The Present Perfect

The present perfect tense is unarguably one of the most difficult aspects of English grammar for learners coming from a language that doesn't have a perfect tense. This is because it seems to have characteristics that make it seem like a past tense and others that make it seem like a present tense. One thing is for sure — it's a very nuanced tense and you'll need to study it carefully.

The PRESENT PERFECT is a compound tense consisting of a present form of have plus a past participle: I have eaten, he has eaten, we have eaten, etc. 

The meaning of the present perfect isn't as simple to explain. It's often defined as "referring to an action that started at some point in the past and carries on into the present or has some bearing on the present." If this explanation confuses you, you're not alone. It's hard to grasp — even for me, a native English speaker. But the worst thing about this explanation is that it can be misleading to learners, giving them the impression that it's a past form and that it's interchangeable with the simple past. As a result, learners tend to overuse it or use it incorrectly, for instance, saying things like I've eaten or I've seen where they should use I ate and I saw. So perhaps the best place to start is explaining where not to use it.


Note that the forms has and have are commonly contracted — especially after pronouns: I've eaten, he's eaten, we've eaten. For more on this, see Contractions.

1a The present perfect is a present tense

The present perfect cannot be used in conjunction with a time adverb that refers to a point in the past*. This is because the present perfect is, after all, a present tense as the name implies. So according to this rule, you can't say Yesterday, I've had four cups of coffee. The reason is obvious: yesterday refers to a point in the past that is over. It has passed completely, and, in that context, the only option is the simple past: Yesterday, I had four cups of coffee

However, this is where things get a little confusing because despite this rule, you can say something like This morning, I've had four cups of coffee. 😮

How is that possible? 

This is the source of a lot of the confusion regarding the use of the present perfect, and yet the answer is so simple: the only time you can use this morning with the present perfect correctly is if this morning has not yet passed; it's still morning when you say it.

In other words, when this morning is still the present. In this context, it means that up to this point in the morning, you've already had four cups of coffee. However, once the morning ends, anything that happened during that time is considered past action and referred to with the past tense. The same goes for the adverbs today, this afternoon, this evening, this summer and any other time element that can refer to either the past or the present if you're still in it.


*There's only one exception to this rule — see 4 below.

1b The present perfect is open-ended

The present perfect has another interesting property: it's open-ended. In other words, it's often used to refer to a particular stage in a process, where it refers to what has been done up to the present moment, but it also makes it clear that the process ISN'T FINISHED and is going to continue. Applying this to our example with the coffee, the present perfect not only reports how many cups of coffee we've so far this morning but it implies that you may have more before the morning ends. In other words, it implies that you're not necessarily finished drinking coffee but so far, you've had three cups.

For instance, in the following snippet, Olga expresses how far she's read by using the present perfect, but it also makes it clear that she intends to continue reading.

In her response, Olga could've said I've only read the About page so far, however, by using the present perfect, there's no need to use so far outright because the perfect — and the context — make this nuance abundantly clear.
Ollie invites Olga to check out his new website.


Ollie: So, what do you think of my site. Have you had a chance to look at it?

Olga: I’ve only read the About page, but I’ll check out the rest tomorrow!

Today, like this morning, is a temporal adverb that can be used in the middle of the day with a present interpretation, or at the end of the day with a past interpretation. In this example, the day is not yet over, and already, Angie has seen Nina's brother four times. Using the present perfect like this implies that she may even see him more times before the day is through. Note that she uses the simple past to say she saw him at the post office this morning. This is because when she says this, this morning is over and is in the past.____________⦿ Nice to see you too! | Here, Nina's reacting somewhat sarcastically to the fact that instead of greeting her properly, Angie said This is crazy! You'll often hear this in movies and shows when people don't properly greet someone.⦿ dog park | A designated fenced-in area with grass, where people can release their dogs and let them play with other dogs.⦿ to be stopped at a light | This looks like a passive statement — as if a policeman or someone stopped you, i.e. made you stop at a traffic light, but it’s actually a very common way to say that you were at a red light waiting for the green light.⦿ if I didn’t know (any) better, I’d say/think... | This expression is used «obviously, this isn’t the case, but it sure looks like it» In other words, Angie knows that Nina and her brother aren't really stalking her, but she's suggesting that theoretically or jokingly, they could be, considering how many times she'd seen them that day.
Angie runs into her friend Nina in the afternoon at the library._____________

Angie: Hey Nina... this is crazy!

Nina: Nice to see you too! 

Angie: Sorry! Hi! No! I say that because I've seen your brother four times today. I saw him at the post office this morning, then at the dog park. Then I was stopped at a light and he was in the next lane. Then just now when I went to get a coffee. And now I run into you. If I didn't know better, I'd say you two were stalking me :)

The Perfect with just

Above, we saw that the present perfect can't be used if we specify a point in the past. However, there's one exception: the adverb just meaning a moment ago

Just is technically a point in the past, but since it's the immediate past — in some cases, a matter of seconds or minutes — some English speakers treat it as if it were the present and find it natural to use the present perfect with it. However, most Americans view it as the past and use the past tense with it. For instance, take this exchange: 

Alan: I wonder how Greg's doing after his operation. 

Barbara: Oh, I just saw him. He's fine.

To the American ear, the simple past sounds the most natural with just. So, although I've just seen him is possible in American English, it can sound somewhat formal, dated or even straight up British to the average American speaker. 

Now that we've seen where not to use the present perfect, let's explore the places where we can and should use it.

2a Experience

Since it has an inherent meaning of «so far», the present perfect is the tense used to express that you did something or experienced something AT LEAST ONCE IN YOUR LIFE, at some unspecified(!) point in the past. 

Remember, according to (1) above, we can't specify when we experienced it; the only thing that's relevant is that we experienced something, that we're familiar with something now, that we're not new to something now as a result of having experienced it at some point in our lives. And, of course, it's open-ended in the sense that you may experience it again.

In this example from [001] Bird Watching, I make it clear that I'm not new to birds; that at some point in the past, I noticed them. Whether I noticed them once or more than once isn't relevant — only the fact that I did at least once and can now claim to not be a complete stranger to them as a result.

"Florida is absolutely teeming with birds, reptiles, and all kinds of critters. And of course, I've noticed birds before." 

Failure to Use the Present Perfect

One common mistake I see is learners not using the present perfect when talking about a life experience: 

Adam: What's he making? Is that paella?

Claire: I don't know. *I never ate it.

Since the simple past is used to refer to a specific point in the past, using it in the above context sounds like Claire's referring to a specific occasion where she was present, they served paella, but for some reason, she didn't eat it. However, it's clear from the context that she means that she's never eaten paella IN HER LIFE, so the present perfect is the correct choice: I don't know. I've never eaten it.

2b Already/Not yet

The present perfect is often used in conjunction with — or instead of — the adverb already in affirmative contexts where the speaker wants to make it clear that something is no longer an option, problem or factor. Conversely, it's used in negative contexts to express not yet.

Here we see that watching Predator isn't an option because Olivia already saw it. But by expressing this with the present perfect as an experience she's had and isn't interested in doing again, she doesn't need to use already outright. To be clear: it wouldn't sound unnatural or incorrect to use already here — it just isn't necessary when using the perfect because it's more or less built into the tense.Also note that when asked if she wants to climb mount Sumner, Olivia responds Done that!, which is short for I've (already) done that. It comes from the popular idiom: Been there, done that! which we use to make it clear that we don't wish to go through something that we've already been through — usually an unpleasant situation. For instance:A: I don't understand why you're not married. You're still so young and attractive.B: No, thank you! Been there, done that! I'd rather be alone than in bad company.Here, the speaker has already been married and is obviously divorced and has no desire to "go there" again.
Nick and his daughter are making plans to spend the weekend together but are having trouble coming up with options.


Nick: What do you say we see the new Predator movie?

Olivia: I've seen it.

Nick: Well, we could hike all the way to the top of Mount Sumner...

Olivia: Done that! Last year with my class.

Nick: How about we visit the World War II Museum?

Olivia: I've been there... every summer for the past three years with Aunt Rita.

In 004 Game of Thrones, I used the present perfect in the verb phrase haven't seen with a nuance of not yet. But again, by using the present perfect in a negative context, it's not necessary to use yet outright, although it wouldn't be incorrect or unnatural to do so.

Well, I thought that would be badass af for a blog since I, too, have never watched it. I’ve heard about it, of course, but never got around to actually watching it. So if you haven’t seen it [yet], let this be your spoiler alert!

In 003 Mahinarangi, a mother is outraged that the teachers at her little girl's daycare shortened her five-syllable name. I use the present perfect to say that I'm surprised the mother hasn't shortened it yet herself since it's so long.

And imagine the poor teachers! They have to deal with a bunch of kids running around, screaming, fighting, and well… being kids. Do you honestly think they have time to yell out such a long and complicated name? Frankly, I’m surprised the mother hasn’t shortened it [yet]

3a Focus on a Significant Present Situation

This usage of the present perfect isn't related to time — it's about focus. It's used to express that something was done that the speaker considers impactful now because it somehow crossed a line and in some way changed things and created a significant situation in the present.  

In other words, this use of the present perfect isn't so much grammatical as it is emotive — you can choose to use it or not use it depending on how you feel about the situation at hand. 

In this example, Evan could've used the simple past and explained that Brenda lost her purse. However, the present perfect successfully takes the focus off the losing of the purse in the past and puts it on the present resulting situation, which Evan obviously considers of significant urgency. It makes the past action relevant only in terms of the situation that it created and that they're dealing with now.
Nina comes home to find her children running around frantically looking for something.____________

Nina: What's going on?!

Evan: Brenda's lost her purse, and her plane ticket and vacation money are in it. Her flight's in two hours!

Nina: Did you go anywhere today? Could you have left it somewhere?

Brenda: Oh my God, that's it! I left it in my Uber this morning when I went to work out.

⁕ ⁕ ⁕Note that at the end of the dialog, Brenda says that she left the purse in her Uber. Here she uses the simple past because the focus is more on what she did in the past, and not on the situation they're dealing with now of frantically trying to find the bag. In other words, Brenda shifted the focus from the present to the past using the simple past.

Overuse of the Present Perfect

One  mistake I often see English learners commit again and again is using the present perfect in a way that makes it sounds as if there's a significant situation when there isn't. For instance, I recently saw where someone posted a painting on Facebook with the caption A friend of mine has painted this picture. The present perfect expresses an urgency or emphasis on the present that doesn't belong there; it signals that as a result of having painted the picture, there's now a situation of some sort. But there isn't.  It's enough to say A friend of mine painted this picture. 

3b Announcements

This usage of the present perfect is also emotive in nature. It takes a simple fact and turns it into a piece of news — usually in the form of an announcement. 

This usage is very important when you need to distinguish between just spitting out a fact, and relaying a significant piece of news or otherwise reporting any important or impactful eventuality. It expresses a nuance of «I want to let you know...» and can be applied to any situation that's meant to inform the listener of something newsworthy — something they consider eventful: Russia has declared war on the Ukraine! -or- Barbara's been fired. -or- I think the neighbors have put their house on the market... anything you want to flavor as newsworthy.

In this snippet, Bruce informs his roommate that he no longer smokes by announcing I've quit smoking. He could've just said I quit smoking, but that would just sound like a simple fact. This use of the present perfect replaces the past tense, takes a mere fact and turns it into an announcement. He's not merely telling Alan he quit smoking — he's informing him of a significant change in his life. Then again, he uses I've decided to tell Alan about another important life change. Then Alan uses the perfect to say You've inspired me. You may think that's not very "newsworthy" but the fact is, he wants Bruce to know that he inspired him and he considers it significant.
Bruce and his roommate, Alan, finish breakfast on a Saturday morning.


Bruce: That was delicious. Thank you.

Alan: What, no cigarette? 

Bruce: Nope. I've quit smoking.

Alan: Really? 

Bruce: Yep. I went to the doctor last week and I've decided to start a 6-week program to lose 20 lbs. 

Alan: What brought that on?

Bruce: I'm going to be 40 in a couple of months and I don't want to enter middle age in bad health.

Alan: Well, you've inspired me too! I'm not a smoker, but it wouldn't kill me to get into better shape.

4 Emphasis

When we're being extremely emphatic (and dramatic) about something we've experienced, we use the present perfect, without contracting it, and speak very deliberately and slowly. 

This is the only time it's okay to use the present perfect with a past temporal adverb like yesterday or this morning because in this type of statement, it's not about tense, it's about emotion and emphasis. In this usage, the perfect becomes a very emphatic version of the simple past. 

Let me explain: using the present perfect with a past temporal adverb is technically grammatically incorrect. However, in this usage, it's accepted by the native ear as an "special" form of the simple past when pronounced correctly. The thing is that when we're being emphatic, we tend to draw out individual words instead of contracting them. For instance, compare the neutral statement You shouldn't've called him to the more emphatic You. should. not. have. called. him! (And yes, we sometimes separate dramatic speech with periods in writing). 

Now consider the example in the snippet below. In a neutral sense, we would simply say Last night, I saw the most horrifying movie ever. Obviously, saw can't be expanded because it's only one word. But what if we had another compound verb form that kind of sounds like the past and can be expanded? We do! The present perfect consists of two words: have seen. It may not be grammatically correct here because it's not a past form per se, but it serves another purpose — it gives us an extra word to expand and be more dramatic with: Last night, I. have. seen. the most horrifying movie ever! Note that when we emphasize the, we pronounce it thee.

The takeaway here is that in the real world, sometimes expression trumps grammar. Purists will crucify me for teaching something so blatantly ungrammatical, but there are lots of things we say in English that are grammatically unacceptable, but they help us express ourselves more creatively by allowing us to inject interesting aspects such as humor, sarcasm, edginess into our speech and give our dialect its unique character. 

Here, Emma uses the perfect I have seen instead of the expected I saw to emphasize just how horrible the experience was for her. But this form can be used for good experiences too: This morning, I have had the most delicious almond croissant I've ever tasted! Here, the trick is to speak slowly and emphatically — this is by no means a neutral usage of the present perfect and should not be pronounced as such. If it isn't pronounced dramatically, it just doesn't work.
Emma comes down to breakfast looking like hell. Her son is already at the table._____________

Andy: Mom, you look terrible! What's wrong?

Emma: Last night, I have seen the most horrifying movie ever! I didn't sleep a wink.