“I ran a mile.” “I have run a mile.”
What is the difference and when do you use which? I’m going to tell you.
The first sentence is in the past tense. The second sentence is in the present perfect tense.
Now, I teach English, so I hate to sound like a grammar rebel but… that second sentence – the present perfect one – is about something that already happened! Why would they call it a present tense? And, I don’t think it is any more perfect than the first sentence. Yep, they call it the present perfect. Sheesh! The English grammar elite offer explanation for this but, it won’t actually help you learn English.
So, don’t worry about what it is called. Here is how it works:
Whereas the past tense is just about the past, the present perfect tense links the past to the present. It is about something that occurred prior to (but has continuing relevance at) the time of reference. Think of it as a bridge between the past and the present.
The present perfect tense uses the words have or has.
The pattern is: have or has + past participle (that’s just the third verb – eat, ate, eaten)
I have made you a sandwich.
Haruko has seen this movie before.
The doctor has written a book that will be published soon.
I have eaten dinner so, I’m not hungry.
The fact that I ate dinner in the past effects how I feel in the present. I don’t feel hungry right now. Do you see the connection between the past and the present?
We use the past tense when we are only talking about something completed in the past.
I ate dinner at that new restaurant last weekend.
I wanted pistachio flavored ice cream but they only had chocolate and vanilla.
So, back to our first example about running. Look at these sample conversations.
What did you do for exercise yesterday?
I ran a mile.
This is just a completed action (running) in the past.
Why are you breathing so hard?
I have run a mile.
This action explains why the person is out of breath right now.
We often use the present perfect to talk about life experiences. Things we did in the past effect the person we are today. Our experiences link our past with our present.
Oskar has been to Paris five times, so he is familiar with it. He could be our tour guide.
What Oskar did in the past affects his ability to be a tour guide now.
Sometimes when we are talking about our experiences we start with the present perfect tense and then continue talking in the simple past tense.
I’ve been to Singapore. Present perfect tense. It means that today, I stand before you as a person who has had some experience with Singapore. It is a part of who I am now.
When did you go?
I went last summer. Past tense
What did you do there?
I ate some great food. Past tense
I met new friends. Past tense
We don’t use a past time phrase like last year, this morning, or yesterday with the present perfect.
Last year I have gone sky diving. X wrong
Last year I went sky diving. √ right
Use past simple with the past time expression, “last year.”
Our team has won the championship last season. X wrong
Our team won the championship last season. √ right
I have run a marathon when I lived in Boston. X wrong
I ran a marathon when I lived in Boston. √ right
We ask a question in the present perfect tense like this:
Have you been to Tokyo?
Yes, I have been to Tokyo or Yes, I have.
Here are more examples of how we use the simple past tense and the present perfect tense.
Simone has broken her leg. Please go and get help. Present Perfect
Simone broke her leg last winter while she was skiing. Past (Note the use of the past time phrase – last winter.)
The sun has risen. It’s time to get up. Present perfect
The sun rose at 6:00 am this morning. Past
Juan has ridden horses since he was very young. He’s a great rider. Present perfect. The word “since” brings the action up to the present.
When he was young, Juan rode horses to keep his mind off his troubles. Past. The word “when” keeps the action in the past.
Take some time to talk about your experiences. They shape the person you are today.
Where have you been? What have you done?
If you practice a bit with the present perfect tense you'll find yourself using it a lot!