When to Use the Present Perfect Tense
  • 5-minute read
  • 23rd June 2023

When to Use the Present Perfect Tense

Most English language learners have issues with English verb tenses. The present perfect tense is no exception! We hope this guide will help you use the present perfect more confidently.

What Is the Present Perfect?

The present perfect is one of the perfect tenses. It serves as a bridge between the past and the present. Here’s how to form the present perfect in English:

Subject + have/has + past participle of main verb

For example:

I (subject) + have + been (past participle)

She (subject) + has + eaten (past participle)


When Do We Use the Present Perfect?

Actions During Ongoing Periods

Learners often mistakenly use the past tense when they should be using the present perfect. Take the following example:

I lived in America for five years.

This sentence suggests that the speaker was living in America for five years but isn’t anymore. Now, let’s use the present perfect tense:

I have lived in America for five years.

The meaning here has changed. Now the verb phrase indicates that the speaker was living in America for five years and still is. In other words, the action extends into the past and continues into the present.

When writing or speaking about an experience that has not ended, you should use the present perfect tense.

This rule also applies when the action is finished but the period is not:

I have been to the grocery store twice this week.

The speaker may have completed their two trips to the store, but since they’re referring to a period that is still ongoing (this week), they’ve used the present perfect.

Unknown Time of Experience

Another use of the present perfect is to refer to an experience that happened at an unspecified time:

Harold has been to Japan

If we use the past tense, Harold went to Japan, we have to clarify the meaning with a specified time, something like Harold went to Japan last year. But when we want to be more general and state that someone has completed an action at some unspecified point in the past, we use the present perfect.


Recently Completed Action

The present perfect can describe an action completed in the very recent past:

We have just baked a cake.

Here, just is an adverb indicating that the action happened recently, and it’s important to know that you can only use just between the auxiliary verb, have, and the main verb, baked.

Repeated Action in an Unspecified Period

Finally, the present perfect can describe a repeated action in an unspecified period between the past and the present:

They have seen the movie Casino three times.

Here, we don’t know when the three times occurred, so we use the present perfect instead of the past tense.

Difficulties With the Present Perfect

The present perfect uses have or has as an auxiliary verb. Because of this extra helping verb, students often cannot identify the main verb in a sentence. Students are accustomed to using have/has as a possessive verb. For example:

Louis has two brothers.

Students need to be familiar with have/has functioning as a helping verb for the main verb. Of course, some students question the need for the extra have/has verb. To illustrate, let’s consider this example:

Jerry has worked for Kanta for eight years.

We can see that Jerry has worked at his company for eight years and will continue to work there.

If we removed the auxiliary verb has from the sentence, the meaning would be different, indicating that Jerry worked for Kanta for eight years but is not working there anymore. So we must keep the auxiliary verb to retain the meaning.

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Some students also have difficulty with the difference between have and has. The simplest answer is that the correct choice depends on the subject pronoun. Here are the basic conjugations:

I + have

You + have

He/She/It + has

We + have

They + have

Present Perfect or Simple Past?

Naturally, students want to know when to use the present perfect instead of the simple past. We’ll provide a breakdown of when to use each.

Use the present perfect to:

●  Describe experiences that start in the past and continue into the present

●  Describe events/actions from a period that has not ended

●  Describe repeated actions from an unspecified period

●  Give recent news

Use the simple past to:

●  Describe completed actions from a time period that has ended

●  Give older news

●  Describe actions that interrupt an ongoing action in the past


Let’s recap what we’ve covered:

●  The present perfect links the past with the present.

●  It mainly describes events in the past that occurred at an unknown time.

●  The action indicated in the present perfect has not ended.

●  The present perfect can describe actions or events that occurred within an ongoing period.

●  It uses the auxiliary verb have or has with the main verb.

●  The auxiliary verb often confuses students.

●  We cannot use the present perfect and the simple past interchangeably.

We understand that you may be working on an essay, a paper, or a business document that requires the present perfect. That’s why we always recommend proofreading the document once you’ve written it. This process will help detect typos, extra spacing, and grammatical errors. A second pair of eyes always helps, so we recommend that you ask our proofreading experts to review your document. They’ll check for grammatical errors, ensure perfect spelling, and offer suggestions to improve your writing – and of course, they’ll make sure you’ve used the present perfect correctly. You can even submit a 500-word document for free!

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