Present perfect or past simple?

I have gone or I went? I saw or I have seen? How do I talk about experiences in the past? And how do I use for to describe past events? The English language is famous for its different tenses, and it can be difficult to know when to use which. Here are some questions we can ask to decide if we should use the present perfect or the past simple.

Form

As a quick reminder, this is how we form the past simple:

  • I visited my friend. (Regular verbs add -ed; irregular verbs have different forms, e.g. went.)
  • I didn’t visit my brother.
  • Did you visit your friend?

To ask questions and form negative sentences, we need the helping verb did or didn’t. In these sentences we use the base form of the main verb; we don’t need both verbs in the past.

The present perfect looks like this:

  • I have visited Japan. (As with the past simple, regular verbs add -ed, irregular verbs have different forms, e.g. gone.)
  • I haven’t visited Thailand.
  • Have you visited Japan?

In every sentence in the present perfect, we always need the helping verb have or has. These are often shortened to ‘ve or ‘s, especially when we speak. We also need the past participle of the main verb (also known as the third form).

Is the action still happening now?

We use the present perfect to talk about things that are still happening now.

  • I lived in Rome in 2015. (not ongoing – I don’t live there now)
  • I have lived in Madrid since 2016. (ongoing – I still live there now)
  • He worked at the company last summer. (not ongoing – he doesn’t work there now)
  • He has worked at the company for one year. (ongoing – he still works there now)
  • We played tennis at that club for two years. (not ongoing – we don’t play now)
  • We have played tennis at this club for six months. (ongoing – we still play)

Is the time point important?

We often use the present perfect to talk about experiences and things that have happened at some point in our lives. Here, the time is not important. However, when we talk about a specific event or give a time point (e.g. yesterday, last week, in 2018), we use the past simple.

  • I have visited Japan. (at some point but the time is not important)
  • I visited Japan in 2013. (specific event)
  • Have you ever been to Canada? (at some point)
  • I went to Canada last summer. (specific event)
  • I have seen the new James Bond film. (at some point)
  • I saw it at the cinema with my friend. (specific event)

Can we see the results of the action now?

If that action is important for the present, we often use the present perfect. For example:

  • I lost my keys. (not relevant for now)
  • I have found my keys. (I have them now)
  • Last week I baked a cake. (not relevant for now)
  • I have baked some brownies. (they are here now)
  • I passed my driving test first time. (not relevant for now)
  • I have passed my exam. (this is news now)

Are there signal words?

There are some words that we often use with either the present perfect or past simple. These include:

  • Present perfect: since, already, yet, just, ever
  • Past simple: last week, yesterday, last week, in 2018, in February, on Tuesday

The preposition for is often used with both the present perfect and the past simple, as well as with other tenses. It is used to show how something lasts, for example:

  • I have studied French for two years. (ongoing – I still study French)
  • I studied French for two years. (not ongoing – I don’t study French now)

These are some of the main things to think about when we’re not sure if we should use the present perfect or past simple. Do you have any other tips to help you remember which tense to use?

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