Present perfect or past simple?

present_perfectby Kate Woodford
Present perfect or past simple?

This is a tricky area of the English language for low-level learners, so let’s look again at the rules.

When we start studying English, we learn that to talk about an action that started and finished in the past, we use the past simple tense, (for regular verbs, the base verb + -ed):


I finished the course a month ago.

cooked dinner.

We saw Jamie yesterday.

Notice that we naturally use time expressions with the past simple – yesterday, a month ago, 2005, etc. Remember that when we use one of these words or phrases, we do not use the present perfect tense:

I’ve been to the USA in 2008.

I went to the USA in 2008.

So when do we use the present perfect tense to talk about past events? (The present perfect is the verb have + the past participle of a verb.) There are a number of uses, but the one thing that joins them all together is that they in some way relate the past to the present. Let’s look at some examples:

1 I’ve lived here since 2006.

2 I’m not hungry, thanks – I’ve already had dinner.

3 I’ve been to New York.

4 I’ve seen that film four times.

5 Rebecca has had a baby girl.

Example 1

The speaker is talking about a period of time in the past right up until the present. The present perfect here expresses the way in which the action started in the past, but did not finish in the past.

Example 2

The action of having dinner was in the past, but there is an effect on the present – the speaker is not now hungry.  Here, the present perfect describes a past event that has a result now.

Example 3

The speaker means that at some point in the whole of their life, (from when they were born right up until the present), they went to New York. They do not tell us exactly when they went. This is an important use of the present perfect.

Example 4

As with Example 3, the time period here is the past right up until the present. Note here the use of the present perfect for talking about how many times something has happened until now.

Example 5

Here, the speaker uses the present perfect to say what has just happened – to announce news. The action is in the past, but it is the very recent past and the effects of the action are still being experienced now. (Remember that when the speaker has announced the news and they then give more information about the event, they usually change to the past simple tense):

Rebecca has had a baby boy! He was born at three o’clock yesterday. It all went really well, apparently.

It is worth noting that American speakers of English use the present perfect less than British speakers to talk about a past event with a present result (Example 2):


I’ve hurt my leg and I can’t walk properly.


I’ve hurt my leg and I can’t walk properly. or I hurt my leg and I can’t walk properly.

Another difference is that in British English, the words just, yet and already are often used with the present perfect tense. In American English, these words are also used with the past simple tense.


I’ve just seen him.

Have you called your mother yet?

I’ve already invited him.


I just saw him or I’ve just seen him.

Did you call your mother yet? or Have you called your mother yet?

I already invited him or I’ve already invited him.

36 thoughts on “Present perfect or past simple?

  1. Having spent many years learning other languages myself, I would like to suggest a simple tip: the more you read, the more you learn. The more familiar you become with the patterns of a language, from reading, the easier it becomes to follow them in speaking.

    Also, as a native speaker in a very cosmopolitan city (New York), I can tell you that most of us are tolerant of the occasional error. Try your best and, I know from personal observation, at least six New Yorkers will try to help you.

  2. Pingback: Phân biệt thì Hiện tại hoàn thành và Quá khứ thường | LUYỆN TIẾNG ANH

  3. Maria Tsoi

    Which one is preferred:
    (1)Have you called your mother yet?
    (2)Have you called your mother already?

    Your advice is highly appreciated.


  4. Ghani

    Hello everyone! My name is Ghani and this is my first post to this blog. First of all,I congratulate the writers of this blog on such useful material. I have been reading the blog for couple of years and have enjoyd and learned a lot from it.
    With regards to this particular post about past tense, l still occasionally struggle with some aspects of past and present perfect
    tense. For example, I can’t get my head around the difference between these two sentences.
    1. The meeting has had to be cancelled.
    2. The meeting had to be cancelled.
    Also, the use of (had+participle) or past perfect tense in story writing has entirely different function .

    Could you explain please.

    Thank you

  5. Kate Woodford

    Hi Ghani! Thanks for your kind comments! Always lovely to hear. Regarding those two sentences, (‘The meeting…), a speaker will tend to use the first (pres. perf.) to tell people about a meeting that has *just* been cancelled. In saying this, they are telling someone a piece of news. The past simple might also be used in this context (it wouldn’t be wrong), but for news, the present perfect will often be favoured. I hope that makes sense. Your other question relates to a different tense – the past perfect. This tense is used for events that happened in the past before another event also in the past (simple or continuous). (Perhaps I should write a post about it?) So, for example; ‘She lived (past simple) with her father and step-mother. Her mother had died (past perfect) some years before .’ I hope that helps. All the best to you!

  6. Cyril

    Hi, Kate,
    I would like to ask you, Kate, about the prepositions used with Present Perfect. As we know “for” and “since” are used but I have recently heard in several movies the following construction e.g. “I have not seen you in years” instead “I have not seen you for years”. Could you give us some more details about that, please. Are these constructions equivalent? Thank you in advance.

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