Present Perfect and Past Simple

By Rob Lane, English Teacher at Horner School of English

Present Perfect and Past Simple are tenses which cause a lot of confusion for learners. In many languages the structure of subject + have + past participle has the function of Past Simple in English. For this reason, direct translation is problematic. Although the tenses are similar in many ways, they have important differences in function. One of the most important considerations is the time reference used (this week/ last week etc). In conversation, the reference of time is one of the most difficult things for learners to follow and use the correct tense with. Because both tenses are so commonly used, it is necessary for learners to master them.


Definitions of Tenses

Past Simple – Finished action, finished time

Tom worked in the office yesterday. (The work is finished, yesterday is finished)

Present Perfect Simple – Finished action, unfinished time

Jerry has showered today. (The shower is finished, today is not finished)

Present Perfect Continuous – Unfinished action, unfinished time

I’ve been writing reports today. (The writing in not finished, today is not finished.


*Note: We must always be careful of the time reference.

He has just finished.

He finished two minutes ago.

If you give a finished time reference, you use Past Simple.


The Five Functions of Present Perfect Simple are:

  1. Finished acts, unfinished time

Today, I have eaten two meals.

  1. Past act, present consequence

Look! I’ve cut my finger.

  1. News

Mr Jones has become president

  1. Very recently completed act

I’ve just finished the report.

  1. Results and products of a Present Perfect Continuous action

I’ve been writing emails since this morning. I have written ten emails.


Remember that state verbs are never used in continuous forms.

I’ve known Michelle for twenty years.

Not I’ve been knowing…


For the function past action, present consequence, both perfect simple and continuous can be used.

A. Why is he breathless?

B. Because he has walked a lot/ has been running.


Present Perfect may also be used in a conditional form

If you have finished, you may leave.

When he has arrived, he will call you.


Remember that, often, Since + Past Simple, Present Perfect is used.

Since I arrived in Ireland, I have met a lot of nice people.

Here Since + Past Simple forms the time reference. The main clause is in Present Perfect.


Exercise and Practice

  • Read an article and highlight all examples of Past Simple and Present Perfect. Identify which or the Five Functions is used.
  • Write dialogues of typical conversations. This practice will help you to choose the correct tense when you are conversing.