A common area of confusion for English learners is when you need to decide whether to use past simple or present perfect to describe something that happened in the past. The truth is that we use both tenses to describe past events but they have a different meaning and can communicate a different message.
In this lesson, we'll look at both and when to use past simple and when to use present perfect. It's important to note that the topic of present perfect is long and detailed so this lesson does not explain all of the different meanings of present perfect. If you are interested in learning more about present perfect, read Lesson 9 and 10 in the Grammar Essentials Part 1 book.
Past Simple is the most common way to describe past events that are completed, but we don’t use it for everything in the past. We use past simple to describe events in a story that is finished, usually described with a finished time-period.
For example, when you say: “last week”, you are focusing on a finished time period (a period that ended last Sunday). This means that your story about last week is a finished story and the events that you mention in that story need to be past simple to express that they are part of a finished story:
Last week I went to the doctor and did a COVID test.
Most of our descriptions about the past are related to a finished story and finished time-period, such as “last night”, “yesterday”, “in March”, “when I talked to her”, etc., so events in these stories will be in past simple:
Last night, I went to bed really late. – the story of last night
The weather was terrible yesterday. – the finished story of yesterday
I traveled to USA in March. – the finished story of last March
When I talked to her, she gave me the details. – the finished story of talking to her
Present Perfect (Simple)
It’s important to remember that present perfect tense always has some kind of connection to the present, even if the event you are describing already ended in the past. Most people are familiar with using present perfect continuous to describe something that is still happening, such as: “I have been living here for ten years” (and I’m still living here). However, you can also use present perfect for something that ended in the past, such as when you say: “I have seen that movie.”
The reason we use present perfect for events that already ended is because this event is part of an overall story that is ongoing (still happening). For example, when you say: “I have seen that movie”, you are actually talking about the story of your life. Maybe you saw the movie yesterday or maybe you saw it ten years ago, but when you saw this movie is not the point. The main point is that “seeing that movie” is an experience that exists in the ongoing period of your life.
On the other hand, if you add: “three years ago” to this fact, then you are changing your story from a story about your life to a story about 2018 (three years ago). A story about 2018 is a finished story, so you have to say: “I saw that movie three years ago”. You can see the comparison below:
I saw that movie three years ago. – this is a story about three years ago (a finished time-period)
I have seen that movie (at some point in my life). – this is a story about my life (an ongoing time-period)
Imagine the situation below and how they sound different. In which case is John dead and in which case is John alive?:
John did many exciting things in his life.
John has done many exciting things in his life.
In example 1, it sounds like John is dead because “his life” is now a finished time period (because he’s dead), and in example 2, John is still alive because “his life” is a continuing time-period, so he’s still alive.
Look at the words below and decide which words describe a finished time period (and therefore would use past simple tense) and which words describe an ongoing time-period (and therefore would use present perfect tense):
this year / last year / today / yesterday / when…. / five weeks ago / in my career / in July / so far / at that time / in my life / that meeting / this meeting / in the company’s history
this project / that project / since then
Finished: last year, yesterday, when..., five weeks ago, in July, at that time, that meeting, that project
Ongoing: this year, today, in my career, so far, in my life, this meeting, in the company's history, this project, since then
Note that the word "this" is often used to describe something that is still ongoing, so if you say "this project", it means the project is still happening. On the other hand, if you say "that", it usually means the event is finished, so if you say "that project", it means that the project is finished.
Also, the time period "in my career" can be a finished time period if you retire from work, and the time period "in July" can be an ongoing time period if this month is July.
Why and When Should I Use Present Perfect?
Use present perfect when you want to express that certain events are part of a situation that is not finished yet. For example, if you are doing a project that has ten stages, and five stages are completed, you can say: “we’ve completed five stages” because these five stages are part of the overall ten-stage project that is still ongoing.
Another example is talking about things you have discussed during “this meeting” that is still ongoing: “we’ve agreed on the schedule and we’ve decided the budget.”
Put the verb in brackets into past simple form if it’s in a story about a finished time-period (ex. 10 years ago) or put the verb into present perfect form if it’s in a story about an ongoing time-period.
Facebook ___________ (acquire) many companies, including Instagram and WhatsApp.
Five years ago, Facebook ____________ (acquire) Instagram.
So far in their recovery plan, McDonalds ___________ (refurbish) their stores, _________ (remove) GMOs from their menu, and __________ (simplify) their menu.
Last year, McDonalds ____________ (fire) their CEO.
Amazon ____________ (make) many changes in their history.
In 2010, Amazon __________ (launch) Amazon Web Services. It __________ (boost) profits significantly for the company since then.
When Disney _______________ (announce) their plans to start a streaming video service, their stock price _________ (increase) by 10%.
Disney _________ (produce) several successful shows, such as Mandalorian.
We __________ (test) many products this month and the results __________ (be) good so far.
We ___________ (test) the products during the quality control check that we did.
Last week, the company __________ (announce) a new partnership with a multinational company.
This year, the company _________ (announced) new partnerships with several companies.
Facebook has acquired many companies, including Instagram and WhatsApp (in its history).
Five years ago, Facebook acquired Instagram.
So far in their recovery plan, McDonalds has refurbished their stores, has removed GMOs from their menu, and has simplified their menu.
Last year, McDonalds fired their CEO.
Amazon has made many changes in their history.
In 2010, Amazon launched Amazon Web Services. It has boosted profits significantly for the company since then.
When Disney announced their plans to start a streaming video service, their stock price increased by 10%.
Disney has produced several successful shows, such as Mandalorian.
We have tested many products this month and the results have been good so far.
We tested the products during the quality control check.
Last week, the company announced a new partnership with a multinational company.
This year, the company has announced new partnerships with several companies.