We use the past simple tense to talk about states, actions, and events taking place in the past. “It’s in the past” and has no connection to the present. That is why in general we tell stories in this verb tense.
The present perfect tense, on the other hand, has a connection to the present. We use it to talk about something that happened before now or that extends up to the present.
Kindel Media | Pexels
Here’s the problem: In some situations, it is not necessarily clear whether we should use the past simple or the present perfect. However, as we will see in this lesson, each verb tense expresses ideas within specific time frames. Once you understand that, you will also understand when to use the past simple or the present perfect tense.
IMPORTANT NOTE before you get into it
Whenever we discuss verb tenses, we must understand how verb tenses put into different time frames some state (being, seeming, liking, knowing, understanding), action (doing, walking, looking), or event (dying, living, moving), which the verb expresses.
The distinction between states, actions, and events is not very important for this lesson; therefore, we will simply call it “actions” throughout the lesson instead of repeating “state, action, or event” over and over.
If you are interested, this lesson about linking verbs gets into this topic. But do not get distracted; finish the present lesson first.
Different Time Frames
As with all verb tenses, you use different verb tenses to put an action in different time frames relative to the present.
The Past Simple
The past simple tense puts the action in the past. The action is detached from the present. It happened in the past, and it is over. It’s history.
Typically, the past simple tense is also used to tell stories. After all, stories are “in the past.”
Past simple to express actions completely in the past
The movie started 5 minutes ago.
They got married a year after they first met.
When the Continental Congress adopted The Declaration of Independence eon July 4, 1776, the 13 American colonies severed their political ties to Great Britain.
The Present Perfect
The present perfect tense is a little more complex, but it always has a connection to the present.
It can refer to an action that may have started in the past, but it is still felt in the present. That is why we use it to talk about accomplishments that you can talk about presently.
Present perfect and the connection to the present
The movie has just started.
(The connection to the present is that is happened just before now.)
John has left the office.
(He is not here now.)
The president has signed an executive order to help low-income students pay for tuition and fees. Tens of thousands of students have already applied for the assistance.
(When this happened is not important. The focus is on its effect now.)
Words or Expressions Used with the Present Perfect or Past SImple
Some words or expressions are typically used with either the present perfect or the past simple tense. For example, “ago” refers to a time in the past, so it is always used with the past simple.
Below are other words typically used with these tenses.
Words Used with the past simple tense
the day before yesterday
(a day/week/month) ago
at (time in the past)
after (event in the past)
when (event in the past)
— When did you move to Florida?
— Did you watch the movie last week?
— The study was first published in 2021.
Words Used with the present perfect tense
just (an action that has just happened)
for (a duration)
since (start of an action)
yet (ever before)
how long? (from the start and up to now)
before (before now)
up to now
— Have you ever been to Europe?
— Have you watched the movie yet?
— How long have you lived in the US?
— I’ve never lived here. I’m just visiting.
— The study has just recently been published.
— Researchers have conducted similar studies before.
Past or Present?
In some situations, you can express the same action in either the present perfect or past simple tense. The difference is in the time frame in which you put the action relative to the present.
Continue the lesson to learn more.