Easy English Grammar

One simple hack to master the present perfect

One simple hack to master the present perfect

Today, I’d like to talk about a special tense in English. A lot of people have problems learning it because it either doesn’t exist in other languages, or the rules are completely different in English.

I love this tense. It’s like having one foot in the present and one foot in the past at the same time. And it’s really not so difficult to understand.

Also, once you’re comfortable with it you’ll sound more natural and you’ll enjoy using it when you speak English.

So I’m going to show you how!

OK. Take a look at this conversation:

present perfect dialogue

You probably noticed that they use the present perfect, right? But why?

What’s the present perfect? Click here.

The Present Perfect Tense

have / has + verb 3

e.g.

I have been to Indonesia.

She has lived in this house for 10 years.

We’ll check these sentences later. But first, here’s a little secret about the present perfect: It might look like a lot of different rules, but it’s actually quite simple.

There are three rules and one principle.

Here’s what they are …

The big picture

Here is “the road of time”:

the road of time

And here we are having a conversation in the present:

people having a conversation

In most languages, this is what happens:

Two people are talking about the past. They can talk about things that happened in the past without using any time phrases (e.g. “yesterday,” “2 hours ago,” “when I was in the circus”). That’s because these events are points on the road of time, so they can just look back and see them.

But in English, there’s a big wall in the middle of the road:

the road of time with a wall

What does this mean?

In English, we can’t see into the past. So when one of us is talking about the past, the other person needs to know when it happened.

OK. What’s the problem in this conversation?

conversation on the road of time

This just sounds strange (and not because of the dolphin). Jack and Brian are uncomfortable  because they don’t know when he lost his dolphin. The wall is blocking their view of the past.

So he has to tell them:

conversation on the road of time

See! Jack and Brian are much more relaxed now.

That’s why we generally use the past tense with time phrases. Let’s keep Jack and Brian happy.

But what about the present perfect? Well, fortunately, we have a door in the wall:

door in a wall

When the door is open, we can see into the past and we don’t need to use a time phrase.

So what can open the door? Three things: Time, Effect and Action.

wall with open door

We use the present perfect when…

1. TIME

…we say a time that started in the past, and is continuing now.

Here are a few examples:

● Have you seen Ali today?
● I haven’t eaten this morning.
● We’ve seen 9 dolphins this week, and none of them were polite at all.

Interesting extra thing: When we use the classic “Have you ever …?” question (more on this later), we actually mean “Have you ever … in your life?” This is a time that hasn’t finished (because you’re still alive. Hopefully).

2. EFFECT

…the effect of an action in the past is still important now.

Here are a few examples:

● Oh my God! You’ve changed your hair!
● He hasn’t noticed my new tie.
● Has that singer broken all the windows?

conversation on the road of time

Interesting extra thing: “Just,” “yet” and “already”  belong to the EFFECT category.

What do “just,” “yet” and “already” mean? Click here

Yet” is for negative sentences and questions. It means that something hasn’t happened but we expect it to happen.

e.g. I’m 72 and I haven’t retired yet.

Just” means something happened a very short time ago.

e.g. I’ve just finished work. Let’s meet up!

Already” means something happened sooner than expected.

e.g. She’s 12 years old and she’s already started university.

3. ACTION

…the action started in the past and is continuing now.

Here are a few examples:

● I haven’t eaten since breakfast.
● She has only lived here for a week.
● We’ve looked at this painting for hours. I still don’t know what it is.

Interesting extra thing: With this use of the present perfect, we have to add “since” + the time that the action started, or “for” + the length of the action until now.

One little detail

For most learners, the first time we meet the present perfect is the classic “Have you ever …?” question. Click here for some examples.

Have you ever eaten sushi?

Have you ever been to America?

Have you ever swum for more than 2 hours?

These are useful and fun. Here’s how it works in a conversation:

the present perfect flow chart

So what’s happening here?

1. Nathaniel asks the “Have you ever …?” question.

2. Venus replies in the positive (“Yes, I have.”)

3. Now Nathaniel wants to find out more details. This is when the conversation switches to the past simple.

The present perfect question was about general experience (ever = in your life). There’s no specific time, so the door is open and we use the present perfect.

But when Venus says, “Yes, I have”, they’re now talking about a specific point in time (the time Venus fired a gun). The door is now closed, and we use the past simple.

Action Plan!

Try some of these questions with a friend right now!

  1. Have you ever been on TV?
  2. Have you ever travelled without paying for the ticket?
  3. Have you ever cooked for more than 20 people?
  4. Have you ever cheated on an exam?
  5. Have you ever dreamed in English?

17 thoughts on “One simple hack to master the present perfect

  1. Thank you for this interesting material.
    Can you explain the difference between two expressions:
    “Have you seen Ali today?”
    “Did you see Ali today?”
    Which one is more correct?

    1. Hi Vladimir. Glad you like it!

      “Have you seen Ali today?” is technically correct because we’re using an unfinished time phrase (“today”).
      “Did you see Ali today?” is technically incorrect for the same reason.

      HOWEVER — we break the rules all the time and most native speakers won’t even consider these sentences that different. Especially at the end of the day, when we can argue that the day’s finished.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Great ! Your explanation is aparenly clear. Anybody can understand what the Present Perfect is like and the Way it is used.Thanks a lot!

    1. Thanks Gnanedra. I’m glad you found it useful (and that you understood it clearly). Like I said, I love the present perfect and once you understand the logic to it, it’s kind of easy to understand! Keep up the good work!

  3. Howdy! I could have sworn I�ve visited this web site before but after browsing
    through many off the posts I realized it�s new to me.

    Anyways, I�m certainly haplpy I came afross it
    and I�ll be book-marking it and checking back often!

  4. Well, further explanation exists (don’t they always) and here it is.

    Life is hideously unfair etc and we are not perfect, but it’s good to be alive and not to bury anyone. That’s why we ask:
    “How many books has Stephen Fry written?”, but
    “How many books did Roald Dahl write?”

    Another from ‘The Great Game’:
    SHERLOCK: … Past tense, did you notice?
    JOHN: Sorry, what?
    S: I referred to her husband in the past tense. She joined in. Bit premature — they’ve only just found the car.
    J: You think she murdered her husband?
    S: Definitely not. That’s not a mistake a murderer would make.

    An absolute killer example for my liking or it’s just perfect.
    In any case, thank you — your blog is perfect.

    1. Oh yeah — the dead/alive thing is a great way of illustrating how the present perfect is about some sort of continuation.

      Also — that Sherlock spiel illustrates it so well.

      There was also a scene in “Lost” where two characters play a game called “I never…” They basically said something like “I never wore pink” or something like that and the other had to guess whether it was true or not.

      The interesting thing here, of course, is the fact that they use the past simple. Is that because on the island they feel that their “previous” lives are closed off to them … in the past? Or is it just that they’re American?

      1. Technically they’re speaking like the zombies or the walking dead in the afterlife, but they are just doomed, it seems to me. I haven’t seen ‘Lost’ yet.

  5. I really wish you would do a past perfect article because I also don’t understand it very much and it is so easy and clear when you say it your way so please do a past perfect one

  6. This is the best than all those grammar books and grammar webs explanations I had read. You are a great teacher, not all smart professors are good with explanations. Good Job sir. I really need to enhance my grammar, thanks to this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.