Present Perfect or Past Simple?

In this lesson you’ll learn when to use the present perfect tense and when to use the past simple tense in English. Read the grammar explanation below and then try the exercises. There is a classroom presentation version of this lesson in the Materials tab above. This lesson is part of our Intermediate English Course.

Do you want to know when to say “I did” and when to say “I have done”?

Then you need to know when to use the past simple and when to use the present perfect tenses!

It can make your English sound much better, communicate your point more clearly and sometimes even avoid confusion.


How to Form the Present Perfect Simple and Continuous

Present perfect Simple

Have / has + Past participle

  • He has gone.
  • She has eaten.
  • I have done it.

Present perfect continuous

Have / has + been + gerund

  • We have been waiting.
  • She has been calling.

When do we use the present perfect?

We use the past perfect tenses to talk about;

  • Recent actions.
  • Actions in an unfinished time.
  • General past experiences (ever, in my life).

Present Perfect for Recent Past Actions

Recent events and news can be described by the present perfect tenses.

  • “I’ve been working a lot lately.”
  • “Tom and Rosa have had a baby!”
  • “I’ve recently started a new job.”

Present Perfect Tenses for Unfinished Times

Whether the time that we say something happened is finished or not can dictate whether we use the present perfect or the past simple. 

Some unfinished times that go with the present perfect;

  • Today,
  • this week,
  • this month,
  • this year,
  • recently,
  • in my life.

Past Simple Tense for Finished Times

Some examples of finished times that go with the past simple;

  • Yesterday,
  • last week,
  • last year,
  • 1996,
  • 6PM.

Unfinished Times Vs. Finished Times

Think of this as a degree of flexibility, not a restriction! We can describe the same events with the past simple or present perfect depending on our point of reference;

Present perfect versionPast simple version.
I have eaten a lot today.I ate a lot at lunch.
I’ve bought a new car.I bought a new car yesterday.
I’ve been working a lot this weekI worked a lot between Monday and Friday.
I’ve done it recently.I did it yesterday.

Present Perfect Vs. Past Simple

Look at the different tenses used here for my mother (still alive) and my grandfather (who is dead).

“My mom is a writer, she has written 5 books.”

“My grandfather was a writer, he wrote 6 books.”

The important difference here is that my mother’s life and writing career are not finished, my grandfather’s are.

Another example of this difference is shown below.

“I have lived in Barcelona for 2 years.”

Indicates that I still live in Barcelona.

“I lived in Fraga for 2 years.”

Indicates that I don’t live in Fraga now.

Present Perfect for the General Past

We can use the present perfect tenses to talk about actions and states in the general (unspecified) past.

  • I’ve been to Paris a few times.
  • I’ve finished my exams.

To specify exactly when something happened you need to use the past simple;

  • I went to Paris in 1998, 1999 & 2005.
  • I did my last exam last Friday.

Past simple for specific past times or events

It is common to ask questions about the general past using the present perfect tenses and then change tense to talk about the details in the past simple tense;

  1. Have you ever been to Paris?
  2. Yes I have, I went last year.

or ;

  1. Have you ever met a celebrity?
  2. Yes I have, I met Mick Jagger at a bar once.


Check that you have understood how to use this grammar correctly with these interactive exercises!