Easy English Grammar

Perfect Simple and Perfect Continuous: English Grammar for Visual Learners

Perfect simple and perfect continuous: English grammar for visual learners

Let’s take a good look at how the continuous tenses work.

This lesson is about the perfect simple and present continuous.
Click here for the present simple and continuous.
Click here for the past simple and present continuous.


 SimpleContinuous
Future Perfectwill + have + V3will + have + been + -ing
Present Perfecthave + V3have + been + -ing
Past Perfecthad + V3had + been + -ing

The differences between the simple and continuous are very dynamic. This means that changing between them can:

  • Change the feeling of a sentence
  • Change the “implication” of a sentence
  • Change the meaning of a sentence
  • Create sentences that are actually impossible (so kind of wrong)

We’ll look at these one by one, but first I want to take you somewhere…

Imagine yourself in a helicopter. You’re high above the ground and you can see for miles. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Man in a helicopter

Below you is a forest. You’re pretty high off the ground, so you can see the whole forest from here.

Man in a helicopter looking down on a forest

You can see where the forest starts and where the forest ends. From your point of view, the forest is complete.

Now, let’s jump out of the helicopter…

two people skydiving

And land deep in the middle of the forest.

Man in a forest

It’s dark and thick. You have no idea where the forest begins and where it ends.

But that doesn’t matter because you’re really experiencing the forest.

To you, the forest isn’t just a part of the landscape. The forest is EVERYTHING around you.

How is this related to the perfect simple and continuous?

The perfect simple tenses are like being in the helicopter. When you use these tenses, you have a feeling of completeness. It doesn’t necessarily mean the action is finished, but somehow there’s a feeling of completeness there somewhere.

In the same way that you can see the whole forest at once, you can see the whole action at once.

When you’re in the forest, it’s more like the perfect continuous tenses. The action is ongoing and probably incomplete. Even if it’s not specified as incomplete, the feeling is there.

In the same way that you can’t see the end of the forest, you can’t see the end of the action.

As usual, the best way to get a better feel for this is by checking out the details. So let’s look at the differences between the perfect simple and continuous tenses:

When only the feeling changes

Let’s look at a couple of sentences:

I’ve learned a lot this week.

and

I’ve been learning a lot this week.

What’s the difference here?

The answer is: not much.

But there is a small difference:

They “feel” different. One feels more complete and the other more ongoing.

Let’s see how this looks with our forest and helicopter:

Man in a helicopter looking down at "learning"

When we say, “I’ve learned a lot this week,” we see all the learning at once. It doesn’t have to continue.

It’s like saying, “Wow. I know more now. Maybe I’ll learn more this week. Maybe not. But already this is satisfying.”

When we’re in the forest, we really feel that we’re deep in the middle of the learning. There is a feeling that the learning is going to keep going.

Man in a forest surrounded by learning

So when we say, “I’ve been learning a lot this week,” it’s like saying, “Wow. I’m in the middle of learning stuff and I’m going to keep learning more!”

While you’re in the forest, nothing is certain to end. Even learning. And never-ending learning is a good thing, right?

When the implication changes

Sometimes when we use language, we want to suggest something without actually saying it. That’s part of the magic of language and how expert users can really manipulate it. That’s where we get poetry, literature and awful jokes (see this post for some of those).

Let’s look at this sentence:

I will have worked for 40 years in 2020.

This is a perfect simple sentence and not a continuous one. So that means we’re in the helicopter.

Because we’re in the helicopter, and we’re looking down at the action (working for 40 years), we can see where the action started and where it finished.

And that means that there’s a suggestion here:

“When 2020 comes, I’ll be retired. My working days will be finished!”

Happy man in a helicopter

So what about the continuous?

I will have been working for 40 years in 2020.

Unfortunately, now it’s strongly implied that this unhappy worker won’t retire in 2020 — he’s right in the middle of the forest and can’t see the end of it:

Unhappy man in a forest

Remember that this is just an implication. In both of these sentences, the speaker could be the happy retiree or the unhappy guy who doesn’t like his job.

But which tense you use can suggest which guy we’re talking about. And that’s both powerful and kind of fun to play with.

When the meaning completely changes (almost)

How about this one?

I’d just eaten some cake when you called.

and

I’d just been eating some cake when you called.

This time, instead of me telling you, take a look at the picture below. Which sentence do you think matches the picture?

Phone and empty plate

Yep. You guessed it. The simple sentence definitely shows a completed action. (I’d just eaten some cake when you called.)

With the continuous, the implication is that the cake is not finished.

The suggestion is so strong here that the two sentences almost have different meanings.

But remember, nothing is ever certain with this kind of grammar. It changes all the time and different people use it in different ways, but the examples above certainly show the different ways the relationship between tenses can work.

When you just can’t… probably

So, when can’t you use the continuous tenses?

Well, let’s look at these sentences. Which one doesn’t make sense?

I’ll have been achieving a lot by this time next year.

I’ll have achieved a lot by this time next year.

With verbs like “achieve,” “finish” and “start,” there is no forest. Well, actually there is. But it’s tiny. So not really a forest. More a little bit of grass. Which isn’t a forest at all.

That’s because the forest is so small (because these actions are so short), that you would easily be able to see the end:

The forest is too small

The continuous is all about being deep in the process of something. As a result, we can only use it for longer actions.

What’s more, the acts of achieving, starting and finishing are all complete actions.

What else can the forest and helicopter idea offer us? Well, this view of the tenses can also explain one more easily confused grammar problem:

When you also just can’t… because of numbers

There’s another situation when you just can’t use the continuous.

Remember that the continuous is like walking in the middle of a forest? So the main point about the continuous is that it isn’t complete — that there’s probably still more to do.

So what about when we talk about numbers?

I’ve written 10 emails today.

I’ve been writing 10 emails today.

One of these sentences is definitely wrong.

Which one? And why?

That’s a good question, right? That’s why I’m leaving this one for you to answer in the comments section below. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think about this.

27 thoughts on “Perfect Simple and Perfect Continuous: English Grammar for Visual Learners

  1. I think I can explain. Becase of the number, in this example number 10. How can I be writing, be in the middle of process, and at the same time say that I finished writing exactly 10 emails. But maybe I’m wrong. I am Polish and we haven’t gpt so many tenses, our grammar is simple 🙂

    1. Nice one Zbigniew!

      You actually completely nailed the answer (you got it 100% right). If you’re in the middle of a process (in the forest), then you can’t say you’ve done all of them yet. Nice one!

      Though from what I hear, learning Polish is no simple task …. 🙂

      1. I am glad. Thank you. You’re a good teacher.
        Polish is difficult, but only pronunciation and declension 🙂

  2. the wrong answer is i have written 10 emails.coz u may write more than this .u cannot see the end .u r in the middle of forest.

  3. In the perfect simple tense, it means that your done writing emails.. You have a complete view of the forest..
    But in the continuous, you have been writing more than 10 emails.

    1. Thanks for commenting Lupita. I’d say you’re halfway there. It’s true that in the present simple tense you’re done with the emails. So you can count them. But with the continuous, I wouldn’t say any number at all with the sentence. In the forest you don’t know how many there are at all. It’s something you won’t know until it’s all finished… which would mean you’d use the perfect simple.

  4. Of course , the second sentence is wrong and the reason is because at the end of it there’s an expression of time ” today ” which practically closes the action .
    Instead when we use the present perfect continuos and a number like in your sentence is ” 10″ we should use these kind of suffixes ” since” or ” for” ; so your phrase should be formulated in these two possible way : 1) I’ve been writing 10 letters since this morning . 2) I’ve been writing 10 letters for 10 hours.

    1. Hmmm… interesting way of looking at it. I’m not sure I agree. Here’s why.

      With your examples “I’ve been writing 10 letters since this morning,” wouldn’t it make more sense to use the perfect simple: “I’ve written 10 letters since this morning.” Because we have a specific number of letters (10), then this action is clearly closed. Therefore we’re not in the woods. We’re in the helicopter.

      Does that make sense?

  5. Gabriel, thank you for the lesson, it’s great as usual.
    I think variant “I’ve been writing 10 emails today” is wrong, because it sounds like i have been writing 10 emails at the same moment, but it’s not possible physically.

  6. I have been writing10emails this morning doesn’t make sense it seems they have not been completed.It makes sense to say I have been writing e-mails today or I have written 10 emails today.However the time period is not complete so it is possible that I will write more emails before the end of the day.If the action had finished and I will not write more emails today we would use simple past and say I wrote 10 emails today.

    1. Yep. I’d say that’s exactly right, Beth.

      For sure, we can’t really mix specific numbers (10 emails) with the perfect continuous. Like you said, it doesn’t make sense.

      And yes — when the time period isn’t complete, there’s always the possibility to of writing more, whether it’s simple or continuous.

      I really like your final point. The rule book basically says that if the time period is finished, then you have to use past simple and if it isn’t, then you should use the perfect. But sometimes, in the evening after work for example, we feel that the day is already finished. So we can use the past simple with today — like you said. This totally “puts a cap” on the number of emails you’re planning on writing that day.

      So, in short, I agree with EVERYTHING you said! 🙂

  7. Well, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with both sentences. Let me explain. A letter is written or typed document and if you are able to, you can write ten ones simultaneously even by one hand or finger, good for you. But if you are still writing them, they are drafts and professional writer certainly knows the difference and doesn’t say like that if wants one’s payment. The first variant is a report on the work done, an answer.
    The second clause, therefore, is much interesting. It’s also about the result and reward. The speaker is a day labourer. A measure of the work, in this case, is fatigue and this person perfectly sure about that. What s/he really means is: “Enough is enough! Let’s have some fun, shall we?” It’s the question.
    Am I right?

  8. Hi Gabriel,

    I’d like to know if I understand the difference in perfect simple & continuous whether in the present or past tense, so I gave the following sentence 3 different explanations:

    ” Having been saving up for a long time, I’ve finally bought a car lately.”

    If the first part of it is not in Present Participle,

    1. I have been saving up for a long time, and finally I’ve bought….”
    –> Emphasising the ACTION of “saving up” whether or not the speaker is still saving up for whatever reason.

    2. I had been saving up for a long time, and finally I’ve bought…”
    –> We know that the speaker saved up really hard and the action of saving up is completed.

    3. I’ve saved up for a long time, and finally I’ve bought…”
    –> Emphasising the RESULT of saving up, and we also know the action of saving up is completed.

    Another question is:

    A man arrives at a company for an appointment. He says to the receptionist:
    ” I came to see your boss.”
    &
    “I’ve come to see your boss.”

    I read some explanations about the difference but still don’t get it. What differences do those two sentences make to the listener and the speaker?

    English is fun yet challenging to master. But I love it. Thank you for your patience in responding to all my previous comments.

    You Shan

    1. Hi You,

      OK — these are very, very detailed questions — so will be fun to answer!

      I can see that you have an excellent grip on the English language, otherwise you wouldn’t be asking these questions. But it’s worth remembering that once we get this deep into the grammar, the differences become so small that it both doesn’t affect communication at all and the answers will be different depending on who you ask and where they’re from (and sometimes simply what kind of mood they’re in).

      However, having said that, let’s look at the differences! (But, like I said, this level of detail is kind of subjective, so other people might have a slightly different opinion).

      1. Yes! I’d say that using the present perfect continuous emphasises the action more than the result. It also gives us a feeling of how long it took.

      2. Well, usually the past perfect correlates with the past simple (check out my recent post on the past perfect https://www.clarkandmiller.com/finally-understand-how-the-past-perfect-works/ ) So I wouldn’t use it with the present perfect. You might wanna go for something like (I’d been saving up for a long time, and finally I bought …). The tense here doesn’t show a difference between saving up really hard or not. Just how it relates to the past.

      3. Yes!

      As for the “I came to see your boss” and “I’ve come to see your boss” question: It really doesn’t make a difference at all. This is totally down to mood and/or where you’re from. An American is more likely to use the past simple in this situation, but again, she might change it depending on her mood. Sometimes the grammar simply doesn’t make a difference!

      But well done — the fact that you’re asking the kinds of questions that don’t always have an answer mean that you’re getting closer and closer to mastery. Of the world! No just kidding — of English!

      1. Thank you so much for the response. I was thrilled (no exaggeration) when reading point 2! How couldn’t I have noticed that past perfect never correlates with present perfect?! I’ve realised that there ‘s a gap in time between the two events in my original sentence #2, which makes the sentence weird and unlogical I guess? The long-existing big uncertainty about which tenses to use for past events has instantly gone! I’m as happy as larry now 🙂

        As to question #2, I’ve heard an Asian American said that “I’ve come to see your boss” would make the receptionist feel the visitor is someone important, yet “I came to see your boss” indicates that the visitor is just an ordinary one, not the one who will make an important decision on a deal. Or vice versa. I don’t really remember. Although the tone and implication are different in different tenses, I doubt that not every listener would actually sense the difference. I think, instead, how the speaker says it would make the difference which may result in the receptionist’s different reaction.

        I hope the day of mastering English will come soon with your help. Thank you.

  9. Wrong sentences:” I’ve been writing 10 emails today” because the time is unique “today”, it means that the action has end. But it’s wrong. When we use ” writing” is a progressive action. For me, it’ll be: “I’ve been writing emails for hour and hour”

    1. Good work!

      I hadn’t thought of that way of thinking. I’m not sure I agree — isn’t today continuing?

      But your answer is great, so I think you’ve instinctively got the meaning behind the present perfect. That’s because the main problem with the sentence is the number “10.” When you specify a number, you can’t use the present perfect continuous.

      Does that make sense?

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