Present Perfect: Forms, Uses, Context

To begin with, let’s outline the Present Perfect structure:

  • Affirmative sentence: Ann has passed her exam / Ann’s passed her exam.
  • Negative sentence: have not done my homework yet / I haven’t done my homework yet.
  • Interrogative sentence: Has anyone seen my notebook?

Thus, we form the Present Perfect with have (for I, you, we, they) and has (for he, she, it) + past participle.

Basically, we use the Present Perfect for 2 reasons:

  1. to talk about past actions and situations that have a result in the present while we don’t mention the exact time when these actions and situations happened;
  2. to talk about things which are not finished.

Now, let’s dig deeper…

Pay attention to the very name of the tense – PRESENT Perfect. It means that this tense is never about actions which simply took place in the past and are completed (the Past Simple is for such actions). Compare:

I graduated from high school at the age of 16.

I have graduated from high school.

In the first sentence there is a time phrase which says when exactly it happened – at the age of 16. This person is not 16 anymore. So, this action is completed and has no connection with the present.

In the second sentence there is no such time phrase. So, we don’t know when the person graduated. AND WE DON’T NEED TO KNOW THIS. The point which they want to make here is the following: I AM NOT A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT NOW. This is why the tense is called the PRESENT Perfect – something has happened (no matter when) and it affects the present in some way.

Here are more examples:

They have bought a new car. (= they have it NOW and so they can use it NOW)

It has just started to rain. (= it is raining NOW, so bring the washing in)

Look! You’ve spilt the coffee! (= the result of this action is obvious NOW – I see the spilt coffee)

They’ve polluted the lake. (= all the fish in the lake are dead – this is the result of the pollution which took place some time ago (we don’t know when exactly) and which we can observe NOW)

This is what we meant by the first reason for using the Present Perfect. Now, here’s the second reason

We use the Present Perfect with periods of time that haven’t finished yet (and this is the second type of connection with the present – don’t forget why the tense is called the PRESENT Perfect):

We’ve built 10 new schools this year. (= it’s still this year, and so the situation may change – we may build some more schools until the year ends)

He has done a lot in his life. (= he is still alive and can do even more)

Note that if you say “He did a lot in his life”, it will be grammatically correct but it will mean that this man is dead! His life is over, so he can’t change the situation and do more!

I’ve always been a vegetarian. (= this is my life UNTIL NOW and my life in not finished)

Have you ever tasted real caviar? (= have you experienced it UNTIL NOW? If you haven’t, you can change it in the future when you try real caviar and then you’ll be able to say “I have tried real caviar” (remember reason 1! The point is “I know what real caviar is like now”) and then you may add “I tasted real caviar a few years ago” (in this sentence you mention when it happened exactly (using the word “ago”), so you must use the Past Simple).

Here is the list of words which often (but not always) indicate the Present Perfect:

Already England have already scored a goal! I already know how to use the Present Perfect correctly.
Yet They haven’t sent an astronaut to Mars yet. The details have yet to be confirmed.
Still We still haven’t discovered life on other planets. I’m still hungry.
Before I’ve been here before. Before we make a decision, does anyone have anything to add?
Ever Have you ever been to Paris? Nothing ever happens in this sleepy town.
Never I’ve never eaten sashimi. Wars never solve anything.
Often I’ve often gone to London (= and so I might do it again). I often went to London (= I did it before and I don’t do it anymore – it’s in the past).
Recently Recently, I’ve felt a bit depressed (= I still feel like depressed). Until very recently he worked as a teacher (= he is not a teacher now).
Lately I’ve developed a new habit lately. I asked Tom if he had seen Mark lately.
Just We’ve just bought a new carpet for the bedroom. Who was that at the door just now? (= a very short time ago; and now there is no one at the door)
Now The breathing problem has now been complicated by a chest infection. Now I know what you mean.

So, which tense to use with the words from the table above depends on the CONTEXT and the MEANING of the word. Don’t be in a hurry choosing any tense! Try to analyze the situation because English is an analytical language. Remember the words of A.D.Garrett: Context is everything.

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