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Concourse 2

The present perfect

time

The distinction in English between the simple and perfect forms of all tenses is the key to understanding how English conceptualises time.
If you haven't followed the introductory guide to English tenses yet, please consider doing so now.


differ

languages differ

Many languages have verbs forms selected to represent the speaker's view of time – that is what tenses do.  However, they differ in terms of what they see as the important distinctions.
Some languages, such as Mandarin, have no changes to verbs to signify time at all, relying on adverbials, particles and the context to signal time concepts.  It is perfectly possible to be understood (at least on a basic level) and use no tense forms at all.  So:
    I go tomorrow
    I come yesterday
    I always do this
    I arrive recently
    I finish work at 6 last week

are all perfectly comprehensible even if they need a little interpretation from the listener.
Briefly, many languages do not distinguish between the present perfect and the simple past in the way that English does although they may have very similar forms.  (German, for example, can form a sentence like Ich habe es gemacht (roughly translatable as I have done it) but this does not necessarily signify present relevance and could be translated as I did it.)


form

forms

The simple form of the present perfect is not too difficult to grasp or to teach.  It works like this:

  Form Examples
Affirmative subject + auxiliary + main verb (past participle) [+ object if needed] She has broken the glass
Mary has asked him
noun / pronoun have / has broken, smoked, came etc. noun / pronoun
Negative subject + negative auxiliary + main verb (past participle) [+ object if needed] I haven't been to London
The weather hasn't been warm
noun / pronoun have not / has not broken, smoked, came etc. noun / pronoun
Interrogatives auxiliary + subject + main verb (past participle) [+ object if needed] Have you seen my wallet?
Has the pub opened?
have / has noun / pronoun broken, smoked, came etc. noun / pronoun
negative auxiliary subject + main verb (past participle) [+ object if needed] Haven't you finished it?
Hasn't the weather been lovely?
have not / has not noun / pronoun broken, smoked, came etc. noun / pronoun

The continuous or progressive form of the present perfect is slightly more complex.  It works like this:

  Form Examples
Affirmative subject + auxiliary + been + main verb (-ing form) [+ object if needed] She has been mending the glass
Mary has been asking him
noun / pronoun have / has breaking, smoking, coming etc. noun / pronoun
Negative subject + negative auxiliary + main verb (-ing form) [+ object if needed] I haven't been travelling to London
Hasn't been raining
noun / pronoun have not / has not breaking, smoking, coming etc. noun / pronoun
Interrogatives auxiliary + subject + main verb (-ing form) [+ object if needed] Have you been running?
Has the pipe been leaking?
have / has noun / pronoun breaking, smoking, coming etc. noun / pronoun
negative auxiliary subject + main verb (-ing form) [+ object if needed] Haven't you been working hard?
Hasn't the rain been falling heavily?
have not / has not noun / pronoun breaking, smoking, coming etc. noun / pronoun

It is not the form of the tense that is difficult to learn.  It is the concept that is harder to grasp.


time concepts

conceptualising time

The present perfect is a relative tense.  We use it to consider one state, event or action in relation to another.
Fundamentally, the tense is a present tense, not a past tense, because it refers to the present in relation to the past.  This is what is meant:

Example Concept and meaning
I have spent all my money Spending money is clearly in the past but the reference is to having no money now.
He hasn't finished yet The fact is important to now because he must continue to work.
He has been running and is all sweaty The running was a progressive action in the past but mentioning it explains the present.
I haven't been paying attention, I'm afraid My lack of attention is a continuous state in the past but it explains why I do not understand now.
Have you seen the paper? I am referring to up to now because I want the paper now.

One way to understand the concept the present perfect in English indicates is to contrast it with the past simple.
The past simple is an absolute tense, not a relative one, and refers to a finished event or action which may or may not have any relation to the present.  For example:

Example Concept and meaning
I spent all my money This just refers to something finished.  It does not necessarily imply anything about the present.
He finished at six Compare this to the use above with yet.  The time expression at six clearly fixes the event in time but yet is open ended.  This does not mean that the time expression controls tense use.  It is the other way around: the tense meaning permits some time references and not others.
He ran for the bus. The running was a progressive action in the past but says nothing about the present.
I didn't pay attention, I'm afraid There's no reason why this matters at all now.  It explains nothing.
Did you see the paper? I am interested in what you saw, not where the paper is now.

think read Now, as a test, can you complete this table?  Click on the table when you have filled in all the blank cells in your head.

Compare these examples and see if you can figure out whether:

  1. the action took place at a particular point in time
  2. the action continued over a period of time
  3. the action continued up to the present
  4. the action has some obvious present significance

Fill in the grid (you can tick one or more boxes).  You can do this in your head or on paper.  Click on the table when you have an answer.

present perfect and simple past

Compare these and note the difference in meaning:

  1. Jo lived almost all her life in India
  2. Jo has lived almost all her life in India

When you have noticed two differences in meaning, click here.

talking now

the present perfect to talk about the present

You will readily see that sentences such as
    I have been to America
    They have seen the aurora borealis
    We have never seen anything like it
    She has never smiled at me

refer to a time between the speakers' earliest memories and now.
These examples refer to a time between the speakers' earliest memories and now.  It is indefinite concerning the time and focuses on the event alone.  It is for this reason that the tense is often used to comment on the present or to introduce the topic of a conversation.  Here are some typical examples which do not relate to recentness but use the tense in this aspect of discussing experience or raising a topic:
    Did you know that Mary has left her job and gone travelling?
introducing a topic for discussion – it may be a recent event but that's not the point
    You've been to Paris, haven't you?
possibly a forerunner to some closer questioning about Paris
    I've discovered something about this program
requiring the hearer to say something like Oh, what's that?  Do tell. etc.
    Have you tried the new restaurant in the square?
a forerunner to asking what it's like or telling the hearer what it's like if the answer is 'no'.

It's pretty easy to make up examples of this very common use of the tense but the trick is to set it in context and give people a reason to introduce a topic and that's usually because:

  • they want to get some information (now)
  • they want to give some information (now) or
  • they want to start a discussion (now)

teaching

teaching the present perfect simple

Here are some suggested contexts in which to teach and practise the form.

Learners make lists of things they have never done, have done, have done only once/twice etc.
They then mingle with other students to see if their lists overlap or not, asking and answering questions in the form.
You can extend this activity to make sure that people ask where? when? etc. in order to be definite and, accordingly, select the past simple.
Learners think about / write about / talk about what they have done using the time markers usually associated with the tense (see above).
Learners invent gossipy stories about each other / teachers etc. and then pass them on to a colleague who in turn embellishes the snippet of scandal and passes it on again.
E.g., Did you know that John has moved in with Mary?  Yes, and she has decided he can't stay much longer.
Learners decide on pieces of information they need to know about now something and then find out who can tell them by asking things like You've been to France, haven't you?  Well, I've been wondering ...
You put up a list of seven things you claim to have done, only three of which you have actually done.  Learners need to ask questions in the past simple to get more detail and try to identify the false experiences.  Then they do it together with their own lists.


teaching

teaching the present perfect progressive

Because it is the activity that is emphasised over the achievement or the event, visuals which emphasise present conditions caused by activities are effective.  It is vital to make sure the context is understood.

For example

tired How does he feel?
Tired
Why?
He's been walking all day and is exhausted.
He's been carrying a heavy pack ...
He's been climbing ...
win Is it
She has won
or
She has been winning?
She has led
or
She has been leading?
wet Why's the window wet?
It's been raining
I've been washing them

etc. 
reached How does she feel?
Happy / Tired / Satisfied / Proud
She has been running
She has reached the top

etc.
bored How does she feel?
Tired/Bored/Fed up
Why?
She's been studying/working/revising
etc.
hike What's he been doing?
(walking, hiking, climbing, camping, carrying etc.)
What's he done?
(crossed, found, met etc.)