The present perfect is a commonly used tense, but can cause a great deal of confusion for learners of English! In this guide, we will look at the correct way to use the present perfect tense, provide examples and go over some common mistakes to avoid. Don’t forget to check out the quiz exercises at the end to test your understanding.
The present perfect deals with past actions that are related to the present moment (and may be ongoing). Despite the term ‘present’, we actually use this tense for actions that happened or started in the past. For example, I have lived in London for 5 years.
In American English, the past simple is often used instead of the present perfect (Did you eat breakfast already?). However, in British English, these tenses are not so readily interchangeable (Have you eaten breakfast yet?).
We form the present perfect like this: subject + has/have + past participle (of the verb) – e.g. John has done his homework.
The present perfect can be used to describe an action that has already started (or started recently), and that is yet to be completed. This usage is often combined with the negative form of the verb.
Steve has begun work on his new house renovation, but it’s nowhere near finished.
Steve hasn’t decided what colour to paint the house.
Steve hasn’t even installed the new windows.
2. Action at an unspecified time before now
We can use the present perfect to talk about an action that has happened in the past, but without being exact about when it happened.
No one has ever climbed this great mountain!
No one has even dared to think about how they might climb it.
Jack has attempted to climb many mountains, but won’t tackle this one.
3. Things that change over time
Another use of the present perfect is to describe how things have changed over time.
Sarah’s kids have grown up a lot over the past few years.
They have changed their taste in food, clothes and music.
However, they haven’t started helping with the housework!
4. Something expected but yet to happen
We can also use the present perfect for events we expect to happen in the future, but that have not happened to date. In this situation, we use the negative and often the word ‘yet’.
Julia hasn’t started her dissertation yet.
She hasn’t discussed the topic of her dissertation with the tutor either.
Julia hasn’t even bought the laptop she will need to write it on!
A common use of the present perfect is to talk about accomplishments: things that you have achieved in the past (but that are still relevant to the present moment).
My football team has won every match of the season so far.
The team hasn’t conceded more than one goal in any match.
Our star player has scored in every game.
The present perfect can be used to talk about general experiences that have happened in the past. This is similar to ‘accomplishments’ above, but experiences can also be negative.
My uncle has sailed all over the world on luxury cruise liners.
He has been the captain of many ships.
He has had to navigate through some big storms!
7. Many actions over different times
We can also use the present perfect tense to talk about many instances of an event or action, or many actions that happen over different times in the past.
Susan has had health problems all her life.
Susan has tried to see different specialists to get the right treatment.
Every time Susan has recovered, she has relapsed again.
There can be affirmative (positive), negative, and questioning functions for all of the above uses of the present perfect tense.
To form the present perfect in the affirmative (positive) function, place the present tense form of ‘to have’ after the subject, then use the main verb in the past participle form.
E.g. I have seen it all.
The present tense form of ‘to have’ is ‘have’ for the 1st and 2nd person singular and plural, and the 3rd person plural. But, remember that it is ‘has’ for the 3rd person singular!
For regular verbs, the perfect (past participle) form is created by adding -ed to the end of the word. However, irregular verbs have different endings: e.g. see – seen.
|Affirmative||‘to play’||‘to make’||‘to see’|
|1st person singular||I have played||I have made||I have seen|
|2nd person singular||You have played||You have made||You have seen|
|3rd person singular||He/she/it has played||He/she/it has made||He/she/it has seen|
|1st person plural||We have played||We have made||We have seen|
|2nd person plural||You have played||You have made||You have seen|
|3rd person plural||They have played||They have made||They have seen|
To form the negative function of the present perfect tense, place ‘not’ after ‘to have’.
E.g. Margo has not passed any of her university exams this semester.
|Negative||‘to play’||‘to make’||‘to see’|
|1st person singular||I have not played||I have not made||I have not seen|
|2nd person singular||You have not played||You have not made||You have not seen|
|3rd person singular||He/she/it has not played||He/she/it has not made||He/she/it has not seen|
|1st person plural||We have not played||We have not made||We have not seen|
|2nd person plural||You have not played||You have not made||You have not seen|
|3rd person plural||They have not played||They have not made||They have not seen|
To form the interrogative (questioning) function of the present perfect, simply place ‘to have’ before the subject.
Fact: Li has made plans for dinner tonight.
Question: Has Li made plans for dinner tonight?
|Interrogative||‘to play’||‘to make’||‘to see’|
|1st person singular||Have I played||Have I made||Have I seen|
|2nd person singular||Have you played||Have you made||Have you seen|
|3rd person singular||Has he/she/it played||Has he/she/it made||Has he/she/it seen|
|1st person plural||Have we played||Have we made||Have we seen|
|2nd person plural||Have you played||Have you made||Have you seen|
|3rd person plural||Have you played||Have they made||Have they seen|
The present perfect can be used with words that describe duration or an approximate time period (already/now, before, ever, yet, never etc.). However, using this tense with words that specify exactly when something happened (last year, 2 days ago, in 1979, at 9am etc.) often leads to errors.
This is because the present perfect tense is not normally used with words that express a specific time of completion. One notable exception is with the word ‘since’ – e.g. The company has received 100 calls since 9am on Monday (specific time).
The company has received a call from Mr Jackson on Monday. (incorrect)
The company received a call from Mr Jackson on Monday. (correct)
Haven’t we met at the conference last week? (incorrect)
Didn’t we meet at the conference last week? (correct)
In most cases, it is better to use the past simple when an action was completed at a specific point in the past.
The present perfect tense cannot be used when we are comparing two past events in a sequence. It this situation, it is better to use the past perfect tense.
When I arrived home, my wife has already eaten dinner. (incorrect)
When I arrived home, my wife had already eaten dinner. (correct)
The word ‘since’ is usually used in perfect tenses in English, but ‘for’ is used with all tenses. Remember that we use ‘for’ when talking about a duration or period of time. We use ‘since’ when talking about a specific point in the past.
I have worked as an architect since most of my life. (incorrect)
I have worked as an architect for most of my life. (correct)
This error is more connected with understanding the difference between for/since than with the present perfect tense itself, but it is still worth noting.