Present Perfect made easier
In this post, I’ll cover the ways you can use this tenacious time-travelling tense in everyday life (I think you can tell that I have a soft spot for it) and some common issues students experience.
The BIG Picture
First things first: it’s important to remember that the overarching reason we use Present Perfect is to talk about both the present and past simultaneously. I’d even go so far as to say that Present Perfect can also refer to the future in some instances. You might want to watch films such as Back to the Future and The Time Traveller’s Wife to get thinking about the concept of time, which is key to English’s 12 verb tenses.
Now that you understand the main reason we use Present Perfect (the why), we can look at how we use Present Perfect.
#1 To distinguish between complete and still continuing events
A guy walks into a bar. He sees a gorgeous woman and they start chatting. In broken English, she says, “I was married for five years.” The guy thinks, “What luck! She’s single!” He asks for her phone number. Hearing this, a hefty man walks up and punches him. “She’s my wife!” says Hefty angrily. Covering his black eye, the shocked man says to the lady, “Bbbut… you said: ‘I was married for five years.’ I thought you were divorced!” The lovely lady blushes and says: “Oh dear. My English is not so good. I meant to say: ‘I have been married for five years.”
A key reason we use Present Perfect is to clarify that something is continuing and not yet finished, which is important because it avoids confusion. For events that are completed, we use Past Simple. Students often have trouble mixing up Present Perfect with Past Simple, which is understandable given that both tenses refer to the past. For this reason, it can be helpful to study Present Perfect and Past Simple at the same time.
# 2 To ask questions using unspecified or non-specific time
As a teacher, I have heard students say: “What have you done over the weekend?” This is incorrect. Can you think why?
As discussed in #1, we use Past Simple, not Present Perfect, to ask about actions we know are complete. It’s a Monday morning and we know the weekend is over. So, we should rather use Past Simple and ask:
“What did you do over the weekend?”
Since we know the situation is over, we have a reference point so we can ask the question using specific time tags (eg yesterday, last year, 5 years ago, this morning). On the other hand, if we don’t know if someone has swum with sharks, watched Fast & Furious 8, or eaten breakfast, we can check whether this has occurred using Present Perfect. We don’t know if the situation has occurred, so we often don’t mention the specific time, rather using non-specific time tag, eg:
- Have you been to any nice restaurants recently?
- Has she seen her mom lately?
We can also leave out time mentions entirely (unspecified time). Let’s say a student, Mary, has not been in class since yesterday and another student, Fabio, asks her: “Where have you been?”
It is unnecessary to add “since yesterday” (and this also sounds clumsy) because by using the Present Perfect form (Has/Have + auxiliary verb), it is implicit that we are referring to the last time Fabio saw Mary. Remember that we use Present Perfect to talk about the period of time between the past and present.
Listening to music is a great way to learn tricky verb tenses like Present Perfect. Listen to Rihanna’s hit track, “Where have you been?” here. Notice that in one line she sings: “Where have you been… all my life?” Remember why? Because we can use a non-specific, general time with Present Perfect. Thanks, Rihanna, for helping us learn English!
There’s an easy way to remember that we use Past Simple with specific time. I like to give the example of the stereotypical courtroom scene in a movie. The frowning lawyer paces the courtroom as he cross-examines the suspect about his whereabouts at the time of the crime. “Where were you on Thursday, February 13th at 9:25am?” he asks gruffly. The lawyer might get some odd looks if he said: “Where have you been on Thursday, February 13th at 9:25am?”
Wait, is that the same as using Present Perfect to talk about ‘Life Experiences’?
While the explanation is often that we use Present Perfect to ask about life experiences, I feel that’s taking a rather narrow view, especially given that we probably wouldn’t ask the guy sitting next to us on the bus if he/she has ever climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Or maybe we would. But we can also just as easily ask: “Have you done your homework?” (Possibly a more frightening activity for some than shark-cage diving). Or a question I have been hearing a lot lately: “Have you had the vaccine?” We can also ask: “Have you seen Bob?” Or: “Have you reserved a table?” Or: “Have you had lunch?” There are countless ways in which we can use Present Perfect to ask about day-to-day topics.
When we do use it to talk about our life experiences, we often list multiple experiences in one category:
- She has visited Thailand, New York, Brazil, and South Africa.
- We have lived in Saudi Arabia and China.
- Since i arrived in Cape Town, I’ve been to the V&A Waterfront, Kirstenbosch Gardens, and the Aquarium.
Remember that in the last example, you cannot use Present Perfect if you are no longer in Cape Town.
Similarity, we can use Present Perfect to talk about one thing we have done multiple times in our lives eg:
- I have seen that film three times.
- I have gone skiing many times.
- She has read the book twice.
# 3 To emphasise relevance of a past event
How would you explain why we use Present Perfect in these examples?
A. Would you like something to eat?
B. No thanks. I have (I’ve) already eaten.
A. Okay, class, are you ready to discuss the exercise?
B. Sorry teacher, I haven’t finished it yet.
As we have discussed, Present Perfect is used to talk about both the present and past simultaneously. The above examples show how we can use this tense to indicate that a past event/action is relevant to something occurring in the present, even if that action is complete (example 1), or not yet complete (example 2).
COMMON QUESTIONS FROM STUDENTS
Q: How do I know when to use Present perfect and when to use past simple
Answer: Follow our tips above. In addition, learn about the adverbs we use with each of these tenses. I like to think of these as the “pals” that English verb tenses like to hang out with. How does this help us figure out which tense to use? It does because as we’ve already mentioned, adverbs often emphasise the meaning of the tense. For example, if we want to talk about a complete event we’ll use a specific time adverb like “yesterday”, but if we want to check if an event has occurred we’ll naturally need a non-specific time adverb like “ever”.
Q: Can Present Perfect or Past Simple ever be used interchangeably?
Answer: Once a student asked me: “Why can’t I say, ‘Where were you?’ instead of ‘Where have you been?'” This question had me stumped (yes it happens to teachers too!) because technically either option is correct, although the latter (Present Perfect) would be more “textbook” accurate. But we don’t live in a textbook world and I believe it’s important to teach students the English they’d hear in the real one. Also, even native speakers sometimes use Past Simple to ask typical “Present Perfect” questions. They’re not making a mistake; language is flexible enough to allow for this.
It must be said, though, that while saying “Where were you?” is perfectly acceptable in place of, “Where have you been?”, there is a subtle difference. Remember how we use Past Simple with finished actions and specific time? Well, a question like, “Where were you?”, might have the person you’re speaking with thinking of what I like to call the Silent WH question… “Where was I when?”
Similarly, it’s okay to ask: “Did you see the teacher?” instead of “Have you seen the teacher?”, but again, the person you’re asking might be confused because of that pesky Silent WH question. So, the conversation may go something like this:
A: “Did you see the teacher?”
B: “No. Was she wearing something funny?” / “No. Was she here in the classroom?”
The confusion also comes in because by using Past Simple, speaker B expects that speaker A is referring to a completed event, in other words, the teacher is in the building somewhere and speaker A has seen them. Now let’s analyse how this answer will be interpreted if Speaker A uses Present Perfect:
A: “Have you seen the teacher?”
B: “No I haven’t. She must be running late.”
Do you see how this is much clearer? It’s evident that speaker A has not seen the teacher yet and is asking about her whereabouts.
In a similar vein, while native speakers will understand you perfectly if you say, “I went to France and Italy,” if you’re listing the countries you’ve visited in your lifetime, we would usually use “went” (Past Simple) with specific time, since the event is over, eg:
- I went to France in 2019.
- I went to Italy for a month.
So it would be better to use Present Perfect in this instance (I’ve been to France and Italy). But using Past Simple would be okay and you would probably be understood.
Q: What are the most common mistakes
Answer: While there are grey areas with Present Perfect and Past Simple – as there are in many cases with English – it’s useful to know what is definitely incorrect.
X Incorrect: Where have you been yesterday?
√ Correct: Where were you yesterday?
Explanation: We can’t use Present Perfect questions with specific time. (Unless we use “for” or “since”. More on that in another post!).
X Incorrect: What have you done over the weekend?
√ Correct: What did you do over the weekend?
Explanation: Same as above.
X Incorrect: Which countries did you visit?
√ Correct: What interesting food have you eaten?
Explanation: This question is confusing because the listener will think: “Do you mean, which countries did I visit this year? Last year?” The second sentence is clearer because by using Present Perfect we’re making it obvious that we’re speaking generally.
Q: Why is it important to learn adverbs associated with Present Perfect?
Answer: These adverbs help to enhance and emphasise the meaning of what you are saying. For instance:
Why are you coming in the house wearing muddy shoes? I’ve just cleaned the floor!
The “just” in this instance indicates that the floor has recently been cleaned. This adverb underscores one of the reasons we use Present Perfect, i.e., relevance to a present action (someone dirtying the floors with their muddy shoes). Another example:
They’ve been dating for 3 years, but he still hasn’t proposed.
Here the speaker is emphasising that this is an event he/she thinks is long overdue and that it is hoped for in some point in the future.
This example takes me back to my earlier point that Present Perfect can refer not only to the past and present, but the future too, making it a pretty remarkable tense in my opinion!