Sunday, January 22, 2012

Present Perfect or Past Simple?

Even at advanced level, students whose native language doesn't have an equivalent can have problems with Present Perfect, and how its use differs from that of Past Simple.
Some aspects of Past Simple are better dealt with together with the other narrative tenses. Here I will only deal those areas where it can be confused with Present Perfect.
So I'll be concentrating here mostly on Present Perfect, as this seems to be where most problems lie, and some aspects of it I think are worth drawing attention to. Hopefully, by doing the exercises you will get a better feel for the differences between the two tenses.

Past and present reference

One way of thinking about the difference in use is to think of the names of the tenses themselves: Past Simple is used for something which is past and finished with, while Present Perfect is used when we are talking about a past event which has some sort of connection with, or effect on, the present.
If I say - I went to Paris last year, I am referring to a specific visit which is finished and done with, when certain things may have happened.
But if I simply say - I've been to Paris, the time is not important. What is important is that I have experienced Paris to some extent. I now know how crowded the Louvre can be; what the view from Montmartre is like, how smart the street cleaning trucks are, and so on.
If I say - I locked myself out of the house yesterday, it sounds as though that's all in the past, and that everything is OK now, and I can get back in.
But if I say - I've locked myself out of the house, it means I still haven't found my keys, with the very real present result that, for the time being at least, I can't get into my house.

The main uses of Present Perfect

To talk about single or repeated events which have or haven't happened:
  • at an unspecified time in the past - the fact that something has happened is more important than when it happened - The human race has come a long way
  • in the (very) recent past - especially with adverbs like just, yet, already etc
  • in the current time period - today, this year etc
  • during our lifetime up until now - especially with words like ever and never.
  • during a specified period up until now - especially with for and since

The main uses of Past Simple

To talk about single or repeated events which happened or didn't happen:
  • at a specified time in the past - yesterday, last year, when he was a child etc
  • about people who are no longer alive or situations which are obviously in the past - Dickens wrote a lot of novels. The Romans built a lot of roads.
  • during a period which is finished - especially with for.

Time reference

When we use Past Simple we usually given a specific past time reference. We sometimes do this with Present Perfect as well, so the first thing we need to do is to sort out what are past time references and what are present time references.
1.two days ago
2.this morning (it is now 11am)
3.this morning (it is now 3pm)
6.last year / month / week the last year / month / week Christmas
9.on my birthday
10.since last year
11.last night
12.when he was a child 2008
14.since 2008
15.five minutes ago the last five minutes
18.once upon a time
20.during the summer (it is now December)

A note on past and current time periods

Expressions like yesterday, last week and the year before are sometimes referred to as past time periods, while today and this week are referred to as current time periods. We usually use Past Simple with past time periods and Present Perfect with present time periods.
But these are flexible. For example, if it's one o'clock and I haven't had lunch yet, I might consider that it's still morning, so I might use Present Perfect and say - I haven't had any coffee this morning, even though technically 'this morning' has finished.
Conversely when I get home, although it's still 'today', I probably consider my working day to be over and I might use Past Simple and say - I had so much work to do today.

So far

We use so far to mean up until now in a period that is not yet finished. It is often used with numbers or amounts, which we could reasonably expect to increase by the end of the given period; or with situations that could change later.
  • We've sold ten contracts so far this week. (and we hope to sell some more)
  • So far today, I've had 50 emails. (and no doubt I'll get more)
  • We've had no replies so far. (but there's still time)
  • How much have you done so far? (I don't expect you to have finished yet)
  • Have you enjoyed it so far? (you might change your mind later)

Last week etc and the last week etc

Careful with time expressions like last week / month / year etc and the last week / month / year etc. They sound similar, but have different meanings and take different tenses:
  • last week - the previous Monday to Sunday (or however you define your week)
    - I read three books last week - Past Simple
  • the last week - the seven days up until and including today
    - I've read four books in the last week. - Present Perfect
The expression the past week has the same meaning as the last week - I've read four books in the past week. Plural expressions such as in the last / past few weeks are also used with Present Perfect.

Exercise 2 - Past simple or Present Perfect? Use the verbs in the box in the correct tense to fill the gaps. Use contractions after pronouns.

make   ·   chat   ·   see   ·   sell   ·   ring   ·   stay
visit   ·   see   ·   drive   ·   go   ·   be   ·   go
1.We to the zoo last Tuesday.
2.The property company six houses this week.
3. Jack in the last hour or so? (you)
4.Yes. I think I him before lunch.
5.So far, the concert really good.
6.Last week I some 3000 kilometres.
7.In the last few years, the company from strength to strength.
8.Your telephone a minute or so ago.
9.I three model airplanes this morning and it isn't even noon yet.
10.We the beach almost every day this summer so far.
11.They with us for Christmas.
12.I to him in the pub a couple of times in the last year or so.

Recent past - things you've done or haven't done recently

We use Present Perfect to talk about things we've done or haven't done recently, usually with some sort of result in the present. We often use these adverbs:

just, already, yet, still, at last

Exercise 3 - Fill the gaps by entering the adverbs in the box. Each one is used twice.

yet   ·   already   ·   still   ·   just   ·   at last
1.I've finished that book you lent me. It was really great.
2.Have you seen that new film . Everyone's talking about it.
3.You haven't answered my question. When is your exam?
4.You don't need to do the washing up; I've done it.
5.She's finished with the computer . I've been waiting for ages.
6.I'm sorry but I haven't spoken to Davis about your project .
7.Well, that's that done. I can go home.
8.I've told you a hundred times. Don't do that to the cat!
9.Your Dad's been on the phone. He wants you to meet him at the station.
10.It's 9am and you haven't got up! Come on, rise and shine.

recently, lately

The adverbs recently and lately have very similar meanings. To my mind, recently is a bit more immediate than lately. And we seem to use lately especially for longer actions - I've been reading a lot of her books lately. Also, I don't think we use lately after a verb in Past Simple, except for the construction - it was only lately that ...)
Note - just, recently
Although recently is usually used with Present Perfect, it can also be used with Past Simple. And the same is true of just, although sometimes the meaning can change slightly.

Exercise 4 - Complete the sentences with the verbs in brackets, in either Present Perfect or Past Simple. Include any other words given in the brackets. use contractions for negatives.

1.I him leaving just as I arrived. (see)
2.Look who into the room. (just / come)
3.I her quite recently at a friend's party. (meet)
4.There a lot about it in the news lately. (be)
5.We much of them recently. (not see)
6.I to him about it just the other day. (speak)
7.He to see us lately. (not be)
8.She at the biscuit factory until fairly recently. (work)

In your lifetime up until now

We often use Present Perfect without specifying a time - Have you seen 'The Rocky Horror Show'? - and when asking how often somebody has done something - How many times has your mother seen 'The Sound of Music'? - meaning during their lifetime up till now. We often use these adverbs:

ever, never, before, often, once etc

Exercise 5 - Paul and Jenny are at a party on a boat on the River Thames in London. Complete their conversation by entering one word in each gap. The answers include not only the adverbs above, but some other words as well.

P: Hello, my name's Paul. Haven't we met , somewhere?
J: I think we , yes. What a noise that helicopter's making.
P: Have you flown in a helicopter?
J: Only . It was a birthday present. How about you?
P: No, . But I have been in a glider. That was fun.
J: Now that is one of those many things I've done. Ever.
P: And how have you flown on commercial flights?
J: Oh, lots of . But only on holiday.
P: And have you had a bad experience when flying?
J: No. At least not , touch wood.
P: have I, thankfully.
J: And have you been on this boat ?
P: Yes, I , in fact. I came to a party here last year.
J: This is my first time. I've been on any of these Thames boats until now.
P: Oh, isn't that Mary Johnson. I've seen her on TV a times.
J: Yes, that's right. Have you seen her show 'Cook it right'?
P: Yes, I have, but not very . I'm usually working then.
J: I think I've probably seen episode. I'm a big fan.
P: I've never actually seen a TV personality in the flesh .
J: Well you have . And she's coming over to speak to us.

Note - never

Note that although we usually use never with Present Perfect, it can also be used with Past Simple - All the time he lived here, he never came to see us once.

Discussing experiences with Present Perfect and Past Simple.

We often use Present Perfect to ask somebody generally about an experience, and then switch to Past Simple when we start talking about specifics.

Exercise 6 - Complete these conversations with the verb given in brackets in Present Perfect or Past Simple. If no verb is given, enter a short answer or question tag. Use contractions in negatives and after pronouns.

Conversation 1
A (you meet) my friend Candy?
B Yes I . We (meet) at a party back in August.
B Oh, I think I (be) at that party, too.
Conversation 2
A Oh, no. I (lose) my car keys.
B Are you sure? When (you see) them last?
A I just remember that I (put) them down somewhere.
B It's OK, I (find) them. Here you are. They (be) on that table over there.
Conversation 3
A You (just come) back from Mexico, you?
B Yes, we (get) back a couple of days ago. It (be) absolutely wonderful.
A Where (you go)?
B We most of the time in the South, near Oaxaca.
A What (you like) most about Mexico?
B It (be) the natural history that us most. We (not be) anywhere with such diversity of flora and fauna before.
Conversation 4
A (you ever visit) the Czech Republic?
B No, but we (go) to Slovakia last year. That's just next door.
A Oh I (never be) in Slovakia. What (be) your holiday like?
B Great. We (stay) most of the time in the High Tatras, it's really beautiful, and the people (be) really friendly. In fact, we (decide) to go back again, next year.

been and gone

In conversations like those above, we often use Present Perfect with been and gone.
  • She's been to Paris
  • He's gone to Paris
Although it is the past participle of be, the word been is sometimes used a bit like the past participles of come and go: come and gone. See if you can remember the difference. The next exercise comes from a post on the verbs come, go, bring and take.

Exercise 7 - Enter been or gone into each gap

1.He's just out to the bank. He should be back soon.
2.Debbie, why haven't you to the bank yet? We desperately need more change.
3.Bungee-jumping! It's definitely a case of ' there, done that, and got the T-shirt'.
4.Martin is away. He has to Paris for a few days.
5.Peter? With him, it's usually a case of here today, tomorrow.
6.Somebody told me you've just in Australia?
7.Where have you ? We've been looking everywhere for you.
8.I'm afraid you've missed Mike. He's already and .
Rule 1 If somebody has somewhere (else), they are not here.
Rule 2 If somebody has somewhere (else), they are not there any longer.
Rule 3 If somebody has here, they were here earlier, but are not here any longer.

A past period up until now

We use Present Perfect to talk about how long a present situation has lasted, or how many times something has happened in a given period. We often use these prepositions:

for, since

  • There hasn't been a school in this village for twenty years now.
  • He's worked here since leaving university.
  • She's been a nurse for all her working life.
  • I've written five reports since lunchtime.
  • How many times have you been to the cinema in the last year?
When stressing how long something has been happening we often use Present Perfect Continuous, but when talking about how often something has happened, we must use Present Perfect Simple
  • I've been writing emails all morning.
  • I've written twenty emails this morning
We also use Present Perfect to talk about change over a given period:
  • This town has changed a lot since I was a boy.
  • Over the last few years, the rich have become much richer.
  • It's got a lot colder in the last few days.
Note - We can also use for with Past Simple (or Past perfect) to talk about finished periods in the past. We can also use since to talk about past periods, but we only use it with Past Perfect. Note that in this case we use Past Simple for the time reference, even though it was before the period we describe with Past Perfect.
  • She lived in France for ten years and then moved to Switzerland.
  • He (had) worked at ACME Computers for ten years before joining us.
  • Ever since he was a boy, he had liked playing with model trains.
  • I bumped into Charles the other day. I hadn't seen him since we were at university together.

Exercise 8 - Where a verb is given, fill the gap with that verb, in either Past Simple or Present Perfect. Don't use any contractions. Where no word is given, fill the gap with for or since.

All my life I (1) (like) playing with model train sets. I think I originally (2) (get) it from my father. Ever (3) he was a boy he had loved building model railways. During my early years I (4) (be) happy to play with my clockwork train (5) hours on end, but as I (6) (grow) older, I switched to electric. And in Britain that (7) (mean) the legendary Hornby 00 gauge trains.
Of course a lot (8) (change) since those days. And (9) the late fifties, Hornby itself (10) (have) a chequered history. Late to adapt to plastics to meet the competition, it (11) (be bought) by its rival Triang and (12) the next eight years Hornby more or less (13) (disappear) from sight, until Triang's owner (14) (go) bankrupt in 1972.
They (15) (have) even more troubles after that, but (16) a management buyout in 1981, Hornby, now known as Hornby Hobbies, (17) (come) back to life. For nearly twenty years now, it (18) (be) a public company, and in the last few years they (19) (even buy) some other famous names in the toy market, such as Corgi Cars and Airfix, who (20) (be) famous (21) a long time for their plastic model airplane kits. In recent years the Hornby company (22) (acquire) some foreign brands as well, and once again (23) (become) a leader in their field.
(24) the 1940s, collectors (25) (take) an interest in older Hornby models, and (26) the last forty years or so, the Hornby Railway Collector's Association (27) (publish) ten journals a year to satisfy their demands. In July 2010 the Hornby Shop And Visitor Centre (28) (open) in Margate, Kent, and ever (29) opening day, (30) (prove) increasingly popular with the public.

Latest News!

News reports about recent events are often in Present Perfect:
  • And here is today's News
  • The EU Commission have announced new measures to help the Euro
  • Unemployment levels have reached a new high
  • There have been heavy snowfalls in Scotland
This use of Present Perfect gives more immediacy to the news item. When they start to talk about the details, they usually switch to a past tense:
  • There have been heavy snowfalls in Scotland. Hundreds of people were stranded in their cars last night as blizzards swept through central Scotland. Several roads were blocked, and the snow also disrupted train services.
We do the same when we give news to other people
  • Have you heard? Dan has resigned.
  • Aunty Sally has bought a new car.
  • I've signed up for evening classes in Italian.
Again, when we go into details, we often change to past tenses, or a mixture of the two if we introduce new information.
  • Have you heard? Dan has resigned. Apparently he handed in his resignation yesterday. It seems that he has been head-hunted by the opposition. They contacted him last week and offered him a job with a rather better package than he gets here. And he went for it like a shot.

Exercise 9 - The rise of the smartphone - Fill the gaps with the verbs given in brackets in the correct form, Past Simple or Present Perfect

Given all the hype, you might be forgiven for thinking that with the iPhone, Apple (1) (introduce) the first smartphone - in other words a phone which also has some of the features of a computer. But in fact smartphones (2) (be) around since the nineties.
The first smartphone (3) (be) probably the IBM Simon, which (4) (go) on sale in 1993 and even (5) (have) a rudimentary touchscreen. In 2000 the Ericsson first (6) (use) the term 'smartphone' in the marketing of their R380, which (7) (be built) on an open operating system - Symbian, which now Nokia (8) (announce) it is dropping in favour of Windows Phone.
In the same year Nokia (9) (release) the 9210 communicator, also with the Symbian o.s. and a colour screen. The later communicators (10) (pioneer) many of the features which (11) (since become) associated with smartphones, including built-in camera, Wi-Fi and GPS. But these phones (12) (be) very expensive, and although the clamshell design with its physical keyboard (13) (be) popular with business executives, to this day it (14) (remain) very much a niche product.
Then (15) (come) the more consumer-orientated Nokia 95 with 3G, and from that time Nokia (16) (lead) the smartphone market, in terms of sales, until it (17) (be eclipsed) by Android in 2011.
But Nokia (18) (not have) the market to themselves. In the early 2000s, Symbian's old rival Palm (19) (bring) out the Treo range, and until very recently Blackberry's email oriented devices (20) (dominate) the world of business mobiles.
When 3G (21) (arrive) in Britain in 2003, the public quickly (22) (take) up the new service, but experts noticed that they (23) (not seem) to be so keen to use the special features that 3G (24) (offer), such as video and internet access.
Since then the smartphone scene (25) (change) completely, of course, with an estimated 40% of adults in the UK now owning one. It (26) (be) undoubtedly the arrival of the iPhone which first (27) (alert) people to the real potential of smartphones, but it (28) (be) the continuing, phenomenal rise of Android that (29) (bring) the smartphone to a wider market today.
And although earlier Windows phone systems (30) (be) not so popular, their latest, Windows Phone, (31) (impress) at least some of the experts. And by ditching Symbian, Nokia (32) (now throw) in their lot with Microsoft.
Meanwhile, the BBC iPlayer (33) (make) watching TV on a computer increasingly popular, and the iPlayer app for mobiles (34) (be) a great success. People reading newspapers or surfing the net on their mobiles (35) (become) a common sight on public transport.
But it's strange to think that the iPhone (36) (only be] with us since 2007, and that Android only (37) (really start) to make inroads in 2010. It has been quite a rollercoaster of a ride.
But perhaps the greatest surprise (38) (be) the rise of the tablet. When Steve Jobs first (39) (announce) the iPad, most of the comments were along the lines of - 'Yes, it's very pretty, but who's going to use it, and what's it for?' And now everyone wants to get in on the act. But nobody - as of January 2012 - (40) (yet manage) to produce that elusive creature - the iPad killer.

OK, that's me done (a grammatical aside)

You might occasionally hear something like:
  • I'm done with the photocopier if you want to use it.
  • When you're all done, you can leave the room.
  • OK, that's me done for the day. I'm away home.
Done here is an adjective meaning finished. So - I'm done - is simply another way of saying - I am finished, which itself is an idiomatic version of the more common Present Perfect I have finished.
There is a (small) school of thought that says this expression is wrong. Their favourite reply is:
  • Cakes are done. People are finished.
In fact this is a perfectly good idiomatic expression, which has been used by Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, amongst others, as well as in the proverb -
  • Man's work lasts till set of sun
    Woman's work is never done
If you're interested, you can read all about I'm done in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage at Google Books
So although it might look like it, it's not a passive. On the other hand, the informal expression - I've been done - is a passive, and means something completely different - I've been tricked, cheated, overcharged etc.
So that's it. I'm done now. I hope you don't feel you've been done.


There are quite detailed explanations with timeline diagrams of both tenses at English Page. They are illustrated with lots of examples and there are also a couple of exercises.


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Unknown said...

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Warsaw Will said...

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Unknown said...

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Warsaw Will said...

Thanks for that Wendell.

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