The Present Perfect Simple Tense – Everything you need to know

 In Blog

The present perfect simple tense. It’s purported to be the nemesis of English language learners the world over. Many educators and students claim that the present perfect is one of the major stumbling blocks to a smooth transition from intermediate level to advanced level.

In his book, Tense in English: Its structure and use in discourse, Renaat Declerck devotes 35 pages to analysing the present perfect tense. Conversely, he only allocates six pages to the present (simple) tense. 

grammar tenses in a book

There’s only one conclusion to draw from the contents page in Declerck’s book. The present perfect is a hot topic among scholars of the English language. Who could argue against the present perfect indeed being the hottest of all subject matters related to the English language?

This post is intended to be the definitive guide to the more theoretical aspects of present perfect simple tense. It should benefit both teachers and students of English. My next post on English Coach Online will analyse some of the difficulties learners face when it comes to acquiring the tense.


How do you form the present perfect simple tense?

We form the present perfect with has (‘s) or have (‘ve) followed by the main verb in a past participle form. 

These participles may be regular (e.g. stayed) or irregular (e.g. taken).

form of the present perfect tense

Source: Parrott (2000), p.236 (adapted)

What does the present perfect tense describe?

I’ll discuss the main uses of the present perfect simple tense in the next section. However, let me briefly summarise what authors of standard reference grammars tend to emphasise with regard to this tense:

  1. The present perfect is predominantly a present tense. However, as I highlight below, there are authors who argue that the present perfect should be treated as an absolute tense* all of its own;
  2.  It refers to a point in the past ‘with current relevance’ (Quirk et al. 1985: 190) to the moment of speaking;
  3.  The present perfect is collocationally congruent with indefinite time adverbs, such as recently, lately, already etc. However, the tense is incompatible with adverbs of finished time (e.g. yesterday, in 1982, last weekend).

* What is an absolute tense? 

An absolute tense typically takes the present moment as its deictic centre. As Comrie (1985: 36) argues, the term ‘absolute tense’ is misleading because “absolute time reference is impossible, since the only way of locating a situation in time is relative to some other already established time point.”


Should the present perfect simple be treated as an ‘absolute tense’?

With reference to point 1 above, Declerck (1991) is one such author who contends that it’s easier to build a theory of tense if we treat the present perfect as an 'absolute' tense. Hence, alongside the preterit (past tense), present tense and future tense, Declerck is adamant that we should locate situations in a unique pre-present sector all of its own. 

I believe that Declerck’s claim has its merits. It seems rather foolhardy to categorise the present perfect as either a past tense or a present tense. Declerk’s argument may have one weakness in that the pre-present may begin at any time in the past, no matter how long ago (Close, 1992). Still, the speaker generally devotes more attention to that part of the period which is nearest the present, i.e. the recent past, hence the darker shading in this diagram:

pre-present sector for present perfect tense

Source: Close (1992), p.68 (Fig.22) (Adapted)

With reference to the diagram above, the T arrow remains pointing vertically downwards. The SPPC arrow points backwards into pre-present time. This means that the speaker is referring to a period of time before and ending at Point now. The speaker is not concerned with a specified time before now. If that were the case, SPPC would be behind T, not level with it.

Hence, the beginning of the pre-present period may or may not be mentioned. Nevertheless, the word since often marks the start of the pre-present sector: We’ve been here since Friday


The elusive nature of the present perfect

To round off this section, it seems fair to mention the “elusive character” of the present perfect (Werner, 2014: 48). 

Dig a little deeper and you will find authors who stress the anterior traits of the present perfect. For instance, Biber et al. (1999: 460) take such a stance, mentioning the tense’s continuative properties along the way. 

Werner (2014) also highlights the viewpoint of Huddleston and Pullum in their 1992 work: Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Intriguingly, they categorise the present perfect as a “secondary past tense” (Huddleston and Pullum, 2002: 116, in Werner, 2014).

Contrary to the views above, Quirk et al. (1985: 4.20) describe the general meaning of the present perfect as "current relevance".

The present perfect is an elusive category as it exhibits characteristics that are representative of both tense and aspect. For your information, tense refers to how time is encoded, something which is often based on morphological form (e.g. take, takes, took). Conversely, aspect is a property of a verb which expresses how an action, state or event indicated by the main verb unfolds over time. In other words, aspect gives us additional information, informing us whether the verb is ongoing, repeated, completed, or even habitual. Hence, the (present) perfect is an aspect, or subcategory, of the present tense.

Overall, the above analysis pertaining to anteriority, current relevance, tense and aspect has its place in this article. However, for your own peace of mind, you may view the present perfect as a medium which creates reference to both the present and the past.


What are the main uses of the present perfect simple tense?

Having described the form and main attributes of the present perfect, let me now outline the main uses of the tense. Bear in mind that there are many overlaps between the following uses:

1. Current relevance

Even though authors such as Declerck (1991) are somewhat opposed to the claim that ‘current relevance’ is the basic meaning of the present perfect, the sheer popularity of the term in the literature warrants its inclusion here. 

Look at the following sentence:

I’ve spoken to the manager about my holiday

Of course, such a statement has a present relevance because we would immediately expect to hear the outcome of the conversation and its consequences. 

Swan (2017: 93) boldly states that:

We do not use the present perfect if we are not thinking about the present

Here’s Swan’s visual representation of the connection between a finished action in the present perfect and its relevance to the present:

present perfect diagram

Source: Swan (2017), p.94 

Clearly, a revelation such as I've broken my leg is highly newsworthy and would have grave and obvious consequences in the present time for most people. There’s no greater ‘current relevance’ than not being able to carry out everyday chores as one normally does. The I can’t go on holiday part also suggests a clear connection with the present due to the resulting emotions (sadness and frustration etc.).

The noncontinuous use of the present perfect

A key point pertaining to the ‘current relevance’ facet of the present perfect is the noncontinuous use of the tense.

It is the noncontinuous use of the present perfect that experienced grammarian Mark Lester picked up on in his highly readable 2012 book Practice Makes Perfect: English Verb Tenses Up Close.

As the word ‘noncontinuous’ suggests, we're concerned with surprising or unpredictable actions, or events that occur only once.

Lester (2012: 56) offers some telling examples of the present perfect’s noncontinuous use:

The printer has just run out of ink

The meeting has been cancelled

For Lester, such single, recently completed past-time events or actions, directly and immediately influence the present moment of time. 

I’ll examine the continuous use of the present perfect tense in point 2. However, it’s worth comparing the following two sentences (in Lester, 2012: 56):

uses of the present perfect

The first sentence with the continuous use of the present perfect describes a situation in which there have been plenty of accidents on the freeway over a period of time. Conversely, the noncontinuous form emphasises that the information about the accident is fresh (and probably unknown to the audience). Moreover, the revelation impacts the present time. In this example, the freeway might be shut for hours.

The resultative past

In the previous section, the result (I can’t go on holiday) of a past event (I’ve broken my arm) is stated explicitly.

There are also cases of past events whereby the resultant state implied by the present perfect simple tense does not need to be stated explicitly because it is rather obvious:

The taxi has arrived  (i.e. ‘The taxi is now here’)

She has been given a new iPhone (‘She now has the iPhone’)

I’ve recovered from my illness (‘I’m now well again’)

Someone has broken her doll’s house (‘The doll’s house is now broken’)

There are examples whereby the resultative implication is present, despite the fact it’s not quite so obvious from the verb’s meaning:

I’ve had a shower (‘I’m now clean’)

He’s cut his finger with a knife (‘The cut is still there, i.e. has not yet healed’)

Finally, the resultative meaning requires no support from adverbials.

A key difference between the noncontinuous present perfect and the past tense

I’ll explore the differences (and similarities) between the present perfect and past simple in the sequel to this post. Just to mention that the noncontinuous present perfect and the past tense are interchangeable from a strictly grammatical point of view (Lester, 2012: 58). For instance, we can use both the noncontinuous present perfect or the past tense in the following sentences:

difference between tenses

Source: Lester (2012), p.58

Nevertheless, as Lester points out, the “implications” of the two tenses can be disparate.

Compare the following two sentences:

Present perfect - I’ve lost my keys

Past simple - I lost my keys

Both sentences carry the same meaning. However, the past tense is a neutral statement of fact. The speaker may not imply that the event occurred recently or that he/she requires assistance to look for the keys. In contrast, the present perfect sentence is a more emphatic form - relevant to the present moment of time because the speaker needs help with finding the keys.  


2. The continuous use of the present perfect

To begin with, here are some examples of the continuous use of the present perfect:

My uncle has lived in his house for 25 years

I have worked here since January

Their company has been in business for over 75 years

The examples above all refer to continuing situations which began in the past and continue in the present. Such situations are usually expected to continue into the future. 

Lester (2012: 54) picks out dynamic verbs* for their continuous characteristics. These verbs describe actions which start and stop over a period of time. Lester (2012: 54) provides the following sentence which is continuous in the sense that Sam’s voting is an activity that’s repeated at regular intervals over time. In other words, every two years - when elections are held:

Sam has voted in every election since he was 18

Inspired by Lester (2012: 55), here are some more examples of dynamic verbs which satisfy the continuous use of the present perfect:

The kids have gone to the same camp for the past four years

Over the years, hail storms have damaged a lot of crops in the area

She has directed more than plays in her long career

Our football team has lost about half of its games

* What is a dynamic verb?

A dynamic verb is a verb which indicates an action, sensation or process. They’re sometimes known as “action verbs” or “event verbs”.

Habit in a period leading up to the present

As I alluded to in the previous section, there is an iterative or habitual use of the present perfect which is complemented by dynamic verbs:

Mrs Smith has sung in this choir for fifty years

I’ve always cycled to work

This channel has broadcast the news at 10 o’clock for as long as I can remember

State verbs and their “continuous” implications

There’s a set of verbs in English called ‘state verbs’ which we generally avoid using in the continuous tenses. However, these verbs are commonly used when the present perfect simple tense is in question: 

exist, be (existence)

belong, own, possess (possession)

know, believe, understand, agree (long-term mental states, thoughts, opinions)

love, like, want, prefer (feelings and emotions)

look, smell, taste, see, feel, hear (senses and perceptions)

Example sentences containing state verbs:

I’ve known Anna for over 25 years

He’s always believed in God

I’ve been in love with her for a long time

I’ve loved the outdoors since I was a teenager

In sum, the undefined time-span of ‘state verbs’ means that the state itself is very likely to extend until the future.

When do we use the present perfect simple instead of the present perfect continuous?

On the face of it, most native speakers of English would say that there’s no discernible difference between I have worked here since January and I have been working here since January. Personally, I’d use the progressive version but I’d never correct a student for using the present perfect simple choice. Sometimes, when it comes to grammar, there are often fine lines and no ‘wrong’ choices. 

There are more similarities than differences between the present perfect simple and present perfect continuous. Both tenses can specify the beginning of a present action or when we measure its duration until the present moment. Moreover, we often use both tenses in conjunction with the prepositions for and since, and indeed the question How long …? 

Parrott (2000: 237) points out that we can choose either form when describing general (biographical) facts:

He’s smoked/been smoking since he was in the army

Nevertheless, there are still certain tendencies which teachers could point out to students. For example, we tend to use progressive forms for shorter, temporary situations and actions (Swan, 2017: 102). Conversely, when we talk about permanent or longer-lasting situations, we often prefer to use the present perfect simple tense. Compare the following sentences: 

A. I’ve been playing the guitar all afternoon, and I’m exhausted

B. My grandfather has played the saxophone since he was a little boy

Swan (2017: 102) also makes the point that we use the present perfect simple to mention how much we’ve done, or how often we’ve done something. Compare the following sentences:

A. I’ve been picking mushrooms all afternoon

B. Take a look at all the mushrooms I’ve picked! (NOT … I’ve been picking)


3. Completed events within unfinished periods of time

In use number 2 above, I discussed continuing (uncompleted) situations which began in the past, continue in the present and are expected to continue into the future. 

We can also use the present perfect simple to refer to completed events, actions or states in the past which took place within a period of time which is unfinished. Sometimes we use adverbials such as this month, this year and today to denote this unfinished period of time:

I’ve had two accidents this month


4. Expressing life experiences

Back in 2021, I wrote a post on this blog detailing how you should mix the present perfect and past simple to talk about life experiences.

Let me just summarise the three main takeaways from that post:

1. Introducing life experiences

The present perfect simple introduces life experiences. However, all of the details pertaining to a particular life experience should be in the past simple:

Question: Have you ever been to Budapest?

Answer: Yeah I’ve been there a few times [present perfect - setting the scene]

Details: I remember the first time I went there. It was way back in 1992. The last time I visited was in 2018. I stayed in a magnificent apartment overlooking the Danube River

2. The 1-2-2-2-2 rule

As an extension to point 1, you could apply the 1-2-2-2-2 rule to help you mix the present perfect and past simple successfully. Essentially, the number 1 is for the present perfect - introducing your experience. Then, the number 2’s are for all the details in the past simple. It’s a useful formula to have running around your mind when you’re talking about travel and life experiences:

Have you ever been to Santorini?

1. I have been there actually - on my honeymoon

2. We went back in June 2013

2. We stayed in a luxury hotel overlooking the sea. It was just a five-minute walk from the beach

2. We mostly swam in the sea and sunbathed but we did travel around the island for a couple of days as I hired a car

2. Everything was perfect - the food in the hotel was incredible and it was sunny every day

3. Responding to questions in the negative

Even when your response to a “life experience” question is negative, there is a still a great deal of scope for you to mention other similar life experiences in the present perfect:

Have you ever been bitten by a dog?

1. I haven’t, no, but I’ve been bitten by a cat a few times

2. The first time I got bitten by a cat was when I was five

2. I remember to this day how badly it hurt

2. The wound was extremely deep so I had to go to the hospital

As case of ‘if’ - not ‘when’

Overall, when you introduce a life experience, we aren’t interested in when the event took place. Instead, we’re only concerned if you did something or not.

It’s common to use adverbials of time and time expressions such as many times, once, a number of times and several times with the present perfect simple because they’re non-specific time references. The ‘when’ factor still hasn’t entered the fray with such adverbials and expressions.


5. Accomplishments of note

We often use the present perfect to highlight the achievements of humanity and specific individuals. Again, we’re not interested in when these accomplishments took place:

Man has walked on the Moon

Our nephew has learned how to read

Doctors have cured many deadly diseases


6. Change over a period of time

We often use the present perfect to talk about changing states that have occurred over a period of time:

Jenny’s really grown since the last time I saw her

My Polish has really improved since I moved to Poland

Chinese has become one of the most popular languages to learn at the language school I work for


7. An uncompleted action which you expected to be completed earlier but are still expecting

We often use the present perfect simple to highlight actions which we expected to have been concluded earlier, or are expecting to be settled any moment soon.

Hence, using the present perfect suggests that we are still waiting for the action to happen.

Steve hasn’t finished his homework yet

Andy still hasn’t replied to my email. He should have replied by now

Sarah hasn’t arrived yet

It hasn’t stopped raining yet

Ronnie hasn’t played well, but I think he’ll play much better after the break


8. Multiple actions at different times / Repetition up to now

We can use the present perfect simple to describe different actions that have occurred in the past at different times. Therefore, the present perfect suggests that the process is not complete and further actions are likely. 

Therefore, repetition is strongly associated with this point.

I have had six very difficult tests so far this term

We have had so many major issues while working on this project

She has talked to several doctors about her problem, but none of them can provide an accurate diagnosis

I've written ten emails since lunchtime


Which adverbials of time and expressions of time are commonly used with the present perfect simple tense?

There are very many unspecific time adverbials and time expressions which are commonly used with the present perfect simple. Here’s a full list of them, together with an explanation of when they’re used:

1. For

With both state verbs and dynamic verbs, we often use the present perfect to describe a continuing situation. In other words, we refer to a situation which began in the past and still continues in the present. We assume that the situation will continue into the future as well. 

The adverb of time for typically precedes periods of time, such as those in the examples below:

I have had a cold for ten days

She has been in London for three months

I have known David for over 25 years

I have taught English for 16 years

2. Since

Whereas for refers to the duration of a period of time, since typically precedes a specific point in past time:

James has loved chocolate spread since he was a toddler

I’ve been here since 8 o’clock

I’ve known her since 2005

3. Still

We use the present perfect with still in negative sentences to refer to actions which we expected to occur before the moment of speaking.

Still goes between the subject and auxiliary verb (haven't/hasn't):

I still haven’t bought a gift for my mum. I keep forgetting

Jane still hasn't replied to my email. She must be on holiday

4. Yet

We use yet to talk about actions that we expect to happen in the near future, especially because they haven’t been fulfilled earlier. Yet (in this particular context) is only used in questions and negative sentences and it should go at the end of a sentence or question:

Have you finished your essay yet?

No, Johnny hasn’t arrived yet

5. Already

When used with the present perfect, the adverb already takes on the meaning of ‘before now’.

Already can go between the auxiliary and the main verb or indeed at the end of a clause:

I've already spent my salary. I only got paid last week

The bus has left already

6. Just

When used in conjunction with the present perfect, the adverb just means ‘a short time before’. Hence, the recency of the past action is emphasised. Moreover, this action tends to be relevant to the present moment.

Just must go between the auxiliary verb and the past participle:

I’ve just seen Darren coming out of the bank

Julie’s just rung. Call her back, would you?

7. until now; up to now; so far

Adverbials such as until now, up to now and so far refer to a timespan including the very moment of speaking:

Up to now, I’ve read as far as the fourth chapter of the book

I’ve only recruited two students so far

8. many times; a number of times; once; twice; three times; several times

These adverbials and expressions of time can be grouped together because they’re firmly connected with life experiences:

I’ve been to Greece many times

I’ve seen Dire Straits in concert three times

I've never been to Asia

9. today; this week; this month; this year; in the last year

These adverbials and expressions indicate an unfinished period of time. However, the actions that take place within these timeframes have been completed:

I’ve already had three holidays this year

I’ve drunk ten cups of tea today

10. often; sometimes; occasionally; never

These adverbs of frequency, which are typically synonymous with the present simple, are also common with the present perfect:

How often have you been in love in your life? 

I've sometimes thought of moving to Canada

I’ve never had a seriously bad nightmare

11. ever; never; before

When certain conditions are met, we use ever, never and before when talking or asking about life experiences.

Ever

Ever is used for questions. 

Have you ever been to Wales?

Have you ever taken any vitamin supplements?

Interestingly, there is one rare circumstance when we use "ever" in an utterance. We use it as a form of emphasis in conjunction with a superlative. For example:

Forrest Gump is the best film I've ever seen

Croatia is the most beautiful country I've ever been to 

Never

We use never in negative sentences.

I've never eaten sushi

I've never been to Australia

Before

Before has the same meaning as ever. However, before can be used in negative sentences, as well as positive sentences and questions. Another major difference between before and ever is that before goes at the end of questions and sentences:

Have you been here before?

I haven't seen this film before

I've had problems with these neighbours before


The Present Perfect Simple

In conclusion, this post has provided an in-depth review of the form and main uses of the present perfect simple tense. Moreover, I have summarised the main adverbials of time which tend to go with the present perfect. 

I’ll move on to how you can transfer all the theory in this post into practice in my next post. 

For now, all I can advise you to do is ‘notice’ the present perfect. For instance, underline examples of the present perfect you come across in your reading. Think about why this tense is used in each situation.  

It’s also essential that you personalise grammar points. For example, you should be able to create a hundred true, personalised sentences with the present perfect for life experiences.

References

Biber, D. et al. (1999). Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Harlow: Pearson Education Limited

Close, R.A. (1992). A Teachers’ Grammar: The central problems of English, Hove: Heinle ELT

Comrie, B. (1985). Tense, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Declerck, R. (1991). Tense in English: Its structure and use in discourse, London: Routledge

Lester, M. (2012). Practice Makes Perfect: English Verb Tenses Up Close, New York: McGraw Hill

Parrott, M. (2000). Grammar for English Language Teachers, Second Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Quirk, R. et al. (1985). A comprehensive grammar of the English language, New York: Longman

Swan, M. (2017). Practical English Usage, Fourth Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Werner, V. (2014). The Present Perfect in World Englishes: Charting Unity and Diversity, Bamberg: Bamberg University Press

Nottingham English - Professor Natalie Braber