Past simple or Present perfect

Past simple or Present perfect

By Alena Lien, 

13 April 2021

Click below to expand each section. 

Timeline



Past simple tense



-   Finished events:


We use the past simple tense to talk about things that happened in the past. Here, events or actions are always finished.



  • "I lost my keys."

  • "I was in Tasmania for a week last month."



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Present perfect tense


On the other hand, we use the present perfect tense to talk about things that happened within a period of time - that started some time in the past, until the present time.


For the present perfect, events are often finished. However, the tricky thing about the present perfect is that this period of time can extend past "now" or the time of speaking - so events can be ongoing or the time period unfinished.



-   Finished events: 



  • "I've lost my keys."

  • "I've visited Tasmania 3 times."



-   Ongoing events:



  • "They've been married for 25 years."

  • "I've lived in Melbourne since 2002."




-   Unfinished time periods:


Usually with present time expressions.



  • "I've drank 3 cups of tea today."

  • "It's been quite stressful this year."



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2.   Without time expressions



Because the past simple and present perfect have very specific timelines, you can actually use both tenses without time expressions.



-   Recently finished events:


Often the past simple and present perfect can be used interchangeably when referring to recently finished events.



Past simple: "I lost my keys."

This means that at some time in the recent past, I lost my keys.


Present perfect: "I've lost my keys."

This means I lost my keys recently.


Otherwise, both of these sentences mean the same thing.



Past simple: "She went out."


Present perfect: "She's gone out."


Again, both of these mean the same thing.




-   Past events that are not recent - Past simple:


Only the past simple can be used.



  • "Who painted the Mona Lisa?"

Not - "Who has painted the Mona Lisa?"


  • "I grew up in Brunei."

Not - "I've grown up in Brunei."




-   Life experiences - Present perfect: 


The present perfect is preferred.



  • "We've been to Tasmania once."

This means in our lifetime, I went to Tasmania.


  • "I've tried kangaroo meat."

This means in my lifetime, I ate kangaroo meat.





3.   Past time expressions



Past time expressions can only be used with the past simple tense, not the present perfect. To state that events occurred at a certain time in the past.


Examples include: "yesterday," "last week," "from 1990 to 2001," etc.



  • "I lost my keys yesterday."

Not - "I've lost my keys yesterday."


  • "They moved to Sydney in 1990."

Not - "They've moved to Sydney in 1990."




-   Life experiences - Past simple + past time expressions:


It is possible to use the past simple here with a past time expression.



  • "Where did you go for your vacation last month?"

  •       "We went to Tasmania."


  • "I tried kangaroo meat four years ago."





4.   Present time expressions



Present time expressions are typically used with the present perfect tense


It is also possible to use certain present time expressions in the past simple tense. However more care should be taken as using the past simple can imply different things.



-   Unfinished time periods:



Past simple: "I went to Tasmania this month."

This is referring to a finished event but the time period is unfinished at the time of speaking.


Present perfect: "I've been to Tasmania this month."

This means I went to Tasmania within the current month, so this is an unfinished period of time.


Otherwise, both mean the same thing.



Past simple: "What did you do today?"

Present perfect: "What have you done today?"


Both are asking the same thing.




-   Finished time period but still in the present - Past simple:


Here, we can refer to earlier parts of the day within the same day, which is a finished time period in the past. This cannot be used with the present perfect.



Past simple - In the afternoon: "I woke up late this morning."

Not - "I've woken up late this morning." 


Present perfect: "I've woken up."

This implies that I just woke up.



Past simple - At night: "We went to Grill'd in the afternoon."

Not - "We've been to Grill'd in the afternoon."


Present perfect: "We've been to Grill'd."

This means I went to Grill'd before in my lifetime.





5.   More time expressions



Here are a number of other time expressions you can use with the past simple or present perfect.



-   Vague general time expressions


 Examples: "never," "ever," "before," "so far," "until now," etc.


These are usually used in the present perfect when referring to finished events.


Some of these can be used with the past simple, although care should be taken as using the past simple can sometimes imply different things.



Past simple: "I never went to Tasmania."

This means this never happened.


Present perfect: "I've never been to Tasmania."

This means that up until now I have not been to Tasmania, but this could change in the future.



Past simple: "So far, I went to the supermarket and the post office."


Present perfect: "So far, I've been to the supermarket and the post office."


The present perfect is preferred here, but both sentences mean the same thing.




-   "For


To refer to the duration of a period of time.



Past simple: "They were married for 25 years."

This means this is finished. They were married for 25 years, but not anymore - either they divorced or one (or both) died.


Present perfect: "They've been married for 25 years."

This means this is ongoing and they are still married.




-   "Since


To indicate when the period of time started.


The main clause is usually in the present perfect. "Since" introduces the event at a point in the past, so this can be followed by a specific time, the present perfect or past simple.



Present perfect + specific time: "I haven't been back to Brisbane since 2003."


Present perfect + past simple: "We've tried the steak here since they hired a new chef last month."


Present perfect + present perfect: "It's been years since I've eaten meat."




-   "Already" 


To emphasise that something is done.



Past simple: "I already took a bath."

Present perfect: "I've already taken a bath."


Both sentences mean the same thing.




-   "Just" and "recently"


To indicate something happened recently.



Past simple: "I just lost my keys."

Present perfect: "I've just lost my keys."


Both sentences mean the same thing.




-   "Yet


To indicate that events are incomplete or not done.


Please note: I found some disagreements whether this can be used with the past simple or not. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, "yet" is usually used with present perfect but not with past simple. However, in "Grammar in Use - Intermediate (3rd Ed., p. 16)," "yet" can be used with both the present perfect and past simple. There are also further disagreements in online English learning forums.


Personally, I think both are fine. 


Past simple: "Did you do your homework yet?"

Present perfect: "Have you done your homework yet?"