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Concourse 2

The present perfect: the past embedded in the present

fossil

The distinction in English between the simple and perfect forms of all tenses is the key to understanding how English conceptualises time.
If you haven't followed the introductory guide to English tenses yet, please consider doing so now (new tab).


differ

Languages differ

Many languages have verbs forms selected to represent the speaker's view of the time an action took place or a state existed – that is what tenses do.  However, they differ in terms of what they see as the important distinctions.
Some languages, such as Mandarin, have no changes to verbs to signify time at all, relying on adverbials, particles and the context to signal time concepts.  It is perfectly possible to be understood (at least on a basic level) and use no tense forms at all.  So:
    I go tomorrow
    I come yesterday
    I always do this
    I arrive recently
    I finish work at 6 last week

are all perfectly comprehensible even if they need a little interpretation from the listener.
Briefly, many languages do not distinguish between the present perfect and the simple past in the way that English does although they may have very similar forms.
German, for example, can form a sentence like
    Ich habe es gemacht
roughly translatable as
    I have done it
but this does not necessarily signify present relevance and could be translated as
I did it
.
Italian distinguishes between distant past time and recent past time and all languages have ways of dividing and classifying time which may or may not overlap or run parallel with how English does it.


form

Forming the tense

The simple form of the present perfect is not too difficult to grasp or to teach.  It works like this:

Type Form Examples
Affirmative subject + auxiliary + main verb (past participle) [+ object if needed] She has broken the glass
Mary has asked him
noun / pronoun have / has broken, smoked, came etc. noun / pronoun
Negative subject + negative auxiliary + main verb (past participle) [+ object if needed] I haven't been to London
The weather hasn't been warm
noun / pronoun have not / has not broken, smoked, came etc. noun / pronoun
Interrogatives auxiliary + subject + main verb (past participle) [+ object if needed] Have you seen my wallet?
Has the pub opened?
have / has noun / pronoun broken, smoked, came etc. noun / pronoun
negative auxiliary subject + main verb (past participle) [+ object if needed] Haven't you finished it?
Hasn't the weather been lovely?
have not / has not noun / pronoun broken, smoked, came etc. noun / pronoun

The continuous or progressive form of the present perfect is slightly more complex.  It works like this:

Type Form Examples
Affirmative subject + auxiliary + been + main verb (-ing form) [+ object if needed] She has been mending the glass
Mary has been asking him
noun / pronoun have / has breaking, smoking, coming etc. noun / pronoun
Negative subject + negative auxiliary + main verb (-ing form) [+ object if needed] I haven't been travelling to London
It hasn't been raining
noun / pronoun have not / has not breaking, smoking, coming etc. noun / pronoun
Interrogatives auxiliary + subject + main verb (-ing form) [+ object if needed] Have you been running?
Has the pipe been leaking?
have / has noun / pronoun breaking, smoking, coming etc. noun / pronoun
negative auxiliary subject + main verb (-ing form) [+ object if needed] Haven't you been working hard?
Hasn't the rain been falling heavily?
have not / has not noun / pronoun breaking, smoking, coming etc. noun / pronoun

It is not the forms of the tense that are difficult to learn.  It is the concepts that are harder to grasp.


time concepts

Conceptualising time

The present perfect is a relative tense.  We use it to consider one state, event or action in relation to another.
Fundamentally, the tense is a present tense, not a past tense, because it refers to the present in relation to the past.  Another way of putting that is that it refers to the past within the present.
This is what is meant:

Example Concept and meaning
I have spent all my money Spending money is clearly in the past but the reference is to having no money now.
He hasn't finished yet The fact is important to now because he must continue to work.
He has been running and is all sweaty The running was a progressive action in the past but mentioning it explains the present.
I haven't been paying attention, I'm afraid My lack of attention is a continuous state in the past but it explains why I do not understand now.
Have you seen the paper? I am referring to up to now because I want the paper now.

One way to understand the concept the present perfect in English indicates is to contrast it with the past simple.
The past simple is an absolute tense, not a relative one, and refers to a finished event or action which may or may not have any relation to the present.  For example:

Example Concept and meaning
I spent all my money This just refers to something finished.  It does not necessarily imply anything about the present.
He finished at six Compare this to the use above with yet.  The time expression at six clearly fixes the event in time but yet is open ended.  This does not mean that the time expression controls tense use.  It is the other way around: the tense meaning permits some time references and not others.
He ran for the bus. The running was a progressive action in the past but says nothing about the present.
I didn't pay attention, I'm afraid There's no reason why this matters at all now.  It explains nothing.
Did you see the paper? I am interested in what you saw, not where the paper is now.

think read Now, as a test, can you complete this table?  Click on the table when you have filled in all the blank cells in your head.

Compare these examples and see if you can figure out whether:

  1. the action took place at a particular point in time
  2. the action continued over a period of time
  3. the action continued up to the present
  4. the action has some obvious present significance

Fill in the grid (you can tick one or more boxes).  You can do this in your head or on paper.  Click on the table when you have an answer.

present perfect and simple past

At the outset, we said that the present perfect tense embeds past events in the present.  A way of conceptualising this for learners is like this:

funnel John took the train to work
John went to his office
John is at his desk
John has arrived


sockets

Comparing the past simple and the present perfect

Compare these and note the difference in meaning:

  1. Jo lived almost all her life in India
  2. Jo has lived almost all her life in India

When you have noticed two differences in meaning, click here.


progressive

The present perfect progressive

The sense of the past within the present is not altered when we use the progressive forms but an extra layer of meaning is added.
We use the progressive aspect with the present perfect to do a number of things, many of which are overlapping concepts.
Here, we will try to tease out the underlying ideas.

mountaineer

Activity vs. Achievement

We can use both tenses to refer to a past within the present so we can say either:
    He has climbed the mountain
or
    He has been climbing the mountain
but in the first we are emphasising his achievement (i.e., the outcome of his efforts) and in the second, the activity itself (i.e., the efforts themselves).
Another example may make things clearer.

achievement or outcome
If we say, e.g.:
    I have finished the report
the obvious sense is that it is now available for you to read, pass on to the boss, publish or whatever.
We are laying stress on the achievement which is relevant to the present.
If we say, too:
    I have taken my holidays in France for many years
we are suggesting that it is the outcome of the activity which carries the present relevance.
activity or effort
If, in contrast, we say:
    I have been finishing the report
we emphasise my activity, not the achievement and it is the activity which is relevant to the present and that explains why I am late home, have been out of touch or whatever.  In this case, the report is not the central issue, it is the activity which is important.
If we say, too:
    I have been taking a holiday in France
we are emphasising that the activity and explaining why, say, I have not been answering my emails or been available.

Similar examples can be used when the activity is what interests us, not any kind of achievement and it is the activity which serves to explain the present.  Here are three:
    I have been running (and I'm hot and tired)
    She has been drinking (and she's not making sense)
    What have you been doing? (to get so dirty, tired, wet
etc.)

Semantic considerations

verb meaning and achievement
Some verbs contain within their meaning the sense of achievement or outcome.
If, for example, we say:
    She has succeeded
the use of the verb succeed usually prohibits the progressive form so we do not encounter:
    *She has been succeeding
because the verb itself refers to achievement not activity.
Equally, we do not find:
    *They have been accomplishing it
    *She has been realising it

and so on for similar reasons.
With verbs which imply any kind of achievement, the use of the progressive form is simply unnecessary (and usually wrong).
verb meaning and stative or dynamic use
The shorthand for this distinction is to think of stative and dynamic verbs and that is how it is often presented to learners.  A better way to consider it is to look at the meaning of a verb and ask whether its use in this meaning is stative or dynamic.
For example:
    I have often thought that the garden needs some work
is the use of the verb think to mean believe but:
    I have been thinking that the garden needs some work
is the use of the verb to mean deliberate or cogitate.
The rule is that when a verb is used statively, the progressive form is unacceptable.
Other pairings showing this distinction include:
    John has appeared a bit depressed recently
in which appear means seem and
    John has been appearing in The Importance of Being Earnest
in which the verb means act or perform.
    She has had the house for years
in which the verb have means possess, and
    She has been having an argument
in which the verb means conduct or take part in.
It follows logically that verbs which are very firmly tied to a state rather than an action, such as own, seem, look like, possess, believe, suppose etc. will not appear in the progressive form.
Other verbs, which are polysemous and can be used in both forms with a change in meaning include have, consider, think, appear, imagine, judge, look, occur etc. and may appear in either simple or progressive structures depending on the meaning intended.
(Rarely, even the verb be can fall into this polysemous category.  Normally, it cannot be used dynamically but in the sense of deliberate assumption of a characteristic, it can.  We allow, therefore:
    He has been being difficult for some time.)
adverbials and time / event markers
The distinction is clear here, too.
We can say, for example:
    I have flown across the Atlantic four times
    They have run six marathons
    She has often spoken about her schooldays

and so on because we are focused on the achievement or outcome of the actions.
Using the same forms with the progressive makes no sense because the focus of the progressive is on the efforts or activities, not the outcomes so we do not find:
    *I have been flying across the Atlantic four times
    *They have been running six marathons
    *She has often been speaking about her schooldays
end

Telicity

The term telicity is not something with which you should trouble learners but the concept is important to understand.
The question to ask is whether an event or action is seen as finished (that is to say, perfective [not perfect]) or whether there is no end point in sight.
The progressive form of the tense is used most frequently for events and actions which are seen as atelic, having no explicit finishing point and the simple aspect is used to refer to actions or events that are telic and, although finished, are still set in the present.
Both forms refer to the past within the present.
For example:
    I have read the book
clearly implies that the action of reading is now finished but that the reading of the book is set in the present because it is relevant to our conversation in some way.
    I have been reading the book
on the other hand, means that the book is not finished.  It is still a past within the present in terms of relevance, of course.

The guide to talking about the present, which considers the present perfect (because it is a present tense) delves a bit deeper into the phenomenon of telicity.

aspect

Other aspects

The present perfect tenses, both simple and progressive are described as having a perfect aspect and by that it is meant that the tenses refer to the past within the present.
This is true but the progressive form is also used to describe two other aspects which are not obvious by looking at the forms.

Iterative
This aspect refers to events or actions which are repeated, and that is what iteration means.  For example:
    John has telephoned me
implies a single past event set in the present to show its relevance to now (for example, that I have been told some news or whatever).
However:
    John has been telephoning me
implies a series of events of the same kind.  The sense is still of a past within the present but in this case we are concerned to show that the event has been repeated so the form of choice is present perfect progressive (although it might be better referred to as present perfect iterative).
Durative
This aspect refers to events or actions which take a substantial time.  We are emphasising, then, the duration of the event or action.  For example:
    John has lived in London for many years
simply states a fact and sets the event in a present context so, for example, John would be a good person to ask about the city.
However:
    John has been living in London for many years
means roughly the same but the speaker's emphasis is on the duration of the event, not the event itself.  Present relevance is maintained.

A key distinction here is semantic not grammatical.  Some verbs, by their nature, cannot refer to long-lasting events.  They are punctual verbs and include, for example:
arrive, bang, begin, break, bump, burst, chop, crash, detonate, dip, dive, drop, explode, flash, glow, hit, jolt, kick, light, meet, name, open, pop, quip, rap, shatter, shoot, slam, smash, spit, spurt, steal, stop, tap, thump, upset, volunteer, wake etc.
Other verbs, the majority, may be durative and the list includes:
cry, design, enjoy, frighten, glow, hurry, inspect, justify, keep, love, moan, nurture, oppose, play, quieten, run, speak, talk, undo, vary, wish etc.
Most verbs are polysemous and have closely connected but distinct meanings so, for example:
    She has frightened the children
implies a single event which was not long lasting but
    She has been frightening the children
implies a repeated, not necessarily long-lasting event.
Verbs which can only be punctual in nature, such as flash, pop, thump etc. are, when they are used in the progressive form always iterative, not durative.

Summary of progressive vs. simple tense uses

summary

It makes sense, of course, to handle the distinctions piecemeal with learners rather than expecting them to absorb all this in a single sitting.


key

The key idea

The use of the present perfect in English depends on how the event or state is viewed with respect to the present.

and that, of course, explains why it's called the present perfect.
This little animation is taken from the lesson for elementary learners which tries to keep things simple but show how the present perfect is used to refer to past events which change the present.




time marker

Time markers

It is because of the way that we think about past time that each of these tenses is associated with different time markers (not, incidentally, the other way around).  Here's what we mean:

With the simple past With the present perfect With both
yesterday
last week
last year
on Tuesday
in 1956
two months ago
since 2010
up to now
recently
lately
already
yet
today
this week
for 5 years

Learners who don't have a good grasp of the concepts here will often produce incorrect sentences such as:
    I have lived here two years ago
    I lived here since 2014
    I did it already*
    I worked up to now

and so on.  This is not usually because they don't understand the time markers, it is usually because they haven't got the concepts of the times right.
* Note that standard American uses this kind of construction frequently, as in things like Did you just arrive? etc.


cartbeforehorse

Getting it the right way round

A number of coursebooks have an annoying habit of presenting learners with long lists (as in the table above) of time phrases to use with past tenses and others to use with the present perfect.  From the list, learners are expected to think something like
"If I am using last week, I must use the past simple"
or
"If I am using since, I must use the present perfect".
That is the wrong way round.
The choice of the appropriate time marker depends on the speaker's perception of time which is represented by the tense structure.
It is not the time marker which determines the tense; it is the speaker's understanding which determines the tense and the tense which determines the appropriate time marker.  To be clear, it does not work like this:

not like this

it works like this:

like this

If that is not understood, it is virtually impossible to teach the form, the meaning or the use.


talking now

The present perfect to talk about the present

You will readily see that sentences such as
    I have been to America
    They have seen the aurora borealis
    We have never seen anything like it
    She has never smiled at me

refer to a time between the speakers' earliest memories and now.
The meanings are indefinite concerning the time and focuses on the event alone.  It is for this reason that the tense is often used to comment on the present or to introduce the topic of a conversation.  Here are some typical examples which do not relate to recentness but use the tense in this aspect of discussing experience or raising a topic:
    Did you know that Mary has left her job and gone travelling?
introducing a topic for discussion – it may be a recent event but that's not the point
    You've been to Paris, haven't you?
possibly a forerunner to some closer questioning about Paris
    I've discovered something about this program
requiring the hearer to say something like Oh, what's that?  Do tell. etc.
    Have you tried the new restaurant in the square?
a forerunner to asking what it's like or telling the hearer what it's like if the answer is 'no'.

It's pretty easy to make up examples of this very common use of the tense but the trick is to set it in context and give people a reason to introduce a topic and that's usually because:


drowning hands

Overwhelming learners

If you have followed up to now, you will know:

  1. the present perfect simple in English embeds the past in the present as an aid to understanding the present
  2. the present perfect progressive refers to an atelic, iterative or long-lasting past event embedded in the present which also helps us to understand the present

and those two concepts are really all that is needed to understand the use of the tenses.

However, quite well meaning and experienced if not well informed practitioners persist in overwhelming learners by inventing ever more complex and refined uses of the tenses in an effort, forlorn, naturally, to help learners use and understand the forms.
Some coursebook writers fall headlong into this trap, too.
You will find, for example out here on the web something like the following seven uses for the present perfect simple including, but not limited to:

It is unfair, unnecessary and counterproductive to teach the tense this way because learners are being asked to acquire seven concepts in which the tense is usable.
That is not needed.


teaching

Teaching the present perfect simple

Here are some suggested contexts in which to teach and practise the form.

Learners make lists of things they have never done, have done, have done only once/twice etc.
They then mingle with other students to see if their lists overlap or not, asking and answering questions in the form.
You can extend this activity to make sure that people ask where? when? etc. in order to be definite and, accordingly, select the past simple.
Learners think about / write about / talk about what they have done using the time markers usually associated with the tense (see above).
Learners invent gossipy stories about each other / teachers etc. and then pass them on to a colleague who in turn embellishes the snippet of scandal and passes it on again.
E.g., Did you know that John has moved in with Mary?  Yes, and she has decided he can't stay much longer.
Learners decide on pieces of information they need to know about now something and then find out who can tell them by asking things like You've been to France, haven't you?  Well, I've been wondering ...
You put up a list of seven things you claim to have done, only three of which you have actually done.  Learners need to ask questions in the past simple to get more detail and try to identify the false experiences.  They then need to ask questions in the present to find out how much you actually know about what you claim to have done (reinforcing the idea of the past embedded in the present).
Then they do it together with their own lists.

There is a lesson on helping elementary learners to understand how to use the present perfect which you can view here in a new tab.


teaching

Teaching the present perfect progressive

Because it is the activity that is emphasised over the achievement or the event, visuals which emphasise present conditions caused by activities are effective.  It is vital to make sure the context is understood.

For example

tired How does he feel?
Tired
Why?
He's been walking all day and is exhausted.
He's been carrying a heavy pack ...
win She has won
or
She has been swimming
She has finished
wet Why's the window wet?
It's been raining
I've been washing them

etc. 
reached How does she feel?
Happy / Tired / Satisfied / Proud
She has been running
She has reached the top

etc.
bored How does she feel?
Tired/Bored/Fed up
Why?
She's been studying/working/revising
etc.
hike What's he been doing?
(walking, hiking, climbing, camping, carrying etc.)
What's he done?
(crossed, found, met etc.)
There is also a need to alert learners to the semantic issues to do with punctual and durative verbs and their uses: whether the meaning is to emphasise duration or refer to repeated actions..
Without this information, learners may mist the iterative nature of punctual verbs used in the progressive forms. 
arrive My friend has been travelling to see me
Now we can talk
Why not: He has been arriving
arrivals People have been arriving all day
The airport is very busy
Why not: People have arrived
flute He has been playing the flute in the band for many years drum He has been banging the drum for hours



Related guides
guide to English tenses for an introductory guide and a clickable diagram of all English tenses
the tenses index for links to all the guides in this area
present time for a guide which considers the present perfect in a relation to other present forms
Other tense forms
present forms for the guide to talking and writing about the present
past forms for consideration of a ways of talking and writing about the past
past perfect for a guide to this area alone
time, tense and aspect for the index to the whole area which considers perfect aspects in more detail