We’ve already looked at the three main tenses in English: the past, the present, and the future. Or two tenses, if you don’t consider the future a tense. But in addition to tense, there’s another element to referring to time in English, and that’s aspect. There are three different aspects in English, each of which can be combined with a tense (and sometimes another aspect), and they are: simple, continuous, and perfect.
I’ve already covered simple and continuous in writing about tenses, and they’re fairly straightforward (I go, or I’m going), but the perfect aspect is a little trickier. Before getting into the details, have a look at the following pairs of sentences:
- I lived there for ten years.
- I’ve lived here for five years.
- I lost my keys on the way to work, but luckily I noticed at lunchtime and went back and got them.
- I’ve lost my keys: I can’t get into my house!
- I did my homework soon after I arrived home.
- I’ve done my homework: can I go outside and play?
- Princess Diana died in 1997.
- Ten people have died in a bomb attack in Syria.
- I’ve been to France many times.
- I first went there in 1998.
Each of these pairs contains one past-simple sentence, and one present-perfect simple sentence. You might think two things are strange: first, to contrast a past tense with a present tense in order to illustrate the meaning of the latter. And second, that a sentence like I’ve been to France many times is in a present tense. All should become clear though.
The first pair gives you a sense of the basic differences between the past simple and the present perfect simple. When teaching, we often analyse these two tenses together as they’re quite similar, and students often mistakenly use one instead of the other. In this first pair, the first sentence clearly refers to a finished, past state, while the second sentence refers to one still happening. I moved here five years ago, and I still live here now. And though there are a few ways to use the present perfect simple, all involve connecting the present with the past in some way. Referring to a state beginning in the past and continuing into the present and beyond is the simplest representation of this.
The second pair is similar. Even though here the action (losing the keys) definitely happened in the past, there is still a result in the present: not being able to get into the house. You can see that in the third pair too: the homework was finished earlier, but that has a bearing on the present possibility of getting to go outside. Also of note here is the structure of the tense. After the subject, we use have (or has, for the third-person singular) as an auxiliary verb, before the main verb of the sentence. The main verb is in its past participle form. This term is confusing, as it does not simply mean the form of the verb used in past tenses. With regular verbs, the past simple and past participle forms are identical, formed by adding -(e)d to the verb, as in examples 1, 2, and 4. But notice that the past simple form of the verb to do is did, and the past participle is done. Other similar cases are go/went/gone and sing/sang/sung. Other irregular verbs have identical past simple and past participle forms, but which don’t use -(e)d, such as buy/bought/bought, or put/put/put.
We see the contrast between two past events again in example 4. One happened a long time ago and has no direct link to the present. The other happened recently and is still relevant as a subject of discussion. The news is a great source to notice how we use the present perfect to make things feel more immediate and relevant. It would be possible to say Ten people died today in a bomb attack in Syria, but this would feel more distant and less important.
In the final pair, we see where the present perfect simple gets most confusing for both students and teachers. This use of the tense was tricky for me when I encountered it as a new teacher, and had to ask a more experienced colleague for illumination. Why do we use the present perfect simple when we’re talking about going to France in the past, and we’re not there now? Where’s the link to the present? It’s not obvious, but it’s there. Looking at the first sentence in isolation, we’re saying that we went to France some time in the past, but we’re not saying when we went, and that’s the crucial factor. If I went to France in the past, but I don’t say when, then the earliest possible time I could have gone, for the person I’m talking to, was right after I was born. And the latest possible time, assuming I have access to instantaneous travel, is right before I started talking to them. So even though the action is clearly finished, the time period in which happened (i.e. my whole life) clearly hasn’t finished, and that’s the link to the present.
This is confusing even for native speakers. When I was training to be a teacher and first learned about the present perfect and past simple, my classmates and I began to doubt how we’d always used both, particularly in cases like this, where we felt we had to use the past simple because we were referring to a finished action. This is the problem with analysing your own language: you start to second guess everything you’d assumed you were using correctly in the past (though sometimes that’s helpful as we do make mistakes).
Note also how we give more detail about our trips to Paris in the second sentence, and switch to the past simple. We use the present perfect when referring to life experiences, without specifying when they happened. But if we say when something happened, then we fix it at a point in the past, and have to use the past simple. This is something we do all time without thinking about it, e.g. I’ve already seen this movie. I saw it last week with my brother.
Issues for Learners
Not having an equivalent structure in their own language: This is the main problem learners have with the tense, and the cause of the most of their other problems. Many languages simply don’t have the perfect aspect, instead using simple past or present tenses where we use the present perfect. Speakers of other languages might say the equivalent of I went to France many times, or I live here for 5 years. These might lack the precision of the present perfect, but the meaning is still clear. Imagine first learning about the present and past simple in English, comparing them to similar tenses in your native tongue, then encountering a tense which English speakers use for cases when you use your equivalent of the past or present simple. For this reason many people never really figure out how to use the present perfect, and use the present simple and past simple instead. Things are especially confusing for French speakers, whose passé compose tense has an identical structure to English’s present perfect simple, but generally corresponds in meaning to the past simple.
Forgetting to use has instead of have: A simple one that’s part of the general trend of learners forgetting the only conjugation in English: the third-person singular.
The structure: It feels long and unwieldy compared to the past and present simple. You have to remember to use have, then whether or not it should be has, then what the past-participle form of your verb is, and whether or not it’s irregular, in addition to the rest of the sentence.
The variety of ways to use it: look back at the examples and notice how different they all are: ongoing states, past life experiences, past actions with present relevance in both the near and distant past. They’re all quite distinct from each other, and there’s no obvious reason we use the same structure for sentences with very different meanings such as He’s been to France, and He’s gone to France. It’s easy to say there’s always a link between the past and the present, but we can see that that link’s not always obvious.
This is one of the trickiest things to learn in English, and many people never really get the hang of it. It’s worth listening the speech of any non-native speakers you know to see if they avoid using it, or if they’ve got a good handle on it (for which you should praise them). Even for native speakers, it can be tricky to figure out. We might recognise when we use it, but still be puzzled as to why (I’m not in France now!). If you’ve got a good sense of how to use the present perfect simple, you’re on your way to reaching a good understanding of how English works.
Tomorrow, I’ll have a brief look at the perfect aspect in other tenses.