Past and Present Perfect Tense Use

The present perfect tense and the past perfect both show the order in which things happened in the past. 

Woman in a bright blouse studying in class. Text: Mary has been studying English for three years... She had learned Mandarin earlier, & she felt ready for a new challenge...

The simple past tense describes what happened completely in the past.

The past perfect shows that something happened before something else in the past. “He had already finished dinner when his friend arrived.” (‘Had finished’ is past perfect; ‘arrived’ is simple past.) 

We use the present perfect tense when something that began in the past continues into the present. Examples: "They've been friends for years, but they've only spent time together in the summers." "How many years have you lived in Denver?" 

(We also use it for statements of fact without a beginning date. Examples: "I have always liked to read" or "he has never studied engineering.")

We make the perfect tenses using a form of the verb ‘have’ with the past participle of the main verb. All regular, and most irregular, past participles use the same form as the simple past of a verb. (Examples of such past participles in the sentences above: finished, spent, lived, liked, studied. These are the same as their simple past tense forms. 'Been' is different. The simple past is 'was' or 'were.') 

For irregular simple past forms and their past participles, see Past Tense Irregular Verbs. See also Irregular Past Participles for a list of those that are different from the simple past (been, gone, known, seen, written, etc.)

Both present and past perfect can also be continuous tenses. (We form them with ‘have’ + past participle of ‘be’ + present participle of the main verb.


  • Ben's mother had been cooking dinner when he fell out of the tree.
  • Jeff has been studying German for three years.
  • "Allen, you've been playing video games when you should have been doing your homework!"

The last example shows how the present perfect can also be used with modal verbs. Other examples:

  • Annie could have worked at a big tech company. 
  • She might have helped with your homework if you had asked nicely.
  • Next month they will have been married for 25 years.
  • I would have worked faster if you had told me about the deadline! 

Have you heard English speakers say something that sounded like ‘wouda, (or woud of/ov) couda/ov, or shoulda/ov?’ That’s how we normally pronounce ‘would have,’ ‘could have,’ and ‘should have.’ (The ‘a’ or ‘ov’ sound is “reduced”-- pronounced softly and fast-- because we don’t stress that syllable.) So “I would have gone if I could have” sounds like ‘I wouda gone if I coud of.’

The present perfect tense (as well as the past perfect) is often used with ‘for’ a certain time or ‘since’ a date:

·       He has been sick for two weeks.

·       He has been sick since last Wednesday.

·       The author has cared about educational opportunities since she taught inner city kids. 

·       They have been studying English since 2006, but they still haven’t become fluent.

·       “How long have you worked in the sales department?”

·       “I’ve been in sales for two years, but I’ve only worked directly with customers for the last six months.”

·       “That’s interesting. My friend had been in sales for just two weeks before his company left him on the sales floor by himself.”

Try Using the Present Perfect Tense
(& the Past Perfect) in this Exercise

Fill in the blanks using has, have, ‘ve, or had:

“_____ you always been interested in baseball? “

“I’_____ been a fan since I was able to watch it on my Dad’s lap! What about you?”

[ _______n’t really gotten into baseball, but I’____ always loved classical guitar. My brother taught me to play. He _____n’t ever studied professionally, but you’d think he had if you heard him.


Matt _____ studied very hard for the GRE exam, but he still doesn’t feel confident. Some of his friends  who ______ already taken it ______ told him it was a lot harder than they expected. They said they ______ expected more questions based on what they _____ already studied. They were surprised to find many questions in which they had to analyze situations that were unfamiliar to them.

Check your answers.

If you would like more fill-in and reading practice with the past or present perfect tense, go to Present and Past Perfect Tense Practice.

Go to Irregular Past Participles for examples and a list of all the common past participles that are different from their simple past forms. 

Home> English Verb Tenses> Past & Present Perfect Tense Use

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