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When thanking someone, what is the rule for using ありがとうございます vs. ありがとうございました? My sensei taught us to use ありがとうございました when the action you're thanking someone for occurred in the past, but I've heard ありがとうございます used plenty of times right after the action occurred. Does it have to do with how far in the past the action happened?

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I think the problem lies in the fact that many languages have a concept of aspect unlike English's concept of tense. Aspect is about completeness of actions whereas tense is about when in time an action occurs. –  hippietrail Jun 2 '11 at 4:55
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

In my opinion,

You can use ありがとうございます most of the time, but ありがとうございました cannot used when the request is not finished yet. For example.,

Aさん: この報告の確認を頼んでもよろしいでしょうか? (Could you please check the report?)

Bさん: 了解! (ok)

Aさん: ありがとうございます。 

(Bさん havn't finished yet the checking, so you better use ありがとうございます instead of ありがとうございました)

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This page at ALC backs up your answer. In short, ありがとうございます is for actions which have not been completed yet or were just now completed, while ありがとうございました is for actions that were completed in the past. (But this is not a hard-and-fast rule, as evidenced by store clerks who will use ありがとうございました immediately after you have concluded your purchase.) –  Derek Schaab Jun 2 '11 at 12:48
    
@Derek, may be if ありがとうございます is used by store clerks, that would make customers must come back there, which is not so polite in the sense? –  YOU Jun 2 '11 at 13:15
    
That's an interesting hypothesis. I can't detect this connotation, but then again, I'm not a native speaker. All I know is that I've heard both from store clerks, so they seem to be easily interchangeable in those cases. –  Derek Schaab Jun 2 '11 at 13:36
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A quick search on Google of "ありがとうございます" "ありがとうございました" shows many discussions about the usage of these two expressions, mostly in Japanese (presumably by many Japanese people), and there does not seem to be a definitive answer.

What your teacher told you about it is correct as a general rule, but as YOU said, ありがとうございます is appropriate also when you thank someone for an action in the past. Some people claim that they feel annoyed by the phrase ありがとうございました because it implies that the thanks themselves ended in the past, but not everyone agrees on this.

There is one case where ありがとうございました is much more usual than ありがとうございます: when you close a talk by saying “Thank you for your attention,” the common (and I think formal) phrase is ご清聴ありがとうございました, not ご清聴ありがとうございます, although the action for which the speaker thanks has been (hopefully) continuing as he/she says this sentence. I cannot explain why, except that this is a fixed phrase and fixed phrases often break a general pattern.

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