The present perfect tense is one of the more difficult English tenses to use well or even correctly. However, it is not as difficult as it is often made out to be, and many of the problems students have with it are the result of the inadequate explanations usually given in TEFL books. The explanation presented here aims to provide the student, or teacher, with a clear guide to when to use, and when not to use, the present perfect, in both the simple and continuous forms. See my pages on teaching grammar for a description of the principles followed in this presentation.
The explanation given here is for the present perfect as used by British English speakers. Usage of the present perfect in the United States and other English speaking countries varies, so what you read here may not correspond exactly to what you are used to hearing.
Teacher's notes for this page.
The present perfect simple is formed with the auxiliary verb have in the corresponding form for the subject of the sentence, followed by the participle of the main verb.
Affirmative: I've done my homework. Negative: I haven't done my homework. Question: Have you done your homework?
The present perfect continuous is formed with the auxiliary verb have in the corresponding form for the subject of the sentence, followed by the participle 'been' of the auxilary verb be, followed by the -ING form of the main verb.
Affirmative: I've been waiting for three hours. Negative: I haven't been waiting long. Question: Have you been waiting long?
The most important thing to remember about the present perfect is that it can never be used with adverbs which describe finished time periods, such as yesterday, five minutes ago and at three o'clock. If a time adverb is used with the present perfect, it should describe a time period which is unfinished. Example include today and this week. So we say:
I've been to the shops twice already today. I went to the shops before toy arrived.This provides a good rule of thumb if you're not sure which tense to use. To learn why this is the case, see the explnations below.
See the table below for more examples of adverbs of finished and unfinished time. Note that only adverbs which describe past time have been included, and that adverbs that describe duration (for etc) have also been omitted.
|Unfinished Time||Finished Time|
|this week||last week|
|this year||last year|
|this morning*||this morning*|
|this afternoon*||this afternoon*|
|during the last two years||during the summer|
|since I left school||before I saw you|
|-||at six o'clock|
|-||when I met him.|
|-||five minutes ago|
* Can be finished or unfinished, depending on the time of day ** ever is only used in questions *** just is used to describe a very recently completed action
We can distinguish three situations where the present perfect is used, although there is a lot of overlap between these situations.
They can be described as:
The heading here is a bit misleading as most of the time the 'experiences' described are not really the kind of thing you would write home about. However, they are experiences in the sense that we are interested in what happened, and not exactly when it happened.
In this situation we use the present perfect to describe an action that can still happen, or can happen again.
The teacher hasn't arrived yet. (She might still arrive.) I've spent $20 today. (I can still spend money.)Contrast the above sentences with:
The teacher didn't arrive (The class is over, he can't arrive now) I spent $20 this morning ('this morning' is over, I can't spend any more money 'this morning')The final example above shows why you can't use the present perfect with an adverb of finished time (such as 'yesterday'):
I went to the bank yesterday.The past simple is necessary as you cannot still do something yesterday (!)
I went to the shops today. (But the shops are now closed...)Finally, note that in both cases the action is finished, and that how recent the action was is not important:
I've only seen him twice in the last ten years. (Possibly a long time ago.) I saw him two minutes ago. (Very recently.)
Students often have problems knowing when to switch from using the present perfect to the past simple in conversation. Usually, after starting a conversation with a queation in the present perfect, we switch to the past simple to develop the exchange. However, this is not always the case, and we can follow the original question with more questions in the present perfect. Which tense to use depends on the exact situation you are talking about.
Consider the following exchange:
Jane Alan Have you read any good books recently? Well, yes I have, as a matter of fact. Oh, well, which books have you read? I've read 'Wonderful Life' and 'The Language Instinct'. Really? And what did you think of them? They were very good. I'd recommend them.In this conversation, Jane's second question is about books, and, as she is not referring to a particular point in time, and it is still possible for Alan to read more books, it is natural to use the present perfect. For her final question she changes to the past simple, as the time she is referring to (which is not actually stated) is 'when you read them'.
Now compare the above with:
Jane Alan Have you been to the cinema recently? Well, yes I have, as a matter of fact. Oh, what film did you go to see? I went to see Seven. Really? What did you think of it? I thought it was OK.In Jane's second question she uses the singular, 'film', presumably because she's only interested in the film Alan saw most recently. She then uses the past simple, as she is referring to the time 'when you went to the cinema', and she doesn't imagine that the action will be repeated - that is, that Alan will go to see the film again.
We use the present perfect simple to describe the duration ('How long...') of a state which is true now.
For example, compare:
I've lived here for eight years. (I live here now.) I lived in London for two years. (We don't know where I live now.)Like all the other examples of the present perfect, we are being told something about the present in the first sentence. The second sentence tells us only about the past, although we would probably assume that the speaker doesn't live in London now.
The present perfect continuous is used to describe the duration of an activity or action which is happening now.
They've been watching TV since three o'clock. (They are watching TV now) They were watching TV for three hours. (We don't know what they are doing now.)
Both forms, simple and continuous, are common in questions with How long...?
How long have you had your present job? How long have you been waiting?
The present perfect simple and continuous should also be compared with the present simple and continuous:
I've lived in Sabadell for eight years. I live in Sabadell. They've been watching TV since three o'clock. They're watching TV.In both cases, the perfect form tells us the duration of the state/activity, the non-perfect form only tells us that it is true/happening now. It is incorrect to use the present simple/continuous to describe duration, as in the following:
INCORRECT: *I live in Sabadell for eight years.*
With some verbs it is possible to use both the simple and continuous forms of the present perfect:
I've worked here for five years. I've been working here for five years.The first form here can be considered the 'neutral', or normal, form. In this sentence the verb work has the meaning 'have a job', and as such refers to a state and not the activity you actually do when you are working. The sentence simply says how long this (your having the job) has been the case.
The second sentence, in the continuous form, would be used in slightly different situations. For example:
Jane Alan You put those papers in the green filing cabinet. You don't have to tell me that - I've been working here for five years, you know!Here the continuous is used to give not just the duration of the state, but also imply a result of the fact that Alan has worked there for five years - he knows where to put the papers.
A common situation where the continuous form is used is to imply that the situation is about to change:
I've been living here for ten years. I think it's time I moved on.But note that the normal restrictions apply to verbs that don't take continuous forms:
I've had this car since 1987. It's time I changed it. INCORRECT: *I've been having this car since 1987. It's time I changed it.*See the following section for more information on the use of the present perfect to give information about results in the present.
We can use the present perfect to describe an action in the past which has a result in the present. Both the simple and continuous forms can be used:
She's broken her glasses. (She can't see...) They've been painting the flat. (They're covered in paint...)The result referred to depends on the situation in which you say the sentence. There are a number of differences between the simple and continuous forms.
With the simple form, the action is finished. An important difference between this use of the present perfect simple and the use described above under experiences is that here, when there is no adverb of time, or the adverb of time just is used, it is not necessary that the action can be repeated or still happen:
They have knocked down the old station building.
The continuous form does not tell us whether the action is finished or not. Although the person speaking may not be performing the action at the time of speaking, they may be going to continue doing it after speaking - the activity is not 'complete'. In the example given above, we don't know if they have completely painted the flat or not.
The type of result referred to differs between the simple and continuous forms. The simple form refers to a more or less 'direct' result, while with the continuous form the result is usually 'indirect', or a 'side-effect'.
I've washed the car. (It's very clean now.) I've been washing the car. (That's why I'm wet. )The continuous form is often used to answer 'Why...?' questions - in the above example, it might have been in response to the question 'Why are you wet?'. Again, not that it is not clear from the second sentence whether I have finished painting the car or not.
'Just' is commonly used with the present perfect simple to show that an action happened very recently. When 'just' is used the result referred to is often indirect, and this form can be used if you want to make it clear that the action is complete while at the same time explaining an indirect result of the action:
I've just washed the car, which is why I'm wet.
Both been and gone can be used as the participle of the verb to go. Compare the following two sentences:
He's gone to the shops. (He's at the shops now.) He's been to the shops. (There's food in the fridge.)In the first sentence, we understand that he is at the shops now; in the second we understand that he is not at the shops now but that there is some other result of his going to the shops.
Now look at:
He's been to school today. He's been in school today.Although these sentences are very similar (this is not the place to go into the differences between them), compare them with what we would say if we were talking about yesterday:
He went to school today. He was in school today.In general, you can distinguish between be and go from the type of preposition which follows the verb - be is followed by a preposition of place and go by a preposition of movement.
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Last update: 28/03/96