Present Perfect vs. Past Simple: Learn the Key Differences and Never Confuse the Two Again
As a language learner, you may be quite confused about the difference between the present perfect and the simple past tenses.
After all, they both refer to events that already happened and are now in the past.
I hope by the time you finish reading this post, the differences are clear in your head and you’ll never be confused about the two again!
- The English Tenses: A Brief Introduction
- The Past Simple
- The Present Perfect
- Present Perfect vs Past Simple: The Key Differences
- Practice What You’ve Learned
The English Tenses: A Brief Introduction
Before I go into the details of the simple past and the present perfect, it’s important that you fully understand the concept of tenses in English.
Well, what are tenses?
Tenses, as some of you may already know, are a way of measuring time. Tenses tell us whether a particular action has already happened, is happening or will happen. Every sentence we speak or write in English is in one of these tenses.
So how do we determine the tense being used when looking at a sentence?
The answer is simple.
The verbs we use tell us which tense is being used. If the verb form changes, the tense changes (and vice versa).
In English, there are three main tenses: past, present and future.
Here’s a simple trick to remember which is which.
When we talk about any event or action (let’s say, eating a cookie), it can only happen in one of these three times:
It happened yesterday or even earlier (Past): I talked to Mary yesterday.
It happened today or right now (Present): I am talking to Mary on the phone.
It will happen tomorrow or even later (Future): I will talk tho Mary at work tomorrow.
I personally found the model of using yesterday, today and tomorrow to memorize the three tenses of past, present and future to be very useful. Plus, it’s a good way to start learning basic tenses if you’re a beginner. (Of course, even if something happened a few minutes or hours ago, it’s also in the past—but this is a good basic trick for remembering which tense is used for which “time”!).
Once you’re confident, we can look at them in greater detail and focus on the exceptions.
You might have noticed how the verb “to talk” changed depending on the tense of the sentence. Indeed, if you’re going to master tenses, you need to know:
- How and when to change the verbs (such as ate, eat, eating and eaten)
- Which helping verbs to use (such as have, will, is and so on) in certain cases
Now, each of these three tenses can be further divided into four “sub” tenses. These are simple, continuous, perfect and perfect continuous.
The best way to explain this is to rewrite the above example in each of the sub-tenses. For now, don’t worry about why we have to use so many tenses. Instead, just focus on how the verb (“to read”) is changing in each.
Or you could try writing them on your own and checking the answers below.
Simple Past: I talked to Mary yesterday.
Past Continuous: I was talking to Mary when you came in.
Past Perfect: I had talked to Mary before eating dinner.
Past Perfect Continuous: I had been talking to Mary for two hours before we finally hung up.
Simple Present: I talk to Mary at least once a day.
Present Continuous: I am talking to Mary right now.
Present Perfect: I have talked to Mary before.
Present Perfect Continuous: I have been talking to Mary for three hours now.
Simple Future: I will talk to Mary tomorrow.
Future Continuous: I will be talking to Mary on the train ride tomorrow.
Future Perfect: I will have talked to Mary by next week.
Future Perfect Continuous: I will have been talking to Mary for two hours at 3:00.
Now that you’ve reviewed the basics of tenses, let’s move on to the difference between past simple and present perfect. If you still aren’t feeling confident, consider brushing up on your knowledge of how to use tenses before continuing.
The Past Simple
What Is It and When Do We Use It?
The past simple (also called the simple past), as the name suggests, is the tense we use to talk about any action or event that has already happened.
Moreover, we use this tense when we know the exact or specific details of the time of the event (such as yesterday, the previous winter, last year, five hours ago and so on). In other words, the event is already over and finished.
Here are some examples:
I wrote a few lines of the story in my notebook last week.
He went on an exchange program two years ago.
She ate the entire pie yesterday.
I talked to Maria on the phone five minutes ago.
In each example, the action was finished within a certain time frame. In short, the simple past is used when talk about events that already finished.
We may also use this tense when we want to focus on telling people about the action.
Here are two examples:
We danced a lot at the party.
I walked home from school.
In both cases, the focus is on telling of the action (“dancing a lot,” “walking home”) that took place in the past and not on the results or consequences of the action. We’re just talking about an event in the past and aren’t discussing the possible effects of it.
If you’re still confused, no worries. This point will become clearer once we get to present perfect.
To sum up, we use the simple past to refer to an event or an action that took place in “finished time” or to simply focus on talking about the action itself.
Verb Forms to Use with the Past Simple
To write a sentence in the simple past, we have to convert the verb to its simple past form.
But verb conjugation can be tricky to get a hang of.
For regular verbs, there are a few rules regarding how to convert them. But for irregular verbs, you need to memorize the verb forms.
Let’s take a regular verb like to walk and an irregular verb like to eat, for example.
She walked home from the party. (We added an “-ed” to “walk”)
He ate a pizza for dinner. (“Eat” changes to “ate”)
If you’re feeling intimidated or confused about verb conjugations, don’t worry! All it takes is a bit of practice and soon it’ll become second nature.
The Present Perfect
What Is It and When Do We Use It?
Here’s the tricky part.
Yes, the present perfect is one of the forms of the present tense. But we normally use it to talk about events that have already happened.
These events may be ongoing or completed but usually, the events took place recently and the time is unspecified.
In other words, present perfect is listed under the present tense because the event usually took place just now or recently. Therefore, it’s still “connected” to the present.
Does that make sense?
Of course, if we’re talking about a historical event or something that happened many years ago, we use the past tense.
Take a look at these two examples:
I have written a few lines already. (It took place recently.)
My husband and I have known each other for five years now. (Even though the time is mentioned here, the action is still ongoing or continuing into the present—we still know each other.)
But in most cases of the present perfect, the time of the action is “unfinished” or unspecified, like in this example:
He has been on an exchange program to Sweden. (The time isn’t specified)
We also use this tense when the focus is more on the “result” of the action instead of the “telling” of the action. For example:
She has eaten the pie all by herself. (The focus is on the result of the action—the pie is now finished by her!)
“Have you done your homework?” (A yes/no answer is wanted.)
Verb Forms to Use with the Present Perfect
Another way to differentiate between the two tenses is to simply look at the verbs used.
In the simple past, we use just one verb and it’s used in the “past” form.
In the present perfect, we use the helping verbs has or have along with the “participle” form of the main verb (which is the verb that indicates the action).
In other words, to convert a verb to the present perfect, we can use this simple formula:
has/have + participle form of the verb
So if the verb is to fly, then the present perfect form would be: has/have + flown, as in the following examples:
The birds have flown away.
My pet parrot has flown away.
For regular verbs, the participle and simple past forms are the same. For irregular verbs, the participle forms must be memorized.
Present Perfect vs Past Simple: The Key Differences
By now, you understand the key differences between the past simple and the present perfect. Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve learned so far:
- The past simple and the present perfect refer to two different tenses. As their names suggest, one refers to the past and the other to the present.
- We use the simple past to refer to an event/action that has already finished or happened, and the time is usually certain and specified. It always refers to finished time.
- We also use the simple past when we’re more interested in the “telling” of an action and not on the results of the action.
- The present perfect is used when the event/action took place very recently or the time isn’t specified.
- The present perfect is also used when we’re more interested in the results or consequences of the action/event, as the result is usually linked to the present.
- The simple past uses a single verb (the simple past form of the verb) while the present perfect uses two verbs (has/have + participle form of the verb).
- The easiest way to remember is that the action/event in past simple refers to “finished” time while in present perfect, it suggests there’s still a connection to the present.
Practice What You’ve Learned
Now that you know the differences, it’s time to put your knowledge to test.
Here are a few simple and short quizzes and exercises that test your understanding of these two tenses.
- English-hilfen.de: This is a simple fill-in-the-blanks quiz where you have to choose the right word or phrase from a drop-down list. It’s a pretty good way to know if you’ve grasped the basics or not.
- English Page: Another simple one, in this quiz you have to fill-in-the-blanks for a paragraph by using the right form of the verb. To make it easier, they also offer hints.
- English Grammar Online: This site also summarizes the differences between the two tenses, followed by several in-depth exercises and three practice tests. Try these out once you’re confident enough.
- AgendaWeb: Finally, if you’re feeling brave enough, you can try the exercises listed here. There are plenty of them so you can try solving them from time to time as revision or for extra practice.
Besides this list, you can also try to practice by watching these tenses in action. In other words, you should get a lot of exposure to English conversations and sentences. Carefully study phrases for when the tenses are used and see how the verbs are working with the other words around it.
This kind of practice is also pretty easy to do. You can read English books or magazines, listen to English music or watch English videos, TV shows and movies. Basically, you can consume any English media that would show natural-sounding sentences!
For a more guided approach, the language learning program FluentU can help show the present perfect and the past simple in context. Its videos come with interactive subtitles where you can click on a word for its definition and basic grammatical information (including tense). You can also review verbs in their different tenses, along with other vocabulary, with multimedia flashcards and quizzes.
I hope this post has cleared the confusion between the present perfect and the past simple tenses. Now you know how you can still use present tense to talk about a past event.
Yes, the English language is curious like that. The good news is, the more you practice the better you’ll be. So be consistent and motivated about learning and you’ll be fluent in English before you know it!