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Past Tense vs. Present Perfect Tense

These two tenses can be confusing for English learners. In this lesson, we will look at how these verb tenses are used and how they are the same and different.

We just use a past tense verb to make a sentence in the past tense.
  • I saw Mark yesterday.
  • I went to Ohio University.
  • She didn't come yesterday.
We use "have/has + past participle verb" to make a sentence in the present perfect tense.
  • I have been to Europe.
  • He has not met Sally.
  • We have lived in Korea for 10 years.
Here are some important things to remember.

1. We can use both the past tense and the present perfect tense to talk about things in the past.
  • I went to China.
  • Did you go to China?
  • I have been to China.
  • Have you been to China?
However, we cannot use a specific time with the present perfect tense.
  • I went to China in 2007.
  • Did you go to China in 2007?
  • I have been to China in 2007.
  • Have you been to China in 2007?
If we need to use a specific time, then we need to use a past tense sentence.
  • I met her last year.
  • She called us three days ago.
  • We got together last Christmas.
We use the present perfect to talk about experiences. The time is not important.
  • I have tried raw fish.
  • She has visited many countries.
  • They have been here before.
We cannot use a specific time with the present perfect tense, but we can tell how many times.
  • I have been to Brazil 3 times.
  • She has been surfing many times.
  • We have gone camping twice.
We can also tell the number of times with past tense sentences. We usually do this when we are telling the number of times and a specific time.
  • I visited Australia two times in 2015.
  • She called 3 times while you were in the shower.
  • We went to that restaurant 4 times last week.
We can use the present perfect tense to talk about life experiences or recent experiences. We usually use adverbs to express this clearly.

Here are some examples of sentences and questions that are talking about life experiences.
  • I have been to Canada before.
  • I have been to Canada.
  • She has tried raw fish.
  • Have you ever been to Japan?
  • Have you been to Kenya before?
Here are some examples of sentences and questions that are about recent experiences.
  • Have you traveled recently?
  • Have you seen any good movies recently?
  • I have been to Europe recently.
  • She hasn't been here lately.
2. We also use the present perfect tense to talk about things that started in the past, but are not finished. They are still happening or continuing.

This is very different than the past tense because the past tense only talks about things that finished in the past.

We use "for + total time" and "since + starting time" with these sentences to show how long the action has continued.
  • I have lived in Korea for 9 years.
  • She has played the piano since 2005.
  • We have known each other since high school.
  • I have studied English for a long time.
It is possible to use "since + clause".
  • We have known each other since we were babies.
  • I have liked baseball since I was a little kid.
We can also use the present perfect continuous tense in the same way. We usually use this for short-term actions. We make the present perfect continuous with "have/has + been + present participle". The present participle is just "verb + ing"
  • He has been crying for 3 hours.
  • We have been talking since 3 pm. It is now 6 pm.
  • They have been fighting since this morning.
3. We can use the present perfect in two ways – to talk about experiences or to talk about things that started in the past, but are still continuing.

The easiest way to tell the difference is to look for the words "for" or "since".

Look at the difference between these sentences.
  • I have lived in Korea. (Life Experience)
This is talking about a life experience. It means that I have experience living in Korea, but that I do not live in Korea anymore. This sentence is the same as "I lived in Korea".
  • I have lived in Korea for 10 years. (Unfinished Action)
  • I have lived in Korea since 2007. (Unfinished Action)
The words "for" and "since" tell us that this is an unfinished action. That means that I still live in Korea now.

4. Sometimes, the present perfect can be used for things that finished very recently. In these situations, we can use either the past tense or the present perfect tense. We usually use the word "just" with these sentences.
  • The company just announced their sales results. (Past Tense)
  • The company has just announced their sales results. (Present Perfect)
Summary

Remember that the past tense and present perfect tense can both be used to talk about things that happened in the past. The only difference is that we can use a specific time with the past tense, but we cannot use a specific time with the present perfect tense.
  • I did it yesterday.
  • I have done it.
If there is no specific time, then we can use both. They have the same basic meaning.
  • I went there.
  • I have been there.
We can also use the present perfect to talk about unfinished actions. These are things that started in the past and are still happening. We use the words "for" and "since" with these sentences.
  • I have lived here for many years.
  • I have known her since high school.
There are many other details about the past tense and the present perfect tense that we need to know, but this lesson should help you understand the main differences between the past tense and the present perfect tense. If you want to speak English well, then it is important that you know the difference between the past tense and the present perfect tense in English.

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