The present perfect tense in English can be tricky because many languages lack an equivalent. Luckily, this guide will help you learn what the present perfect is and when to use it.
I want to talk about the present perfect in this article; what it is, when and when not to use it, as well as examples with the most common adverbs associated with it. These are just, already, yet, for and since, ever and never and how long. I also want to show the difference in meaning between been and gone. I thought this would be a useful topic for students of English as this particular tense (time, such as past, present and future) causes problems for many people, because in many languages there is no equivalent.
The concept of the present perfect is an action that started in the past but continues to have an effect in the present. If it no longer has an effect in the present and possibly future, then we do not use the present perfect.
- Subject + verb to have, present simple + past participle
- “I have washed my car.”
- “I started this action in the recent past and in the present, the evidence is before me, a clean car.”
- “Tom hasn't finished his book.”
- “Again, Tom started his book in the past and now in the present it is not finished.”
- “Have you watched that DVD?”
The idea here is whether or not the person in the past up until the present watched the DVD.
The above examples show how the present perfect is formed and the meaning behind each sentence. Before I talk about further uses and examples of the present perfect, I want to first point out when not to use it. The present perfect is used for an action in the past with an effect on the present, if you do not use this tense it is likely you will use the past simple.
When do you use the past simple?
If you mention a time in the past, you never use the present perfect, always the past simple. Why? Because a past time signifies the past, not the present. A past that is finished and has no validity in the present. That is to say, it does not have an immediate effect in the present.
What is a past time?
Examples of a past time are:
- Last year, last month, 6 months ago, yesterday, this morning, half an hour ago, one minute ago.
You can say, “I have finished my work”, but you can't say “I have finished my work one minute ago”. In this case you would say, “I finished my work one minute ago”, using the past simple.
The rule of a past time being connected to the past simple is extremely useful to know and apply, avoiding the grammatical mistake of putting a past time with the present perfect.
A simple dialogue mixing present perfect and past simple could go as follows:
A--“I have started a new job”. (present perfect – action that started in the past and continues in the present)
B--“Wonderful! When did you start?” (past simple – the use of when to question a past time)
A--“I started last week”. (past simple)
Many dialogues start with the present perfect, but the person continuing the conversation will use the past simple if asking when or why. If you think of the word “when” it is usually asking about a specific time in the past and, therefore, a past time. A question starting with “why” refers back to the reason for a past action.
A--“I have bought a beautiful new coat!”
B--“Why did you buy a new coat? It's summer!”
A--“Because it was on sale with a 70% discount and I liked it.”
The Use of the Present Perfect with just, already and yet
Before I show you how these adverbs are used, please see the meanings.
- Just (very recently) (+ - ?)
- Already (before expected) (+ - ?)
- Yet (until now) (- ?)
Just and already can be used in any kind of sentence (affirmative, negative and interrogative), whilst yet can be used only in the negative and interrogative, not affirmative sentences. Now I will give you some examples sentences. Please note the position of the adverb in the sentences.
- “Michael has just arrived at the party.” (Michael arrived at the party a few minutes ago. Note the position of just, between the verb to have and the past participle.)
- “You haven't already eaten all those chocolates!” (There were some chocolates and the other person finished them before expected. Already, like just, is placed between have and the past participle.)
- “It's 11 pm and Chris hasn't finished his homework yet!” (Here we can see a negative sentence with yet. You can say the same the sentence without yet, but by adding it at the end of the sentence, you reinforce the sentence. The sense is, “it's very late for a school child and the homework isn't finished.”)
- “Your Mother wanted you to call her back. Have you called your Mother yet?” (Here yet is used in a question. Again the addition of the word yet reinforces the message.)
The Use of the Present Perfect with for and since
Now I want to talk about the use of for and since in the present perfect. The rule is very simple to understand and apply but many people make a bit of a mess of it, using for when it should be since and vice versa. When we use for and since we are talking about time that started in the past until the present.
- “I have lived in Italy for 12 years.”
- “I have lived in Italy since 2003.”
When we say for, we are talking about the duration of an event from the beginning in the past to now, when we use since we refer to the moment that past action started to now. In the example with for, I used 12 years. The second sentence has the same meaning because if you add 12 to 2003 it comes to 2015, the present. And the main point here is that now in the present I continue to live in Italy. I haven't changed countries.
Say I talk about my friend, Diana. She lived in Africa but doesn't any more. In this case you would use the past simple and present simple. Not the present perfect.
- “My friend, Diana, lived in Africa for 2 years. Now she lives in London.”
In my example on Italy, my sentences could easily be an answer to the question “**How long** have you lived in Italy?”
In other words, how long means for how much time.
A--“**How long** have you been married?”
B--“I've been married for 15 years/I've been married since 2000.”
Let me show you some other examples of when you would use for or since.
My Mum's birthday
Half an hour
The Use of the Present Perfect with ever and never
In the next section I want to look at ever and never used with the present perfect.
Compared to the material discussed before, it is easier. Typically when students study this part they will come across the following question:
A--“Have you ever been to …..Paris/Berlin/Tokyo?”
B--“Yes, I have.”
In the same way as the dialogue above, the conversation would follow a similar pattern of tenses.
A--“Have you ever been to Rome?”
B--“Yes, I have.”
A--“When did you go?”
B--“I went there 2 years ago.”
A--“Oh lucky you, what was it like?”
B--“Fantastic, the Colosseum is amazing!”
As you can see, the first question and answer is in the present perfect. “Yes, I have” is an abbreviation of “Yes, I have _been_”, but the past participle is dropped. The dialogue continues in the past simple. The opening question refers to the past up until the present.
You can use this question not only to ask about travel but also other less common experiences. Have a look at the following examples.
- “**Have you ever** climbed a high mountain?”
- “**Have you ever** done a parachute jump?”
- “**Have you ever** eaten Japanese food?”
- “**Have you ever** cooked for a dinner party?”
The Use of the Present Perfect with been and gone
In this last section I want to discuss the use of been and gone with the present perfect. It is something that is used very often in everyday English. Let me introduce my explanation with examples.
A--“I need to speak to Sally.”
B--“Oh, she's gone to the bank.” (She's not here)
A--“John, do you need to go to the travel agent?”
B--“No, I've been.”
In the first dialogue, Sally is not present, she is at the bank and we use the past participle gone. In the second dialogue, John is present and back from the travel agent, not still there. In this case we use been.
I hope this explanation of the present perfect has been useful to you. I wrote in simple English because I want less experienced students to be able to understand. All my examples are my own and I wrote this with my own words from my many years of teaching this topic. I understand that this is not an easy grammatical subject for elementary students, and even more advanced students often make mistakes. I wish all those reading this the best of luck with their English studies.
Essential Grammar in Use – Raymond Murphy – Cambridge University Press
Hero image by Guy Sie (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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