Of all the English language tenses, it is the present perfect which causes the most problems among learners. Although a present perfect tense does in fact exist in many other tongues, usage is typically not the same. As a result, the English language version of the present perfect tense can become a sense of frustration to students, making the learning process less enjoyable.
Yet the present perfect need not be such a mystery or source of irritation. Here are some examples of typical mistakes, along with the correct sentences and notes to help future usage. The present perfect need not be a problem anymore.
Connecting the past and the present
Mistake – I am living in London since July / I am living in London for three months.*
Correct – I have lived/have been living in London since July or I have lived/have been living** in London for three months.
Notes – The present perfect tense should always be used to connect an action that started in the past and continues in the present. Typically, this would be accompanied by the words since or for to express the period of time that has passed from that starting moment in the past until the present moment
*Using the present continuous tense in this case would actually result in conveying the meaning that your total stay in London will be three months.
**In the cases of the verbs live, work and study, the present perfect simple and present perfect continuous can be used to express the same idea.
For and Since
Mistake – I have lived/have been living in London since three months.
Correct – I have lived/have been living in London since July or I have lived/have been living in London for three months.
Notes – Since is used to convey the starting point of an action, for is used to convey the period of time that has elapsed.
Stating definitive moments in the past
Mistake – I have been to Italy last year.
Correct – I went to Italy last year.
Notes – Present perfect is never used in connection to a specific time in the past. Immediately a specific past time reference is given, only the past simple tense can be used. However, present perfect can be used to express an action in the past in order to show that a particular experience has taken place, or to show the number of times an action has taken place.
For example – I have been to Italy (life experience) or I have been to Italy three times (number of times)
Speaking about past actions with present consequences
Mistake – Joe changed jobs.
Correct – Joe has changed jobs (as a present consequence, he has a new job).
Notes – Using past simple in the above example renders the action inconsequential to the present, which clearly is not the purpose of the information that is being given. Also, never use a past time reference in connection with the present perfect, so in this case use past simple.
For example – Joe changed jobs last week.
Using present perfect simple and present perfect continuous
Mistake – It has rained.
Correct – It has been raining.
Notes – Why would you say something like this? The answer is because you want to emphasise the consequence, which in this case would be that the ground is wet. Using the present perfect simple puts the focus on the action, rather than the consequence of that action.
Additional notes – Also use present perfect continuous when you want to emphasise the period of time that the action was in progress, or to emphasise that the action is not finished.
For example – I have been waiting for ages or I have been watching a movie (i.e., the movie is not finished. I have watched a movie would infer you watched until the end)
Already and just
Mistake – I have seen it yet.
Correct – I have already seen it.
Note – Yet is only used in negative and interrogative sentences. Already can be used in interrogative sentences (although yet is favoured) but is much more commonly used in affirmative sentences.