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:
You probably noticed that they use the present perfect, right? But why?
What’s the present perfect? Click here. have / has + verb 3 e.g. I have been to Indonesia. She has lived in this house for 10 years.
The Present Perfect Tense
have / has + verb 3
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”:
And here we are having a conversation in the present:
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:
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?
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:
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:
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.
We use the present perfect when…
…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).
…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?
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.
“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.
…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?
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:
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.
Try some of these questions with a friend right now!
- Have you ever been on TV?
- Have you ever travelled without paying for the ticket?
- Have you ever cooked for more than 20 people?
- Have you ever cheated on an exam?
- Have you ever dreamed in English?