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English grammar guide: understanding the present perfect

Is this the most troublesome tense for you? Do you find it hard to work out when and how to use it correctly? Learn the three grammatical reasons for its use and its function will become clear.

There are many ways to understand grammar. Obviously the best way is to understand it instinctively as a native speaker does. Natives don’t have to think about rules. They just understand without trying. Learners can only hope that repeated exposure to a second language will give them something like native understanding. And to be honest, many people surpass native speakers.

English grammar guides (Present perfect tense blog post)

However, for some, the present perfect in English continues to elude them. In fact, a professor once said to me that without the present perfect, English teachers wouldn’t have a job. So, if you still find this tense troublesome, it might be worthwhile learning about the three grammatical reasons for using the present perfect. These are not often taught but they cover all of the functions that we usually think of with this tense, such as experience, recent actions and continuing situations. So, here goes.

1. The indefinite past

When we speak about the past without the time being fixed or clear, we use the present perfect rather than the past simple. Compare:

I’ve been to Paris. (present perfect)

I went to Paris when I was nineteen. (past simple)

The first sentence gives no information about time. It could have been last week or twenty years ago. In the second sentence, the time is definite and clear (note, however, that in real life, the time is not always mentioned in the sentence but will usually be clear from the context of the conversation).

Indefinite past uses of the present perfect include experience (I’ve read Harry Potter) and past action with a present result (I’ve lost my keys.)

2. Unfinished situations or actions


I’ve lived in London for ten years. (I still live there)

I lived in London for ten years. (I no longer live there)

3. Unfinished time


I’ve had two cups of coffee this morning. (It’s still morning.)

I had two cups of coffee this morning. (It’s now afternoon or evening)

Try matching any examples of the present perfect you come across to one of these grammatical reasons for using it and, hopefully, it will start to become clearer.


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