It’s been a while since we’ve given you a grammar lesson on the Bespeaking blog (click here for Present vs Present Continuous) so we figured that there’s no time like the present! Or, the present perfect vs past simple, you could say…now that’s punny!

Two tenses that can be easily confused by people learning English are: present perfect tense vs past simple tense. You may think they mean the same thing, but the meanings are really different.

Here’s a good look at the differences between these two tenses, when you should use them, and an exercise to help you practice! Here we go!

Here is the main difference between present perfect vs past simple:

Past Tense:

  • Used to describe WHEN something in the past happened.
  • The time is the most important point.
  • There is no connection to now.

Present Perfect:

  • Used to say that something has happened (up until now), but the WHEN exactly, is not important.
  • There is a connection to now.

Past Simple

The past simple is formed in the following way:

  • Regular Verbs: infinitive + -ed
  • Irregular verbs…please look at and memorize the irregular verb form. Sorry!!

Signal Words for Past Simple:

  • Yesterday, ago, last month/year/Thursday, when I was a child, in 1984, etc.

The past simple is used in the following conditions (situations):

Finished actions in the past- totally over, no connection to now:

For example:

  • I knew Tom for 15 years. (But then he moved away and we lost touch. I do NOT know him anymore, so there is no connection to now.)
  • I lived in that house for 6 years. (I do not live in that house anymore, that event is totally over.)

A finished action in someone’s life when the person has passed away:

For example:

  • My grandmother went to Canada three times in her life. (But she passed away so there is no connection to now.)

A finished action without a result in the present:

For example:

  • Yesterday, I lost my keys. It was so annoying! (But I’m only telling you a story from yesterday, saying there is no connection to now. If my keys were still lost, I would use present perfect tense!)

With a finished time word, such as last week, last month, last year, yesterday, ago, when I was a child, in 1984, etc.:

For example:

  • I saw Susan three times last week. (No connection to now.)
  • I moved here 10 years ago.

Present Perfect

The present perfect is formed in the following way:

  • have/has + past participle

Signal Words for Present Perfect Tense:

  • Already, ever, never, yet, so far, up until now, in the last…, since 2015, for the last 10 years.

The present perfect tense is used in the following situations:

Unfinished actions that started in the past and continue up to now, a time range:

For example:

  • I have known Tom since I was a kid. (I have known him for a certain amount of time, and I still know him today.)

Here, we are not talking about when you MET Tom. That would be past tense because you would say, “I met Tom WHEN I was a kid”. We want to know how long (period of time) you have known him up until now.

A finished action in the past, sometime in a person’s life, anytime up until now (such as a life experience):

For example:

  • My aunt has been to Canada three times. (She is not still in Canada, but has been there 3 times, and we don’t know WHEN exactly. If we said when exactly, then we would need past tense.)

A finished action in the past that has a result in the present, or has just finished:

For example:

  • I’ve lost my keys! (The result being that I can’t get into my house/am late for work/etc.)
  • I’ve already eaten lunch, thanks. (The result is I am not hungry right now.)
  • We’ve just landed in Dublin. We should be home in an hour. (We are now on the ground, but landed just a few minutes ago.)

Can be used with an unfinished time word, such as this week, this month, this year, or today that means up until now:

For example:

  • I’ve seen Susan three times this week. (The week is not over, so I could see her again.)
  • I’ve had 5 cups of coffee so far today! (I may still drink more, the day is still young!)

Can you understand the meanings in these present perfect vs past simple sentences?

  • lived in Stuttgart for 5 years.
  • have lived in Stuttgart for 5 years.
  • knew her for many years!
  • have known her for many years!
  • had three cups of coffee this morning.
  • I’ve had three cups of coffee this morning.
  • We called her three times.
  • We have called her three times.
  • Each of the past tense examples means the action is completely in the past.
  • Each of the present perfect examples shows that there is still a connection to now.

Present Perfect vs Past Simple Practice

Fill in the blank with the correct form of either the past simple or present perfect.

  • I _____ (go) to the museum last week.
  • When I _____ (be) a child, I _______ (hate) playing the piano.
  • I _________ (see) 3 people in the store so far today.
  • He ______ (read) all of his books — he thinks they’re so interesting!
  • Susan ______ (lose) her train ticket and now has to buy a new one.
  • He ______ (never/drink) alcohol when he was alive.
  • How long _______ (you/know) your neighbor for?
  • They _______ (be) married for 45 years and are still very much in love!
  • My grandmother ______ (travel) to Scotland many times and she is going again next week.
  • I ______ (wash) the dishes, _____ (do) the laundry, and ________ (vacuum) the house when I got home from work last night.

Make sure to put your answers to the present perfect vs past simple quiz in the comments, and we’ll let you know how you did!

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Looking for grammar? Try Tricky Adjectives and Adverbs, when to use Which and ThatOrder of AdjectivesIts vs It’s, and Present Continuous tense!

Erin Duffin has been living in Hamburg for a while now, has been an English teacher for years, has been blogging for Bespeaking for almost two years, became a yoga instructor before she moved to Germany, and thinks that now you must understand the difference between present perfect vs past simple! 

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