I’m sure that you, like many other non-native-English speakers, have been confused about whether to use the Past Simple or the Present Perfect to refer to something that happened… or is it has happened in the past? Can you see how confusing it can be? I’m also sure that when you referred to a grammar book, that confused you even more. That is why I thought I’d try to explain this in a VERY simple way.
But why is it so confusing?
However, don’t expect to be an expert overnight, or after one or two weeks. It could take longer depending on your level of English – remember, are you a beginner, or are you advanced – that is what will make the difference in your learning speed.
So what is the difference between Present Perfect and Simple Past?
It’s probably easier to approach the subject with the Present Perfect. When you look at this verb tense, focus on the first word – present. As we all know this word refers to now, what is happening right at this very moment. Therefore, when we use the Present Perfect we talk about an event which happened in the past but which still has some connection to the present. Let’s look at an example to explain this:
- Johnny has broken his leg. – We don’t know exactly when Johnny broke his leg, but we do know it’s still broken now.
Let’s see this again with another example. This time I’m going to use the most important subject of the English language… Yes, you’ve guessed – the weather. We’re going to use the example of rain… yes, that’s right I said rain… OK, I know what you’re thinking – “how can we use the Present Perfect or the Simple Past with rain? In Britain it always rains so don’t we just use the Present Simple and the Present Continuous?” Well, believe it or not, it does occasionally stop raining (emphasis on the word occasionally)… you don’t believe me? Let me show you…
- It has rained. – It has actually stopped raining (even if it is only for 5 minutes, but it has stopped). In this situation the ground is still wet, so the event happened recently and its effects are still visible.
Let’s look at another, still with the Present Perfect:
- It has rained all week. – In this case it rained Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and, yes, you guessed, even on Thursday! Today is Friday. At the moment it’s sunny and dry, and the day, and for that matter, the week, is not over yet… take your umbrella – chances are, it’s going to rain!
This is very different to using the Simple Past. Look at the same events but this time with the Simple Past:
- Johnny broke his leg. – This sentence tells us two things – that this is now over, Johnny’s leg is better – it’s no longer broken. This event happened sometime in the past, it has nothing to do with the present time. It also tells us that the bone broke, but the leg could still be broken (see the next example with Johnny).
Let’s do the same with rain:
- It rained. – Again, here we don’t know when it rained, the ground could be wet, or it could be dry. The information only tells us that the rain is not falling – it has stopped.
Now let’s look at another example, still using the Simple Past, but I’m going to add some extra information:
- Johnny broke his leg yesterday. – Now with this sentence we have something similar to the first one with the Present Perfect – We know that Johnny’s leg is still broken. So what’s the difference? Can you see it? No? Well, let’s take a look. This phrase points to the exact moment that the bone in Johnny’s leg broke – yesterday. That event is over, but the bone is still broken today… and it will be for some time. So what do we learn here? Quite simply, that we use the Simple Past when we point to a specific time in the past… this morning, yesterday, last week, 2 years ago and so on.
- It rained yesterday. – The rain is not falling and the ground is dry. In this sentence we also have a specific point in time in the past.
There is another use for the Present Perfect as seen in this example:
- I have been to the Caribbean. – It’s obvious that right now I’m not lying on a beautiful, sandy beach under the Caribbean Sun enjoying a Pina Colada. I’m, unfortunately, in my office here at Rose of York, in cold, damp and gloomy London, writing this blog… and with
no Pina Colada. So, why did I use the Present Perfect and not the Past Simple? – Simply because I’m relating an experience that happened some time in the past, but without saying when it happened. If I’m generalising about the past – talking about an experience I, or anyone else, have had, I use the Present Perfect and not the Simple Past even if I don’t point to a specific point in the past and the event is over.
I hope this has made things a little easier for you and taken away some of the confusion… If it hasn’t, don’t worry. With a little practice, you’ll get used to the differences. Try doing this little exercise to help you see the different uses of these two tenses. The next time you read something, highlight the Past Simple and Present Perfect. Look at the context in which the tense has been used. Look at the period in time that it’s referring to. Try to picture the event in your mind. Is what is being spoken about still happening? – Does Johnny still have a broken leg? Is it still raining? That should help you to see the full picture and learn how to use these two tenses correctly.