Present Perfect vs Past Simple: What’s the difference?

Number 6 of 81 in B1 - PRE-INTERMEDIATE

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When do we use the Past Simple (I did) and the Present Perfect (I’ve done)? Let’s have a look at an example, and then we can start talking about the difference:

Did you see Sarah this morning?
Have you seen Sarah this morning?

Can you see the difference?

In this case, as it says when (this morning) it is quite clear:
PAST SIMPLE = The morning is past and finished ( 6:30pm)
PRESENT PERFECT = the morning is not finished (11:15am)

PRESENT PERFECT = Unfinished Past

In Spanish and French (and I imagine, many other languages) there are many situations where you do not use the Present Perfect, even though it is an unfinished past. Think of how you would translate these sentences into your language. Remember…
FOR = durante / desde hace
SINCE = desde:

  1. I haven’t smoked for three weeks.
  2. We haven’t eaten meat since last Thursday.
  3. He’s (He has) been waiting for half an hour.

In these three cases the situation started in the past but – not like the Past Simple – it iss still valid for the present. In these cases we use this structure:

  1. The subject (I, You, My parents, The cat, The holidays…)
  2. HAVE (or HAS for the third person singular – he, she or it)
  3. The Past Participle (The third column of the list of irregular verbs, or ‘+..ed’.)

In many cases, HAVE changes to ‘VE and HAS to ‘S:

  1. I have understood = I’ve understood
  2. David has come = David’s come

If you want to say that you have been doing something continuously, for example….

I’ve been cooking all morning
You´ve been listening to the whole conversation!
s/He´s been sleeping for hours

….then this is the Present Perfect Continuous:

I + HAVE + BEEN + …….ING

Good! Just one more thing to remember- If you have never done something, this is an unfinished past, and so you always use the Present Perfect:

  1. I´ve never seen The Rolling Stones live.
  2. Mark has never been abroad.

Look at this conversation, and notice when they use Present Perfect and Past Simple:

JOHN: Hi Mary! We haven’t seen you in the office for some time. Have you been on holiday?
MARY: Hi John. Yes, I have. I’ve been to Spain for a couple of weeks.
JOHN: Spain? Very nice- Where to?
MARY: To the coast of Huelva- you know, the bit between Gibraltar and Portugal?
JOHN: I know! I’ve been there a couple of times! I went last year to Zahara de los Atunes- Have you been there?
MARY: Not this time. We stayed there five or six years ago. On this holiday we went to Punta Umbria.
JOHN. Ah? I haven´t been there- Was it nice?………(etc.)

Have you noticed? The conversation changes from completely Present Perfect at the beginning, to some sentences of Past Simple near the end.

Why does it change? Let’s look…
I’ve been there a couple of times! I went last year to Zahara de los Atunes.’

In the second sentence Mark says when (last year). This is why it changes to Past Simple. Remember:
PAST SIMPLE- Finished Past and You know (or ask) when it happened.
PRESENT PERFECT- Or: It isn’t Finished Or: You don’t know when it happened

This means that all of these sentences are incorrect:

  1. Did you ever go to Edinburgh?
  2. What’s the most beautiful place you ever saw?
  3. When I was little I have gone to see The Lion King in London.
  4. Before the wedding the bride has arrived in helicopter.

Correct these sentences, but remember that the word ‘ever’ cannot be used with the Past Simple. Before I tell you the answers, one more thing:

  • It’s JUST happened

If you something happeened in the last few minutes, it’s too soon to consider it a past action, so we use HAVE / HAS + JUST + 3rd column


John has just got up
What have you just said?
They’ve just left.

In the three situations we are talking about a few seconds or a few minutes difference.

  • GONE vs. BEEN:

There should be no confusion. GONE is from GO and BEEN is from BE:

Lucy has been ill lately.

But BEEN can also mean something similar to GONE if you use ‘to’. This is the only case where you can use BE and TO together:

I have been to the mountaintop!

So, what is the difference if both sentences mean ‘Mi hermano ha ido a Canada’?

  1. My brother has gone to Canada (When will he come back?)
  2. My brother has been to Canada (When did he come back?)

Can you see the difference?

GONE = He is still in Canada
BEEN = He is now back home

We’ve finished! If you write your name and email, you’ll get some exercises in the post. You can also have a look at these topics for more practice:

Mini-Class: Yet vs. Still vs Already vs Just
U2 Song: ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’
Como Aprender los Verbos Irregulares (+pdf.)
Present Perfect vs. Past Simple (Videotutorial)

If you leave your name and email you will get exercises on this topic immediately. You will also get one newsletter (only one) every month, with links and material to help you learn, together with some E-Books to help you learn. Click here for more information. 

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