What is the Present Perfect tense and how to use it?

The present perfect is a useful and common grammar structure in English.  However, the situations in which to use it are fairly specific, and can be confusing to English learners.  In this blog post we will learn how to use the basic present perfect tense, and how to avoid making mistakes with it.

Key Point: Use the present perfect to emphasize an action, but not specifically when it happened.  Never include time words in a present perfect sentence.

 

Present Perfect Structure:

Subject + [have/has] + verb past participle + object

 

Tip! So what is a “verb past participle?”  That’s typically the third verb tense form that English learners study.  For example, in “see, saw, seen,” the past participle is “seen.”

There are five situations in which native English speakers typically use the present perfect.  Let’s take a look at each.

 

Experience

When you want to speak about a past experience or ask about someone else’s past experience, the present perfect is, well, perfect!  Use a present perfect sentence to introduce the experience.  However, be sure not to say when the experience happened in a present perfect sentence.  For example:

  • “I have visited New York.”
  • “I have never eaten sushi.”
  • “Have you seen this new movie yet?”
  • “No, I haven’t.”
  • Incorrect: “I have visited Tokyo in 2010.” (Don’t include past time words in present perfect sentences.
  • Correct: “I have visited Tokyo. I went there in 2010.”

Unfinished States & Actions (with “for” & “since”)

An “unfinished state or action” is a situation that started in the past and continue to the present moment.  This can be used to describe a state or action that will end very soon, or that is likely to continue into the future.  With the present perfect we are not concerned with the future of the state or action.  Instead, we just care that it started in the past and is still happening at the moment of speaking.

This grammar pattern also makes use of the time words “for” and “since” to describe how long the state or action happened.  Check out our blog post on for and since for more details!

Examples:

  • “I have lived here for 10 years.”
  • “We have been friends since childhood.”
  • “I have worked at this company for many years, but I will change jobs next months.”
  • “How long have you played piano?”
  • “I have played piano since middle school.” / “Since middle school.”
  • Incorrect: “I have lived here for 10 years when I was younger.” (the “living” must be also happening at the moment of speaking)

Recently Completed Actions (with “just”)

When you want to introduce an action that you completed very recently, use the present perfect!  This is great for bragging about your accomplishments, but it has lots of other uses too.  Be sure to include “just” between have/has and the verb past participle.

[Subject] + [have/has] + just + [verb past participle] + [object]

 

It is important to note that the action must have finished relatively recently, but the period of time is relative to the action itself.  “Recently” for college graduation may be a few months ago.  “Recently” for waking up in the morning should be within a few minutes.

Examples:

  • “I have just finished eating dinner.”
  • “She has just graduated from college. Now she’s looking for a job.”
  • “It has just stopped raining. Let’s go outside!”
  • “Have you just woken up? You look sleepy.”
  • “I’ve just finished work and I’m on my way home.”

Unexpected Situations

Here is an exception to the rule that present perfect sentences should never include time words.  When you want to describe something that happened an unusual number of times recently or an unexpected situation, use the present perfect with an unfinished time phrase.

So what is an unfinished time phrase?  This means words that describe a period of time that is not finished yet.  For example, “today,” “this week,” “this year,” “lately,” “these days.”

Examples:

  • “I have eaten pizza three times this week.” (that’s a lot of pizza in one week!)
  • “John must be sick. I haven’t seen him today.” (it’s unusual that John is not here)
  • “I haven’t eaten lunch today.” (it’s not typical that I skip lunch)
  • “She hasn’t visited us in years.” (it’s strange that she hasn’t visited for such a long time)
  • “Bill has taken seven vacations this year.” (this is an unusually high number of vacations)
  • Incorrect: “Bill has taken seven vacations last year.” (“last year” is a finished time phrase – it doesn’t connect to the present moment)

Result of a Past Action

Use the present perfect to describe something that happened in the past that has a direct result in the present moment.  Sound confusing?  Imagine this situation: You arrive home and reach in your pocket for your keys.  But the keys aren’t there.  You check all your pockets and can’t find the keys.  In this case you would say, “I have lost my keys!”

In the example, “losing the keys” isn’t an action that began in the past and continues to the present moment.  It started and finished in the past.  However, the effects of this action are important in the present moment: you can’t enter your house!

Native speakers often use this pattern to offer an explanation for a present situation.  Like with “Recently Completed Actions,” all the situations described by the present perfect here happened relatively recently.  For example:

  • “I have lost my keys! Now I’m locked out of my house.”
  • “I have eaten too much. I should start a diet.”
  • “I’ve lost my homework. Can I submit it tomorrow?”
  • “I’ve had a bad cold, but I’m better now.”
  • “I’ve made a big mistake. What should I do?”
  • “I’ve bought a new car. Let’s go for a ride!”

Note: This pattern is much more common in British English.  Americans use it occasionally, but often use the simple past instead.