Perfect tenses are used to show that an action or state happened, or began to happen, before another time. For the present perfect, this means that the past action happened at any point in time before the present (rather than at a specific time in the past as used by the simple past tense). When used with states, the present perfect is used to show the state began in the past and continued for a specified period to the present. You can download this guide, as well as a number of present perfect grammar activities, in PDF format using the links at the bottom of this page.
How to form the present perfect
Finished actions in the past
If an action (or actions) happened in the past, but the time it happened is unknown, unstated or not important, we use the present perfect. We use this to talk about:
- Life experiences
- Multiple actions that happened before the present
- Recently finished actions
- Past actions that have a present result or consequence
- Changes over time before the present
- With incomplete time words
1. Life experiences
The present perfect is commonly used to talk about life experiences. These are events or actions that happened at some point in a person’s life, but when they happened is not relevant. When we talk about our experiences, we don’t mention the time (if you do mention the time the action or event happened, you must use the past simple):
- I have seen the Mona Lisa.
- She’s learned to speak Mandarin.
- They have moved to London.
Been & gone
We usually use the verb go to talk about visiting places, but while the past participle of go is gone, when talking about travel experiences, we use been to represent the experience. Gone means that a person has left their location and not returned; been means that the person has visited a place and returned (and this trip has therefore become an experience):
- Can I speak to James please? I’m sorry, James is not in the office today; he’s gone to Preston for a business meeting. (James has not returned from Preston)
- Where’s David? He’s gone to the shops to buy some milk. (David has not returned from the shops)
- I’ve been to Paris five times. (this person has visited Paris five times and has returned, so this trip is now an experience)
- They are really adventurous; they have even been to Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. (this trip is one of their experiences)
2. Multiple past actions & events
We can also use the present perfect to say that multiple actions or events have happened some time before the present:
- I have seen Star Wars more than fifty times.
- She has won five Olympic gold medals.
- My parents have eaten in this restaurant many times.
3. Recently finished actions
We can use the present perfect with the adverb just to show that an action finished very recently:
- I’ve just eaten.
- He’s just left.
- They have just landed.
Here, there is no real difference between using the present perfect or simple past. Some sources say that the present perfect is preferred in British English, while the simple past is more common in American English, although you will hear people from both countries using both:
- I just ate.
- He just left.
- They just landed.
4. Result or consequence in the present
If an action or event that happened in the past has a consequence for the present (e.g., it prevents or restricts a present action), we use the present perfect to explain this connection:
- I’ve lost my wallet (so I can’t pay for the taxi).
- Colin has broken his ankle (so he can’t play in the final).
- They’ve missed the plane (so they won’t be arriving on time).
Note: We don’t use the present perfect if the past action has no connection to the present. In that case, we just use the simple past:
- I lost my wallet, but I found it in the kitchen.
- Colin broke his leg, and it took three months to heal.
- They missed the plane, so they arrived late.
5. Changes over time before the present
If you want to describe changes between the past and the present, you can use the present perfect (notice how it’s common to use since as a preposition or subordinating conjunction to say when the change began):
- You’ve grown a lot since the last time I saw you.
- My city has changed a lot since I was a child.
- This government has become more authoritarian since last year.
6. With incomplete time words
An incomplete time is one that connects to the present, i.e., the time is still in progress. Incomplete times include today*, this morning*, this afternoon*, this week, this month, this year, in the last week, in the last month, in the last year. We use the present perfect with these times:
- I have answered five calls today.
- We’ve sold seven cars this month.
- She’s been to Spain three times in the last year.
*These times can also be used with the simple past.
Note: We cannot use the present perfect with completed time words (such as yesterday, last week, last month, last year, in 1999, etc). You must use the simple past with these words:
I have answered five calls yesterday. I answered five calls yesterday. We’ve sold seven cars last month. We sold seven cars last month. She’s been to Spain three times last year. She went to Spain three times last year.
Note: Don’t confuse last (e.g., last week, last month, last year, etc) with in the last (e.g., in the last week, in the last month, in the last year, etc). Last + time refers to completed times in the past and is therefore used with the simple past. In the last + time, on the other hand, means from the present minus the time (for example, today minus seven days for in the last week) and therefore connects to the present, which means we use it with the present perfect:
We sold seven cars in the last month. We have sold seven cars in the last month. She went to Spain three times in the last year. She has been to Spain three times in the last year. I sent over 50 emails in the last hour. I have sent over 50 emails in the last hour.
When and the present perfect tense
When usually refers to a single event that happened at a specific time in the past, and is therefore usually used with the simple past:
- When did they arrive?
- When did England win the World Cup?
- When did you send the report?
However, we can use the present perfect if it is known, anticipated, or possible that the answer to a when question may refer to multiple events in the past. This is very common in job interviews:
- When has Brazil won the World Cup?
- When have you had to meet a deadline?
- When have you solved a problem?
We can also use the present perfect in when questions to be dismissive of, or cast doubt on, another person’s claims, often using the adverb ever:
- Sheffield Wednesday are a massive club. Eh?! When have they had an average attendance of over 30,000 fans in the last 20 years? (This has never happened)
- Helen said she spoke to the Queen. What?! When has Helen ever met the Queen? (It is doubtful that Helen has met the Queen)
- I’ll ask John to help us. When has John ever agreed to help us? (John is not known to help us)
States that continue to the present
A state is a situation or condition that exists at a particular point in time. Common state or stative verbs include be, have (for possession), want, like, love, prefer, know and believe. These are not actions. We use the present perfect to show that a state began in the past and continues to the present. If we are using the present perfect, we usually say for how long the state has existed using the prepositions for or since.
Use for with periods of time (e.g., for two hours, for several weeks, for seven years):
- I’ve known him for two years.
- We have had this car for six weeks.
- I’ve been into techno for ages.
Use since with specified times in the past (e.g., since last week, since 1999, since we last met):
- I haven’t had this much fun since the summer of ‘69.
- She hasn’t lived here since March last year.
- The kids have not believed in the tooth fairy since they caught their dad putting money under their pillows. (here, since is used as a subordinating conjunction to create a time clause)
Note: While it is possible under certain circumstances, if you don’t mention the duration of the state, and the state still exists in the present, we would usually just use the simple present:
They have believed in some crazy things. They believe in some crazy things. I have known John. I know John. We have liked the new TV series. We like the new TV series.
Click on the links below to download a PDF version of this page as well as a number of present perfect activities: