In my experience the perfect tenses are the ones that confuse students the most; they are difficult to make correctly (Is it has, have or had? What is the past participle?) and they are used in a number of situations which may not directly correlate to a tense in your language. However, Present Perfect, which links the past with the present, is probably one of the most used tense in conversational English – so you need to be able to get it right.
Here, I will focus on when you use (and don’t use) the PRESENT perfect.
- Unfinished Past
Present Perfect literally means that it happened or started before the present. The first example of this is when we are talking about something that started in the past and continues into the present time. For example, “I’ve lived here for five years” or “He’s written five bestselling children’s books.” You started living there five years ago and you still live their now or he started writing books at some point in the past and he’s still writing them now. Compare this to the Past Simple “I lived here for five years/He wrote five bestselling children’s books”. In these sentences you don’t live there anymore; he isn’t going to write any more children’s books.German speakers, in particular want to use the Present Continuous in these situations but “I am living here for five years” is incorrect because Present Continuous cannot be used for something that started in the past. It can be useful to remember you can’t use for + period of time or since + point in time with the Present Continuous, so always use the Present Perfect or Present Perfect Continuous (I have been living) instead.
A second time we use Present Perfect to talk about something that happened before the present is when we are telling people about our experiences, and when it’s the experience itself that’s important not the details of when, where and how it happened. It’s easier to understand this if we make questions. So imagine the questions “Have you been to America?” or “Have you ever tried crocodile meat?” These questions are asking you about your experiences from any time in the past up until the present time (before present) and time and details aren’t important. You just want to know “Yes” or “No”. As soon as you begin to describe the experience, however, you go back to Past Simple. For example “Yes, I have. I went there two years ago to study English.” or “Yes, it was delicious.”
- Something that happened in the past which is important now
The final use of Present Perfect is when we want to talk about something that happened in the past but has an impact on your current situation. For example, “I’ve lost my keys,” (I lost them in the past but it’s important now because I can’t open my front door) or “I’ve finished the exercise,” (I finished it just before, but I’m telling you about it now so we can check it). As I’m writing this I’m scratching my leg because I’ve been bitten by a mosquito (the mosquito bit me at some point earlier today but it’s itching right now.) Compare this with Past Simple “I lost my keys,” “I finished the exercise,” “I was bitten by a mosquito.” These events all happened in the past and there is nothing linking them to the present.
- When you don’t use it
So it’s useful to know that there are three times we use the Present Perfect but it can be equally useful for students to be aware of the times they cannot use Present Perfect. In my experience there are two mistakes that students commonly make.
- Using the Present Perfect to give details about something that happened in the past.
For example, “Yes, I have been to America in 2010.” This is not correct because you have given the detail of time. Remember, you use the Present Perfect to talk about the experience and then Past Simple to give the details “I went to New York and Boston to study English.”
- Using the Present Perfect when you are telling a story about the past.
If you are telling a story you need to use the three narrative tenses: Past Simple, Past Continuous and Past Perfect. Not Present Perfect. For example, “He didn’t go surfing because he had tried it before and knew he didn’t like it.” Not “He didn’t go surfing because he have tried it before.” The key thing to remember here is that we use Present Perfect to describe an action before the present and Past Perfect to describe an action that happened before the past.
So to summarise this week’s Tip – Perfect tenses join two times together and the Present Perfect joins the present and past together. We need to do this to talk about 1.) something that started in the past and continues into the present, 2.) something that happened at any point in the past up until now when the details are not known or not important and 3.) events that happened in the past which are important to the current situation.