An article by Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on ways to approach teaching the present perfect aspect.


The present perfect is an area of grammar that:

  • strikes fear in the heart of novice English teachers;
  • is used in teacher interviews to see how much grammar they know;
  • is seen by teachers as marking a different level in a learner’s ability in English. (e.g. If she can use present perfect, then put her in the intermediate level.)

Part of the problem with the present perfect is that the label is often confusing. It isn’t always present (I have eaten crab) and what on earth does perfect mean?

In this article, the first of two articles on the perfect aspect, we’ll attempt to unlock the concept of aspect and take a more detailed look at the contexts of use of the present perfect and present perfect continuous.

Aspect in English

Tense is a grammatical concept which marks past, present and future time. Closely linked to tense is the concept of aspect, which adds a further time perspective. Aspect reflects the way in which the action of a verb is viewed with respect to time, answering questions such as: ‘Is the event or state completed or still in progress?’. We recognise two aspects in English, the progressive aspect, sometimes referred to as the continuous aspect, and the perfect aspect. The progressive aspect describes events or states which are in progress or continuing, whereas the perfect aspect usually describes events or states which occur or begin during a previous period of time.

Aspects are marked for tense, so, for instance, when we talk about the present perfect, e.g.

I have read your letter.

we think of an example like this as being in the past tense, because the perfect aspect implies that the action happened or began in a previous period of time, but this verb form is still referred to as the present perfect, since it implies a connection between something that happened in the past and the present time. The past perfect, exemplified by

I had read your letter.

will always refer to an action or situation which occurred before a particular time in the past, and therefore represents a connection between something which happened in the past and a past moment in time.

Sometimes both progressive and perfect aspects combine in a complex verb phrase, as in for example the present perfect continuous, e.g.

I have been reading your letter.

Here the perfect aspect implies that the action began in the past and the progressive aspect implies that it continued and may still be happening now.

In the paragraphs below, we will focus on the present perfect and the present perfect continuous, taking a more detailed look at the contexts in which they are used in English.

The present perfect

The present perfect, formed from auxiliary have or has with a past participle, is usually used to talk about the past in relation to the present. It suggests a connection between something that happened in the past and a present time, often referring to an action in the past which has a result now, e.g.

I’ve cut my finger.
They’ve forgotten to bring their tickets.
Your parents have arrived.

We often use the present perfect to give ‘new’ information, reporting events that have occurred just before the present time, e.g.

There’s been a serious accident on the bypass.
I’ve won a competition.
Paula has got a new job.

The present perfect is, therefore, common with just and already, e.g.

Your parents have just arrived.
Paula has already got a new job.

and is often used to report information in news reports, e.g.

The British Olympic athlete Kelly Holmes has won two gold medals.

The present perfect can be used to refer to past events which repeatedly occur up to and including the present time and may occur again in the future, e.g.

I’ve been ice-skating several times.
We’ve eaten in this restaurant quite a few times.
He’s an author who has influenced many young writers.

The present perfect is often used with stative verb senses and adverbials of duration to refer to a state that began in the past, continues up to the present, and will perhaps continue into the future, e.g.

They’ve lived in Paris for ten years.
I’ve always liked Louise.
He’s owned the house since his mother died.

Situations or events described by the present perfect do not always continue until the time of speaking, nor have they necessarily always happened immediately before the time of speaking, but they usually imply some connection or relevance to the present time, e.g.

I’ve finished with the computer now. You can use it if you like.
Have you locked all the doors and windows?
Both our children have had chickenpox.

The present perfect and time expressions

The present perfect is often used with time expressions which indicate a period of time that continues from the past until now, e.g.

I’ve made a lot of new friends in the last few days.
We haven’t had dinner together for a long time.
Have you had anything to eat since breakfast?

However, unlike the past simple tense, the present perfect cannot be used with adverbials that indicate a specific point in time in the past. Compare:

I cut my finger yesterday.
* I’ve cut my finger yesterday.
Paula got a new job last week.
* Paula has got a new job last week.

We can, however, use the present perfect with time expressions which include the present time such as today, this morning/year/ month, etc. to talk about events or states that may not be finished at the time of speaking, e.g.

I’ve answered the phone six times this afternoon.
Have you seen Andy today?
Jack has been really unwell this term.

However, if we think of this morning/week, etc. as a past, completed time period, then we must use the past simple. Compare:

I’ve answered the phone six times this afternoon (and I may well answer it again, the afternoon is not over).
I answered the phone six times this afternoon. (A completed period, the afternoon is over.)

The present perfect can be used with time clauses introduced by after, when, until, as soon as, once, by the time, and expressions like the minute/ the moment, etc. to refer to future events, e.g.

He’ll call you as soon as he’s got the results.
We won’t know the details until we’ve talked to Jack.
She’ll be forty by the time she has finished the course.

The present perfect continuous

The present perfect can combine with the progressive aspect to form what is usually referred to as the present perfect continuous. The present perfect continuous is formed from auxiliary have/ has + been + -ing, e.g.

I have been watching you.
She has been sleeping.

The present perfect continuous is used to describe a situation or activity which began in the past and was in progress until recently or until the time of speaking. It is often used to emphasise the duration of an event, occurring with time expressions which indicate how long an activity has been in progress, e.g.

I’ve been working at home all day.

It is, therefore, common with for and since, e.g.

We’ve been living there for three years.
It’s been raining since we arrived here.

Note that since the continuous aspect focuses on situations in progress, and there is no concept of progression in verbs which describe states, the present perfect continuous cannot be used with stative senses of verbs, and the present perfect is used instead. Compare:

* We’ve been knowing Jackie for three years.
We’ve known Jackie for three years.

* I’ve always been hating olives.
I’ve always hated olives.

The present perfect continuous is often used to describe repeated actions which have occurred up until the time of speaking, e.g.

He’s been writing to her every day.
I’ve been going to evening classes to improve my French.

It is, therefore, more likely to be used with verbs that suggest a repeated activity, rather than a single action, compare:

I’ve broken my leg.
* I’ve been breaking my leg. (Possible but unlikely.)

The present perfect continuous is used to emphasise that an activity is ongoing and repeated, whereas the present perfect suggests that an activity happened only once or a specified number of times, as illustrated in the following example:

Jack has been writing letters all day, but he hasn’t written one to his girlfriend.

When we want to focus on the result of an activity, we use the present perfect, but when we want to focus on the process, the present perfect continuous is often used, compare:

I’ve been washing the car and I’m soaked. (process – present perfect continuous)
I’ve washed the car and it looks much better now. (result – present perfect)

However the present perfect continuous is often used in place of the present perfect when the speaker is complaining about the situation resulting from some previous activity, e.g.

Who’s been eating my chocolates?
You’ve been using the phone again, haven’t you?
Who’s been washing the car, there’s water everywhere?