Present Perfect: Why You Can’t Just Use the Simple Past

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Stephanie English
November 25, 2015
3510
3 minutes


Last week I was helping a student complete a worksheet using the present perfect tense when she turned to me, frustrated, and asked “Why can’t I just use the simple past tense?”

I can certainly understand her frustration; the difference between “I saw a bear” and “I have seen a bear” is small and probably not very important. But nevertheless, when she said that she had no need for the present perfect, I was concerned! Sure, you can survive in English without the present perfect. But you’ll be missing out on expressing yourself accurately when talking about your experiences, accomplishments, or anything else in the past that continues to impact the present. You’ll also risk causing your listeners some serious confusion!

It is necessary to remember that the present perfect is used to talk about things that are important to the present time in some way, even though the action or experience happened in the past. The focus of a sentence in the present perfect is on the present condition, result, or effect of the past action, event, or experience. With the simple past tense, the focus is on the fact that the action, event, or experience happened and is completed. Present perfect sentences place an emphasis on one of several broad, somewhat overlapping categories of meaning: change over time, experiences or accomplishments, expected but uncompleted actions, multiple actions at different times in the past, or duration of time from the past into the present. Simple past sentences don’t communicate these meanings.

To see how important the present perfect is, let’s look at how the meaning changes between the simple past and present perfect tenses. Here are a few sentence pairs, dedicated to my cat and arranged by category of meaning, that will help you see the value in mastering the present perfect tense.

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Change over time

My cat has become very sick in his old age.

Present perfect in this sentence indicates that my cat is still alive (which he is). The focus of the sentence is on how my cat has changed between the past and the present.

My cat became very sick in his old age.

The simple past indicates completion, so in this simple past sentence, my cat is dead. Also, he was sick before he died. Since my cat is still alive, using the simple past here would be a grave mistake!

Experience/accomplishments

My cat has vomited in every room of the house.

In this present perfect sentence, the focus is on the accomplishment—there is no room untouched by cat vomit at some point in the past. My cat might still be sick or he might have gotten better, but this sentence focuses on my cat’s incredible accomplishment, or terrible experience, depending on your point of view.

My cat vomited in every room of the house.

The simple past in this sentence tells us that, on one occasion in the past, my cat was sick in every room of the house. The cat could be healthy now, or dead, but this sentence emphasizes that the event is over.

Expected but uncompleted actions

I haven’t cleaned up the vomit.

Use of the present perfect in this sentence indicates that the vomit is still in my house and there are still opportunities for me to clean up the vomit. It is possible or expected that I will do so now or in the near future.

I didn’t clean up the vomit.

The past simple in the same sentence tells us that at some time in the past, I failed to clean up the vomit. There are no more opportunities to clean it up, either because it is no longer there or because I have no intention to do so.

Multiple actions at different times in the past

He has vomited three times this week.

The present perfect here changes the emphasis to the possible continuation of this event. It is important that he vomited in the past but more important is the possibility that my cat might vomit a few more times before this week is finally over.

He vomited three times this week.

Anyone hearing this past simple sentence would conclude that he is done vomiting for this week (which is probably over).

Duration of time from the past into the present

He has been sick for two months.

In this present perfect sentence, the emphasis is on the ongoing nature of my cat’s illness. He was sick yesterday, he is sick today, and it is expected that he will be sick tomorrow as well.

He was sick for two months.

In this simple past sentence, once again my cat might be dead. Whether he died or got better, what is clear in this sentence is that his illness is over.

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So, while there are some instances when it doesn’t seem important to differentiate between the simple past and present perfect tenses, there are many times when it is very important. As you can see from these examples, it could even be the difference between the life and death of your subject! For most English learners, mastering this grammatical tense is worth the time and effort.

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About the Author:

Stephanie is from the United States and has been teaching English for over six years. She hold a Bachelors degree in Linguistics and Spanish, as well as a Masters degree in Teaching English as a Second Language. As a Verbling teacher, she particularly enjoys teaching through literature, reading, writing, and pronunciation.


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