Present Perfect Tense

Definition

The present perfect tense (sometimes referred to as the present perfect simple tense) is formed by using the present tense of the auxiliary verb have (or has, if used with third-person singular pronouns) along with the past participle of the “main” verb. Despite its name, the present perfect is used to give general information about something that happened in the past (anytime “before now”), but which did not occur at a definitive point in time.
For example:
  • “I have seen that movie already.”
  • “She has been to Prague.”
  • “They’ve decided where they want to go for their honeymoon.”
  • “John’s lied to us too many times.”

Present Perfect vs. Past Simple

The present perfect tells us about something that occurred at some indefinite period in the past. However, if something happened at a specific point in time in the past (“last night,” “two years ago,” “yesterday,” etc.), then we must use the past simple tense.
For example:
When we say “I have seen Titanic,” we are giving general information about something that happened anytime “before now.” The focus is on the fact that “I saw Titanic” and not on when I saw it. If the focus moves to when, then we cannot use the present perfect anymore because the attention shifts to that particular point in time.
The same applies to the second example from above:

True in the past and still true now

In English, we use the present perfect simple with the prepositions for and since when we speak about something that started in the past and is still true now. For is used to specify the duration of time leading up to the present; since clarifies the point in time at which something began. Let’s look at some examples:
  • “I can’t believe Jenny has lived in Dubai for 10 years!”
  • “He’s had that car since he was in high school.”
  • “We’ve known each other (for) our whole lives, but we’ve only been friends since 2006.”
Even though a point in time is being specified in these cases, we still use the present perfect because the information in the sentence is still true now. The “for” and “since” join the past situation to a present one. If we were to use the past simple tense for any of the above, “for” would change to mean the duration of the event before it finished, and we would be unable to use “since” at all:
  • “I can’t believe Jenny lived in Dubai for 10 years!” (Jenny no longer lives in Dubai.)
  • “He had that car in high school.” (He owned it then, but does not now.)
  • “We knew each other for our whole lives, but we only became friends in 2006.” (The two people are no longer acquainted; perhaps the other person is no longer living.)

Present Perfect vs. Present Perfect Continuous Tense

There is another, very similar tense that is used to talk about something that has been happening in the past and which is still happening now. It is called the present perfect continuous (or progressive) tense, and it is used to emphasize the action of the sentence (as opposed to the result).
It is formed by using have/has along with been (the past participle of be) and the present participle of the main verb. For example:
  • “I have been writing many letters.” (This emphasizes the action of writing, in which the speaker is still engaged.)
This is slightly different from “I have written many letters” (present perfect), which emphasizes the result of many letters having been completed.
In some cases, either the present perfect or present perfect continuous can be used with almost no difference to the meaning of the sentence:
  • “I can’t believe Jenny has lived in Dubai for 10 years!” (present perfect)
  • “I can’t believe Jenny has been living in Dubai for 10 years!” (present perfect continuous)
However, though quite similar to present perfect simple, the usages of present perfect continuous can be a bit different. See the chapter section Present Perfect Continuous Tense to learn more.

Before now or not long ago

Let’s compare “I lost my keys” with “I’ve lost my keys.”
Taken on its own, the first sentence is less correct because we are expecting the speaker to say when he or she lost the keys; for example, “I lost my keys yesterday.”
“I lost my keys” can be correct on its own, but only if it answers a question.
For example:
  • A: “Why are you late?”
  • B: “(Because) I lost my keys.”
Otherwise, if there is no question or no specification of time, we say: “I’ve lost my keys.” This carries the meaning that the keys were lost just before now or not long ago.
Let’s take a look at another example:
  • A: “Would you like a coffee?”
  • B: “No, thanks, I’ve had one.”
This refers to not long ago. We don’t say when because the time is not important—we understand that the person had the coffee a short while ago. Again, if the time is being specified, then you have to put the sentence in past simple tense (i.e., “No, thanks, I had one an hour ago”).
Here are some more examples:
  • “I’m not hungry, I’ve had lunch.”
  • He’s taken the dog to the park.”
  • “She has left the kids with her sister.”
Remember, when the time becomes more important than the fact or the event, we need to use the past simple tense:
  • Present perfect: “I’ve had lunch.” (Meaning just now or not long ago.)
  • Past simple: “I had lunch at 12 o’clock.” (Referring to exactly when the speaker had lunch.)

Negative sentences

You can also make the present perfect negative by simply adding not (or, in certain uses, never) between have/has and the main verb:
  • “I have never seen Titanic.”
  • “I’m so hungry; I haven’t had lunch yet!”
  • “He has not been home since he finished high school.”
  • “I regret that we’ve never traveled to Paris.”

Interrogative sentences

If an interrogative (question) sentence is in the present perfect tense, the subject and the auxiliary verb have are inverted. For example:
  • Have you seen this movie?”
  • Has she heard any news?”
  • Have they started the movie yet?”

Negative interrogative sentences

Negative interrogative sentences also ask a question, but they imply that the speaker expected the answer to be (or believes the answer should be) “yes.” Negative interrogative sentences in the present perfect have the same form, simply with the negative word (usually not, but also never) placed after the subject.
  • Have you never seen this movie?”
  • Has she not heard any news?”
Not can also come after have/has, but it is almost always contracted:
  • Haven’t they started the movie yet?”
  • Hasn’t his license expired?”
However, never cannot be used in this way.

With a question word

Interrogative sentences using question words (who, what, where, when, why, which, and how) maintain the same structure. Have/has can also be contracted with the question word:
  • When have you been to Italy?”
  • Where has she gone?”
  • What’ve they done?”
They can also be negative, but then they are straightforward questions of who, what, where, when, why, which, or how something is not the case:
  • Which book have you not read?”
  • Why haven’t you eaten your dinner yet?”

have got and has got

There is one tricky phrase that defies the normal form: have/has got. We would expect it to be in the present perfect, because it is in the form have/has plus the past participle of get. However, even though it is in the present perfect tense in form, in meaning, have got is actually in the present tense. It is used to indicate possession, in nearly the same manner as the verb have (especially in more informal speech or writing); got simply adds a certain level of emphasis to the possession.
For example, the following pairs of sentences mean almost exactly the same thing.
  • “I have got three classes on Monday.”
  • “I have three classes on Monday.”
  • “I hear she’s got lots of money.”
  • “I hear she has lots of money.”
  • “You’ve got a lot of nerve coming here.”
  • “You have a lot of nerve coming here.”
However, we can never use have got interchangeably with have when it is used to describe an action. For example:
To create the past perfect meaning of get, we use its other past participle—gotten. We use this form to describe a process, such as receipt or acquisition, or some other action. For example:
  • “I have gotten word that my father is ill.”
  • He’s gotten a lot of positive feedback about his play.”
  • “Those dang kids have gotten a Frisbee stuck in our tree again.”
Note, however, that have/has gotten is not used to describe possession:
  • “I hear she has gotten lots of money.” (Implies acquisition or receipt of lots of money, rather than outright possession.)
Gotten is almost exclusively used in American English. It very rarely used in British English, where have got is sometimes used as the past perfect (informally). One such example is:
  • “You’ve got taller.” (British English)
  • “You’ve gotten taller.” (American English)
Regardless, have/has got and have/has gotten, though correct, are often seen as being less formal or professional sounding, so depending on what you’re writing, you may be better off rewording the sentence to avoid the phrases altogether.
Quiz

1. Which of the following sentences uses the present perfect tense?





2. Which preposition is used with the present perfect to talk about something that was true in the past and is still true now?








3. When is the present perfect not used?





4. Which auxiliary verb is used to form the present perfect tense?





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