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Why learning this one English tense will make you sound like a pro

What is typically one of the first tenses taught in English classes but one of the last to be fully and correctly integrated into speaking and writing? It’s the often misunderstood (and sometimes dreaded) present perfect tense.

From the perspective of an ESL teacher who speaks English as her native language, the correct use of the present perfect tense sets you apart from other ESL learners. In fact, it's a critical component in making you an advanced English speaker.

Some students who struggle with the present perfect tense have a tendency to avoid it and opt for the past tense instead. However, this can be risky. When you use the past tense, you might be changing your intended meaning or leaving out an important element of the story. Let me explain.

Present Perfect Tense Use #1: The Element of Possibility

Let’s take a look at two sentences that illustrate the point above.

  • Past simple: I didn’t complete my sales report.
  • Present perfect: I haven’t completed my sales report.

Can you explain the difference in meaning between these two sentences?

In the first sentence (I didn’t complete my sales report), the action (or lack of action) is complete; it’s in the past. There is no chance for you to complete your report at this point in time.

But in the second example (I haven’t completed my sales report), you still have a chance! Complete your sales report! I’m joking, but you get my meaning. By using the present perfect tense, you allow for the possibility that you still might do your sales report. This is a small but significant difference.

Let’s look at another example with slightly more consequence.

  • Past simple:  I didn’t reach my sales goals.
  • Present perfect: I haven’t reached my sales goals.

What’s the difference in meaning here? In the first sentence (I didn’t reach my sales goals), the speaker is stating a fact about the past, and we can infer a certain level of disappointment from the statement. But what’s done is done, as we say in English.

In the second sentence (I haven’t reached my sales goals), the possibility still exists for the speaker to reach his or her sales goals. Here we have an element of suspense. Will the goals be reached by the deadline or not? I can imagine the Sales Director holding her breath or crossing her fingers awaiting the results.

This is the power of the present perfect. It takes the present moment into account, and anything can happen in the present moment. So, if there is even a small chance that the subject of the sentence might still take the action, use the present perfect tense.

Here are some more examples of the present perfect tense:

  • Present perfect: I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I might see it this weekend.
  • Present perfect: My boss still hasn’t given me feedback on my presentation.

Notice how the words still and yet have been added to convey the idea of possibility or likelihood. They aren’t necessary, but they are often added to present perfect sentences to emphasize that the chance for action remains.

Also note that in the second sentence above, the word still adds an element of complaint to the sentence; the speaker is expressing a bit of frustration and when spoken, the sentence stress would fall on this small word.

But the job of the present perfect tense doesn’t stop there. It has other uses.

Present Perfect Tense Use #2: Unspecified Time in the Past

The present perfect tense is also used when you describe an action or actions that took place at an unspecified time in the past.

  • Present perfect: My sister has visited many countries.
  • Present perfect: I have already washed the dishes, so you don’t have to.

The moment you add a specific time (last year, earlier today, in 2010, for example) you trigger the use of the past tense.

  • Past simple: My sister visited many countries last summer.
  • Past simple: I washed the dishes this morning.

So, ask yourself: Am I describing an action that took place at a specific time in the past, or am I expressing an activity that took place at an undetermined time in the past? This question will help you determine the correct verb tense to use.

Present Tense Use #3: Still True Today

Another common use of the present perfect tense is when you would like to describe an action that started in the past and is still true now.

  • Present perfect: Marcus has lived in Texas for 20 years.
  • Present perfect: Mr. Ramirez has taught English since 2003.

As soon as you include a length of time (for 20 years) or a starting point (since 2003), you trigger the use of the present perfect. Why? Because although the action or situation exists in the present, it started in the past. Neither the present tense nor the past tense conveys that message. You need a verb tense that bridges these two time periods: the present perfect.

In conclusion, the present perfect tense is a tense that can allow for a lot of nuance and inherent meaning. However, it is a highly practical verb tense, too. Start today by asking a co-worker, "Have you seen that new movie yet?" Or, tell a friend, "I can’t believe you have never been to Prague (or another amazing city); you have to visit it someday!" If you can learn to embrace and use the present perfect, your speaking and writing will reflect a higher level of accuracy and complexity.

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Stephanie Schottel, M.A. is an ESL instructor at Talaera and the owner of Cup of Tea Language Coaching, a Houston-based business that specializes in one-on-one ESL coaching that empowers English learners to express themselves fully and confidently in their communities and workplaces. By using her own experience of studying and working abroad in Germany (and feeling unable to express her true self with the language tools she had), she brings insight, empathy, and knowledge of the language learning process into every session. She is passionate about helping ESL students to master the language so that they have the tools at hand to convey their ideas, values, and personality without compromise. When she is not teaching English, you will likely find her doing art projects with her daughter, on a jog or on a paddle-board, or looking up new German vocabulary words in her 25-year-old German dictionary (that is literally falling apart).

[This article was originally published in 2018 and recently updated to maintain relevance.]