear have you considered the present tense? For instance, "Sally's leg is broken" or "Sally has a broken leg?" Because in that case there would be no doubt that Sally's leg is still broken!

If you say "did you hear" (past tense) it means did you hear at some point in the past? If you say "have you heard" (present perfect) it means did you hear at some point in the recent past? Both mean the same thing in this case.

There is no need for the sentence verb to be the same tense as the verb used in the gerund phrase (that Sally..). I can say, for instance, "I know that you wrote this question." The sentence verb tense should be appropriate for the sentence action and the gerund verb tense should be appropriate for the gerund action.

Note I've included a couple of sources that present perfect implies recent events since one comment on another answer claimed this isn't true. My understanding is there are 3 basic uses for present perfect: experience up to present (often with the word "ever"), recent past, and a recent journey. A broken leg would normally not be experience up to the present when combined with "did you hear" or "have you heard" (who says "did you hear I have broken my leg" if they are referring to their medical history from childhood?) so the choices are recent past or a recent trip. A recent trip doesn't make sense. So that leaves recent past.

"We use the present perfect simple with action verbs to emphasise the completion of an event in the recent past." Cambridge Dictionaries Online http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/present-perfect-simple-or-present-perfect-continuous

"The present perfect is often used to express recent events that affect the present moment." About.com http://esl.about.com/od/grammarstructures/ig/Tenses-Chart/presperf2.htm

"we often use the present perfect for recent events" wordpress.com http://englishprojectoxford.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/present-perfect/

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