Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”. Albert Einstein
I expect that everyone reading this has made many mistakes while learning to speak the English language. And it's probably safe to say that many of those mistakes have been with the present perfect! Most people say that English is an easy language to learn. Yet the present perfect seems to exist only to dumbfound, confuse and frustrate learners of English!
Essentially, when compared to other languages, English is an easy language to learn. Many of the difficulties in other European languages (e.g. the two forms for ‘you’, nouns being masculine or feminine and sometimes neuter, adjectives agreeing and all those verb endings you need to learn) just don’t exist in English. However, in return, we do have the wonderful, intriguing and extremely useful present perfect! So what is this tense?
Firstly, the most important thing to know is that it is really a present tense. Secondly it acts as a bridge between the present and the past. Thirdly, although it looks like the French passé composé, it is not used in the same way. So direct translations will lead to mistakes. Finally, it is a tense that we use a lot! So it is worth trying to learn it and use it.
The very name of the tense suggests what it is: present + perfect. Perfect means past and comes from the Latin verb perficere which means to complete or achieve. So just in the name, we can see that this tense combines the present and the past.
How do we form the Present Perfect Simple*?
* There is also a present perfect continuous (I have been learning English for many years) but we’ll leave that for a future article.
To form the present perfect, we use have or has and the past participle of the verb. Once again, it is a mixture of the present (have/has) and the past. And that is exactly what the present perfect is: a tense which is a bridge between the present and the past, where an action may have started in the past and continues in the present or where a past action is finished but the consequences continue to be important in the present.
When do we use the present perfect simple?
1. When an action started in the past and continues in the present.
I have lived in New York for 10 years.
I started living in New York in the past, 10 years ago, and I live in New York today.
I lived in New York for 10 years.
The action is finished and I don’t live in New York now.
So we must remember:
- The present perfect is a bridge between the past and the present.
- We use the past simple (I lived) when the action is finished and we know when it happened.
2. For general experiences in life. We don’t specify when the activities occurred.
I have worked in several companies since I left school.
I have never visited Australia.
The present perfect is used as a bridge to cover time. Our life started in the past and continues in the present and we don’t give any precise dates.
I worked in several companies between 1997 and 2005.
I visited Australia 10 years ago.
In these sentences, we know when the events happened. We can situate them on a timeline.
My wife has just received a promotion. (She is going to have more responsibility)
You’ve had a haircut! I like it. (It looks nice)
Again, we don’t know exactly when the event happened. Although the action is past and finished, the consequence is in the present. It’s news. So once again, the present perfect is acting as a bridge between the present and the past.
4. When we are in the time period we are talking about.
I haven’t seen Sophie today. (But I may see her later today)
Mary has had three interviews this week. (This week isn’t finished)
We’ve been to the cinema several times this month. (We may go again before the month finishes).
What did you do this weekend? (Past simple because the weekend is finished)
Other points to remember
1. There are key words that are often used with the present perfect because they cover time, such as:
Since, just, so far, until now, recently, ever
I haven’t been to Paris since I was a child.
I’ve just had a job offer.
What have you done so far today?
Have you ever eaten sushi?
We’ve recently employed three new engineers.
2. For or Since?
Both for and since can be used with the present perfect but be careful.
For is used to talk about a duration. It answers the question how long?
A: How long have you lived in London?
B: I’ve lived in London for 12 years.
Since is used to talk about a specific moment in the past. It tells us when the action started.
I’ve lived in London since I was a child/since 1981/since May/since Christmas.
3. Been or Gone?
The verb to be is used like the verb to go in the present perfect. But there is a difference.
We use been when the person has returned from wherever they went.
Mary has just been to the bank. (she has returned)
I’ve been to Australia twice. (I’m not in Australia now)
Mary has gone to the bank. She’ll be back soon. (She is at the bank now - she is not here)
John has gone to Australia. (He is in Australia at the moment - he is not here)
There is a lot to think about when using the present perfect tense. But the first step is to learn the rules and try and use it. As Einstein said, “anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”! Making mistakes is an integral part of the learning process.
However, to limit these mistakes, really make an effort not to translate word for word from your own language. If you do, you will make a mistake 9 times out of 10! The best way to progress is to read and listen to as much English as possible so that you can hear the tense being used in lots of different contexts. Eventually it will just sound wrong when you make a mistake. And it will sound right when you get it right! Good luck and go for it!
Philippa Stacey a fondé Eureka en 2007. Elle vit et enseigne l’anglais aux professionnels en France depuis 1993.