It’s incredibly important to be able to communicate about the past when you are learning English. It’s how we tell stories, explain problems and describe experiences. So, we’ve put together a guide to teach you about two of the most common tenses used to describe the past: the present perfect and the past simple.
This guide goes over the basics of the past in English, different verb forms, and some adverbs that can help you have more sophisticated explanations about the past. Let’s learn how to use the past simple and present perfect in English and understand the differences between them. There are also some grammar exercises for you at the end of this blog post!
How to speak about the past in English
There are three main tenses in English: the past, the present, and the future. We use the present to talk about events that are happening now, like I am writing this blog post now, or to talk about routine things, such as I drink water every day. The future is used to talk about events that will happen on a later date, like I will travel to Canada next week.
The past is used to talk about something that happened a minute ago, yesterday, last week, 3 weeks ago, or even 3 decades ago — we use it to talk about events that are finished, no matter how long ago. Let’s review the verbs, the modifiers, and the sentence structure we use in order to make phrases in the past simple.
Verb forms in English
English verbs can be categorized as regular or irregular. The good news about this is that regular verbs follow straight-forward rules for conjugation. The bad news is that irregular verbs don’t follow any rules. They are the rebels without cause of the English language. And why should you care about these mavericks? Well, of the top 25 most common verbs used in English, 17 are irregular.
Verb forms in English have specific names. Here are the names you need to know and examples.
|Verb form||Example of regular verb forms||Example of irregular verb forms|
|infinitive||to want||to be|
It’s easy to form the past simple or past participle from a base verb if it is a regular verb in English. Just add -ed to the end of the base verb.
Examples: watched, played, cleaned
- She played video games last night.
- I cleaned my room two weeks ago.
- The game was watched by 25 million people.
There are three spelling rules to keep in mind. The first is that if the base form of the verb ends in -e, such as like and arrive, just add -d to the verb in order to make the past.
Examples: liked, arrived
- Tom liked the book we gave him yesterday.
- My mom arrived late for the meeting.
The second spelling rule is for verbs that end in -y. For verbs which end in -y, such as try and study, just drop the -y and add -ied to the base form of the verb.
Examples: studied, tried
- They studied a lot for the test.
- I tried calling you last night, but you didn’t answer me.
Finally, if a verb has a CVC (consonant-verb-consonant) spelling, first you double the final consonant and add -ed to the base form of the verb.
Examples: stopped, robbed
- I stopped the car after I saw you.
- They robbed the bank last week.
Irregular verbs in English
For the irregular verbs, you need to memorize the past forms of the verb — I know it sounds complicated, they are so common that eventually you will know them by heart.
Here are the most common irregular verbs:
|Base (V1)||Past (V2)||Past participle (V3)|
Adverbs of time for the past simple tense
You may have noticed that we often use adverbs of time to specify when an action happened. When making the past simple, you will often use the following adverbs of time: yesterday, (time) ago, last (time).
- She bought a new shirt yesterday.
- Yesterday, she bought a new shirt.
- Tom and Clara met two years ago.
- Three days ago, I saw Susan at the supermarket with her husband.
- I arrived home one hour ago.
- Last night we ordered pizza.
- I went to New York City last year.
Because we use the past simple to talk about events that are completed, it is also common to use other expressions to indicate when those events happened. Take a look at some examples:
- Kelly went to Japan in 1975.
- I saw Tim this morning.
- I talked to her this afternoon.
How to use the present perfect in English
The present perfect verb tense also describes the past, but it has specific purposes in English. The difference between the past simple and the present perfect is that when we use present perfect we do not focus on when something happened. Instead, we focus on the action itself. The present perfect helps to describe life experiences, lack of life experience, and past actions that are relevant in the future.
Present perfect structure
The sentence structure for the present perfect is the following:
Subject + has/have (not) + past participle + complement (optional)
Remember, if the subject is he, she or it, you must use has.
- He has seen the movie.
- The class has started.
- She has not finished her homework.
Let’s say you traveled to Paris in 2014. You could use the past simple and say:
- I traveled to Paris in 2014.
- I went to Paris in 2014.
But if you traveled to Paris multiple times or the date is not important, you can just say:
- I have traveled to Paris.
- I have been to Paris.
Using the present perfect structure indicates that you have had the experience of traveling to Paris, but the listener doesn’t know exactly when you went. Maybe that information is not what matters in the context of the conversation.
Some other examples of using present perfect to talk about your life experiences:
- I have driven a truck.
- She has been to Thailand.
- He has had two open-heart surgeries.
On the other hand, maybe you lack a particular experience. Imagine a friend asks you, Do you like Thai food?
If you don’t have the experience of eating Thai food, you can say I have not eaten Thai food before.
Past actions that are relevant in the present moment
Another great reason to use the present perfect tense is to describe a past action that is relevant in the present. Imagine you get a phone call, asking if you are home to receive a delivery, but you are not home. You left your house 15 minutes ago. You can say this sentence in the present perfect, “I cannot receive the delivery because I have just left the house.”
How to modify the present perfect
There are seven common words that you can use to modify the present perfect verb tense in English. These words
We use just when something happened a short time ago. We don’t specify exactly when it happened, but we know it happened recently.
- I’m not hungry. I have just eaten dinner.
- Where are you? I’m waiting for you at the gate.
I’ve just landed.
We use this word when something has happened before expected.
- Do you want to order pizza tonight?
No, I’ve already eaten.
We use yet to say ‘until now’. It is used in a negative construction with the word not.
- Is my sister at the restaurant?
I haven’t seen her yet.
For is used when we are talking about duration or period of time.
- I have lived in Germany for 25 years before moving to Spain.
Since is used to refer to a specific point in time.
- She has worked there since 2005.
- My dad has been divorced since I was a child.
- I haven’t eaten red meat since August.
It is common to use ever when asking somebody a question about their life experiences. Ever goes between the subject and the past participle in the present perfect tense.
- Have you ever bought a smartwatch?
We use never to describe a lack of life experience. You can use never instead of not in a negative construction. Do not use two negative not and never.
I’ve never not worked. Never goes between have/has and the past participle.
- I’ve never been to Russia.
- He has never worked in an office.
Differences between the present perfect and the past simple in English
With all that in mind, let’s focus on the differences between these two tenses:
|Past simple (PS)||Present perfect (PP)||Examples|
|Verbs||We use the past form of the verb.||We use the participle form of the verb.||Verb = to go I went to the mall yesterday. (PS) I have gone to the mall. (PP)|
|Structure||(+) Subject + past verb (-) Subject + did not + base verb||(+)Subject + has/have + past participle (-) Subject + hasn’t / haven’t + past participle||Verb = to clean I cleaned the house an hour ago. (PS) She has cleaned the house. (PP)|
|Modifiers||Last (time), yesterday, (time) ago, in the (time), on (time), at (time)||yet, already, ever, for, since, just, never||Verb = to travel I traveled to Canada last August. (PS) She has already traveled to Canada. (PP)|
|Purpose||We use it to talk about completed actions in the past.||We use it to talk about life experiences or unfinished events, without focusing on when it happened. We focus on the action itself.||Verb = to be I was in London last week. I have been to London.|
An example of a dialogue using both tenses
Take a look at the dialogue below. You will notice that the present perfect is used to talk about life experiences or unfinished actions. The past simple is used when talking about a finished action that took place in a specific time in the past.
Caroline: Have you ever seen snow?
James: Yes, I’ve seen it many times.
Caroline: Oh, when did you see snow for the first time?
James: I saw it for the first time in 2014.
Caroline: Where did you see it?
James: In Colorado. Have you ever been there?
Caroline: No, I haven’t. I would love to go there someday.
Practice using the present perfect exercises in English
Feeling confident about the present perfect verb tense? Do these English grammar exercises to check your knowledge! The first exercise is a game to review irregular past participles.
Exercise 1 – Game about irregular past participles
Do these two exercises to practice forming the present perfect verb tense.
Exercise 2 – Choose the correct word
Exercise 3 – Write sentences in the present perfect
Now that you’ve learned how to use the past simple and the present perfect tenses in English, maybe it’s time to review how to talk about the future.