Number one for English language teachers

Grammar contrasts 2: past simple vs present perfect

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article explaining the difference between the present perfect and past simple tenses.


Old, old chestnuts I know, but.............the most recurrent problems I have with students are (1) present perfect vs past simple and (2) 'going to' vs 'will'. Any hot tips??

John Wright 

There are a number of ways of dealing with these tricky grammar distinctions, and a lot will depend on the level and needs of the students, their learning style, your institutional demands (e.g. whether the distinction is to be tested in a forthcoming exam), and finally, your own personal theories of language learning. Here are some ideas of my own:


Past simple vs present perfect

Essentially, the same options apply as to will vs going to, although the difference between 'zero-perfect' and 'perfect' is perhaps marginally less subtle.

Option 1

  • Ignore. The meaning difference is trivial, and in the US they’ve abandoned the distinction in many uses:  Did you have breakfast yet?

Option 2

  • Teach some 'rules of thumb', of which the soundest, although less easy to apply is:

Rule of thumb 1
You use the perfect if you want to connect a past situation to the present in some way. You use the past simple if you want to separate the past from the present:

Where have you been? 
(= from the time I last saw you to now)
When did Jill phone?
(= she phoned sometime in the past, since when a number of other things have happened)

The problem is that it is difficult to define 'present relevance', that is, a present connection. Why is I’ve been to China once connected to the present, but I’m sorry, what did you say? not?

Rule of thumb 2
Use the past simple for a definite time in the past; the present perfect for an indefinite time:

I went to Brighton last month.
I’ve been to Brighton three or four times.

The problem with this is that, like Rule of thumb 1, it lacks psychological reality. When is something definite or not? Why, for example, is I’ve been to China once indefinite, but this is not?: I went to China when I was twenty, or twenty-one, or maybe twenty-two...can’t remember, actually.


Option 3

  • Introduce both forms in their typical contexts of use, and associate them with specific functions and co-texts. Avoid trying to contrast them, at least initially.

For example, use past tense in narratives, with time sequences (and then, next, after that) or in recounting biographical or historical information, using In 1950, two years later, when he was 16etc.

  • Use present perfect in contexts where people are talking about experience (e.g. job interviews) or as fixed expressions with just, already and yet: Would you like some coffee?- No thanks, I’ve just had one.  Have you finished yet? etc.

Option 4

  • Contrast the two forms in a mini-situation:

A: Would you like to see the new Harry Potter film?

B: I’ve seen it.

A: Oh, when?

B: I saw it on the plane.

A: Oh.

Same procedure as above with will and going to.

An alternative approach is to problematize the contrast through a listening or reading activity. That is, present the two forms in a context and then ask questions which will force the learners to “restructure” their internal grammar, in order to accommodate a distinction that they may not have yet noticed. This is called a grammar interpretation task, and you can find examples, contrasting these very two structures, in Uncovering Grammar, pages 39-41.


Option 5

  • The deep-end approach, through a cycle of task-feedback-try again 

 Will vs Going to

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