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Present Perfect: Two Uses

November 3, 2016

Have you ever tried to explain the present perfect tense?

The present perfect is a common tense in English, but it is one of the tougher ones to learn. First of all, there are two distinct uses. Second of all, one use is similar to the simple past, and the other is very similar to the present perfect progressive (also known as the present perfect continuous).

What’s the best way to present and explain all this to your students? For lower‑level learners, present the two uses on different days. For higher‑level learners, present the two uses at the same time so that they realize why they hear the present perfect used in different contexts. And, of course, give them plenty of examples and practice!

Use #1

Finished Actions

Chart of present perfect use #1

Present Perfect: Two Uses – Grammar & Usage Resources

Use #2

Continuing Actions

Chart of present perfect use #2

Present Perfect: Two Uses – Grammar & Usage Resources

For a direct comparison of these two tenses, see the chart and examples in this post: Present Perfect Vs. Present Perfect Progressive


Overall, your students should be able to easily remember Use #1 by thinking of the “when/no when” rule (when = simple past, no when = present perfect). Use #2 is easy when you teach the present perfect alone, but trickier when you compare it with the present perfect progressive. This post, Present Perfect Vs. Present Perfect Progressive, has charts and tips comparing these two tenses.

Make sure you reinforce that the present perfect (have + p.p.) can be used for a continuing action, not just a completed past action. Students often have trouble remembering this since all other continuous tenses in English use an ‑ing verb. Also, some textbooks only focus on Use #1 and don’t mention the continuing meaning of the present perfect, but it is very common and should be taught.

Note that as a time marker, still has two meanings and uses, so be careful that your students don’t get confused. Still can be used with the present perfect for a finished past action (as in Use #1, above), but it can also be used with the present progressive to emphasize an ongoing action, as in I am still waiting for your call. Students can easily keep these tenses straight by noticing the different sentence patterns (still + have + not + p.p. for the present perfect and be + still + ‑ing verb for the present progressive).

Recently, a subscriber asked about the time marker in and its use with the present perfect tense. In isn’t all that common with this tense (it’s far more common as a simple future time marker), but it is possible, especially with negative sentences. (E.g., I haven’t studied English in two years. / They haven’t heard from her in ages.) If it comes up in your teaching materials or a students asks about it, I would recommend including in in your grammar presentation on the present perfect, but otherwise I would avoid teaching it.


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Comments (11)

Samia (Guest)

Thank you. AVery Useful work

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks, Samia! Glad you find it useful!

Doreen (Guest)

Thank you so much for sharing, Tanya! Yours is by far the clearest and the best explanation! Impressive!
Blessings for a glorious season!

Reply to Comment

Doreen (Guest)

You are most welcome, Tanya! Thank you very much. : )

Kristopher (Guest)

Hi Tanya,

What about the use of present perfect to imply experiential significance?
'I went to Tibet.' vs. 'I have been to Tibet.'


Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Kristopher,

I usually teach the difference between the simple past and the present perfect by pointing out that if the time is known (from the context or directly in the sentence), then the simple past should be used. If the time isn't known, then use the present perfect.

  • I went to Tibet last year.
  • I've been to Tibet.

I haven't come across or thought of using the present perfect to imply experiential significance before, but I agree that there are many nuances to any grammar point. By all means, teach your higher-level learners the finer details, but maybe don't overwhelm your lower-level students with them. :)

Nico (Guest)

Hi, what about the duration form built using: have/has + been + -ing form of main verb ?
Example: I have been studying english for two years now

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Nico,

Great question! I saved the present perfect progressive (have/has + been + -ing verb) for a separate blog post. Find it here:


In that post, I compare the present perfect and present perfect progressive for long, continuing actions. It can be very confusing for students, so I hope you'll find some handy tips in that post. :)

Marcella J.(Teacher)

I would include 'experience' for one of the uses of Pres. Perf. - I have been to Niagara falls many times - is a very different meaning than I went to Niagara Falls yesterday.
Experience is very commonly taught with p.p

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Excellent point, Marcella! Thanks for sharing.

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