The 'wonderful' world of the perfect tenses:
Present perfect and present perfect continuous
Is there an easy answer to what exactly are the perfect tenses in English?
Written by Roger Hartopp, adapted from his book Typical Errors in English, and from Advanced Grammar in Use by Martin Hewings
The simplest explanation that is usually given is that the present perfect (have/has + past participle) is a tense used for a finished action in the past (when this action is completed is not stated) but is connected with the present. We don’t use it when we talk about a specific finished period of time (an hour ago, yesterday, last week, last November, seven years ago, etc.): we would use the past tense.
So if you are happy with that, then you can finish reading here. But you probably realise that it’s really not that obvious, although those basic rules aren’t a bad summary of what this tense does.
The present perfect:
This is a finished action that is connected to the present:
I’ve (I have) fixed the TV. (A short time ago I completed repairs to the TV, so the television is working now.)
She has cleaned her shoes. (Her shoes are clean now.)
They have bought a car. (They now have a car.)
It expresses the idea of something completed, particularly if we are thinking about the past and present together:
We’ve (we have) finished the project! (The job is now complete, and as a consequence we can now relax.)
Have you completed the test? No I haven’t. (The first speaker needs the test at or around the time of speaking but the second speaker is not finished yet.)
After a two-hour meeting this morning, the good news is that I have been elected to the board of directors. (After a discussion about the speaker joining the company's board, they can now prepare to take on the role that is now expected of them.)
When time words are used, but are not specific as to how much time was actually used (recently, lately, never, before, yet, a short time ago, just, etc):
I’ve spoken to him recently (or I’ve recently spoken to him. I did this just a short time ago).
Julie hasn’t finished the report yet. (The report is still to be completed by Julie, she may or may not be still working on the report now)
The company has never broken the law. (NOT: The company has broken the law never.)
I’ve just completed the project (this job was completed only a short time ago.)
To say that something has happened many times up to now:
She’s (she has) made several phone calls since she arrived. (She arrived at the office, started work, and used the phone many times up to now from the point she started work.)
They've been late for work many times this month. (Some employees were late for work on more than one occasion this month.)
I have worked for several companies in the past. (From the past up until now he worked for many companies.)
Note: I have worked for this company for many years can suggest the speaker is still working at the company. See also the present perfect continuous.
It can also be used with some verbs for single actions that have continued up to now:
I’ve seen that document several times. (She first saw the document at a certain time in the past, and from that particular time saw this document on more than one occasion.)
I've tried starting the car five times, but it just won't go. (The speaker attempted to start the car more than once, but up to the point they are discussing this with the listener, this was not successful.)
She's checked her bank many times, but the money still hasn't been paid into her account. (She went on the internet to check if some money she was expecting from someone arrived, but the money is not yet in her account.)
See also the present perfect continuous later in this text.
When we think of the time ‘up to now’:
Have you spoken to Eric? (Did you speak to Eric at any time up to now?) [NOT: Did you speak to Eric? but see the last point in this section of the text].
I haven’t seen him this week. (This week has not finished so it’s possible I’ll see him later.)
Have you ever been to the United States? (Did you, at any point in your life up to now, go to the United States?)
No, I’ve never been to the United States. (I did not, at any point in my life, go to the United States.)
When the action has just happened:
Ow! I’ve hurt myself! NOTE: if we identify the person or thing responsible for the present situation, but we are thinking about the past cause, we use the past: Brian just hit me! (But some natives might say Mum! Brian has just hit me for no reason!)
Where are my car keys? I've lost my car keys! They were here a moment ago!
She's (she has) been robbed! (Someone stole something from her a short time ago.)
Often, however, the past simple can be used (see below).
For news events:
She’s (she has) won the lottery!
The company has made several workers redundant.
Talks have ended between the bosses and the workers as regards pay and conditions.
The present perfect can be used for past time expressions, but this is usually used in reporting on TV and radio. Often the precise time that these things began is mentioned later:
There has been a major accident on the M6 Motorway. Police say that a number of cars were involved in the incident which happened around 8am in thick fog.
The government has spent several million dollars on a new computer system. The Social services minister made the announcement during a press conference that was called an hour ago, explaining that the money was spent after an agreement was reached with the IT firm at 0900 this morning.
Three men have been released by the police after being interviewed about the robbery. The men were released at 6pm this evening after spending several hours at Belham police station.
In certain cases, either the present perfect or the past tense can be possible, with little difference in meaning:
Has Angela e-mailed? (Did Angela, at any point in time during a specific period known between the speaker and the listener, send an email, which is expected? The focus is on Angela doing the action of sending the email.)
Did Angela e-mail? (The speaker was expecting an email from Angela at some point in time that is known also to the listener - did this email arrive? The focus is more on the email than Angela as this email may be very important.)
But as I said, the difference can be pretty minimal...
I’ve passed your information (I did it)/I passed your information (It was my job to do so).
I’ve hurt myself/I hurt myself.
Have you spoken to Eric/Did you speak to Eric?
As you may be aware, we use passives (also known as the passive voice) to describe something that has been / had / will be affected by an action, and not by the person or thing that performed it, or we’re more interested in the action instead of who/what did the action. The passive form for the present perfect is has/have been + past participle:
The room has been cleaned (But we don't know who cleaned the room, or knowing who cleaned the room is not important)
Several people have been made redundant because of COVID-19. (But as to which companies made the decision to fire their workers because of the problems caused by the coronavirus we don't know, is not relevant, there are too many companies to name or it is just a general fact of what's happened - that is, the consequences of COVID-19)
But if we want to know the 'doer' or the 'actor' in the present perfect passive:
I have been given an increase in pay by the boss.
Present perfect continuous (also known as the present perfect progressive)
Again, if we start with the simple explanation, then the present perfect continuous (have/has + been + –ing form of the verb) is used for a continuous action that started at a point in the past at or around the time of speaking, but has not yet been completed.
We use it to talk about an activity that began at some point in the past but is still continuing, using words that talk about a period of time that is still continuing up to now:
It has been raining for six days. (It began raining six days ago, and at the time of speaking, is still raining.)
I haven’t been studying as much as I should have. (I’m supposed to be studying, a continuous activity that I had to start some time ago, but at the time of speaking, I did not do enough of this.)
She’s been working hard all day but she won't stop for a break. (She is still working hard from when she began work earlier in the day.)
Have you been cleaning the house all morning? (the speaker believes the person doing the cleaning started some time ago, but is still working)
It is used to talk about continuous activities which have just stopped, but do have results now:
Sid: You look tired. Julie: Yes, I’ve been studying all night. (Julie finished this continuous activity a short time ago, but she clearly looks tired now as a result.)
You're asking me why I'm sitting down? I've been standing up all day!
Your clothes are dirty! Have you been playing football again on the muddy field?
These continuous actions can also be repeated:
I’ve been e-mailing all morning.
She’s been writing reports all week.
Have you been on the phone answering your notifications all day?
When we talk about how long something has been happening:
Mr. Bogson: How long have you been working on that report? Emil: I’ve been working on it for five days.
But what often confuses learners of English (and even teachers!) are those examples where either tense (present perfect or present perfect continuous) can be used, or when one tense is used and perhaps the other form would seem more suitable:
Stative (state) verbs (e.g. like, love, hate, know, see, smell, touch, taste, hear, etc.) are not normally used in the continuous form:
I’ve loved her all my life. (NOT I’ve been loving her all my life.)
I've tasted many exotic spices in my time.
She's seen that film several times. (NOT She's been seeing that film several times.)
BUT: She's been seeing Fred for a few weeks now. DIFFERENT meaning: here, 'to be seeing someone' means to be dating someone, to be conducting a romantic relationship. In this meaning, the verb 'see' can be used in the present perfect continuous form.
We can use the continuous form if the activity or situation is shorter than normal, or is a temporary situation:
I’ve been sitting here all day waiting for you!
During this time she’s (she has) been staying at a friend’s house until she eventually finds her own flat.
How long have you been trying to call the tax office?
With some verbs (work, agree, live, drive, stay, study, teach, etc.), either form can be used (with since and for) but there are some subtle differences:
I’ve been working at (or FOR) this company for several years (the speaker is likely to be comfortable with their situation at work and they generally feel they are in control of what they are doing there – the focus is on their activities);
I’ve worked for this company for several years (the speaker is an employee and is doing what is required of the company; the focus is on the company [the object] and not on their activities at the company, which they may or may not be enjoying or have control of doing.)
I've been working at this company for many years and want to stay here until I retire.
I've worked for this company for several years now and I've never seen such poor decision-making by the bosses here.
I've worked for all kinds of organisations. (the speaker is focussing on the fact that he worked for many different kinds of companies from the point he started working up to now, and not on the kinds of jobs he did)
I've been working for all kinds of organisations. (the speaker is focusing on the job activities he did at these companies)
She's driven that car since she passed her test. (the focus is on the car - and it is the only car she drove since she passed her test)
She's been driving that car since she passed her test. (the focus is on her driving since she passed her test, but only using the one car)
Fred has studied biology for several years, but still hasn't passed his exam.
Fred has been studying biology for several years so he's the person to ask if you have any questions on the subject.
She’s (she has) been making a cake (she is still wearing an apron and the kitchen is not yet cleaned: we are focusing on the activity of making a cake).
She’s made a cake (the cake is finished and ready to eat: we are focusing on the result).
We don't normally use the present perfect continuous in the passive: see future perfect/perfect continuous tenses in the passive.