by Kate Woodford
Present perfect or past simple?
I finished the course a month ago.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.