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Simple Past or Present Perfect? | Page 2

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.

Examine the following examples. See how the present perfect tense connects the action to the present whereas the action becomes detached from the present when you use the past simple.

Connecting and detaching the action from the present

— Ouch! I’ve hurt myself.
(This is connected to the present. I’m in pain.)

— What did you do?
(I want details from the past.)

— I bit my tongue.
(This is what happened in the past. The “biting” is finished.)

— I’ve lost my wallet. I can’t find it anywhere.
(I don’t have my wallet now.)

Telling someone about it later...

— I lost my wallet today, but someone found it and returned it to me this afternoon.
(What happened is detached from the present. It all happened in the past, and I have my wallet now because of what someone did)

Switching between Present and Past

Switching tenses | Example 1

Here’s a scenario: John does not have (present tense) a job. A few things happened (past tense) that explain and detail this present situation.

Now examine how you use the present perfect and past simple tenses to express these ideas.

John has lost his job recently. He misplaced important documents, which cost his company an important contract.

Switching tenses | Example 2

Here’s a scenario: The Ecks Company started having a problem some time ago and they still have it (in the present). Last year, something happened (in the past) that is only one example of the problem.

The Ecks Company has lost many employees due to poor working conditions in the last five years. Last year alone, it lost most of its managers, who resigned in protest after employees did not receive their Christmas bonuses.

Switching tenses | Example 3

Here’s the scenario: The weather affects (present) the results of wars; this has always been a fact (including in the present). We have examples from the past to support it.

Throughout history, the weather has affected the results of many battles. For example, in the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, rain wet the roads, which prevented dust from giving away Jackson’s position as his men marched. This made a surprise attack possible.

Moving through Time

You can move from the present to the past and back again. If your focus is on the present or on a current situation, you use a present tense. If your focus switches to the past, you use a past tense.

Moving through time

Here’s the scenario: Does someone know about this present situation? Something is true now (present) about the Smiths. Here are the details about what happened (in the past) that led to it.

Have you heard it? Aisha has moved to Los Angeles. (She lives there now.) (Here’s what happened.) Her company promoted her and transferred her to their main office. She accepted their offer and moved there last week.

No one has had any contact with her (up to the present). Based on a past conversation, you can speculate she is doing well.

She hasn’t talked to anyone since her move. She talked to me last week though. She was really excited about it. I’m sure she’s okay.

“What You Know” and “How You Know It”

In academic English, you often present a finding, research result, or fact in the present perfect tense. Then you use the past simple to explain how they found it out or how it is known.

Fact and details

People have long known that the Earth is round. As early as the 5th Century BCE, Greek philosophers wrote about it. This knowledge gradually spread to ancient civilizations worldwide. In the 17th Century, Isaac Newton attested that…

Psychologists at the Black Lake University have determine that people with certain traits are susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories. They administered the Gully Personality Questionnaire to 124 participants. Based on the results of the questionnaire, participants were divided into three groups and…

Astronomers from the Ecks Observatory have observed a star approximately 5,000 lightyears from Earth that may go supernova within the next 10 thousand years. They used direct imaging to measure the size of the star; however, they were unable to determine its exact distance from Earth. As a result, they estimated that…


Practice 1 uses everyday, conversational English.

Practice 2 uses formal, academic English.

Practice 3 helps you write complete sentences using these verb tenses.

Related Lessons

The lessons below will help you understand verbs and verb tenses more deeply:

Time Frames (understand how time frames work when using any verb tense)

The Past Simple Tense (focuses on the uses of the past simple)

The Present Perfect Tense (focuses on all uses of the present perfect)

Linking verbs and Adjectives (lesson about using linking verbs with adjectives; this is lesson is for non–English-language learners and includes a video)

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