How to use the present perfect verb tense correctly

The present perfect verb tense is often not used by student writers.  Or if it  is used, it is often used incorrectly. Yet it is an important verb tense to master in speaking and in writing.

What is the present perfect? It is the verb tense which combines the helping verb “have” or “has” with the past participle of a verb: I have eaten; she has slept; you have written.

Many times there is a double problem in using this tense, and that is choosing the proper past participle. Regular verbs in English use the past tense as the past participle and create no problems for students: I have jumped; he has watched; they have learned. But the verbs we use the most in English—be, do, have, go, come and hundreds more—use an irregular past participle: I was but I have been; you gave but you have given; it did but it has done.

Another problem is knowing when to use this verb tense. It has three uses:

  • To describe something that began (or didn’t begin) in the past but is still going on
    o Jack has pitched since the first inning.
    o My friends have studied for the test for many hours.
    o I have not slept since 6 a.m.
  • To describe something that happened many times (or didn’t happen at all) in the past.
    o She has eaten there many times.
    o They have not studied in the library all semester.
    o We have always followed his advice.
  • To describe something that happened (or didn’t happen) in the past when it is not important to know exactly when it happened.
    o Yes, I have traveled to Seoul.
    o No, I have not eaten baklava.
    o Aunt Marie has made many quilts.

Children born to well-educated English speaking parents learn to use this verb tense correctly the way they learn everything else about English—by listening to and mimicking their parents. For English speaking children whose parents do not use this verb tense, learning it is hard, as it is for ESL students.

One almost painless way to learn the present perfect is to read, read, read. Good writers use this verb tense correctly unless they are mimicking the dialog of a character who is poorly educated. With enough reading, students will pick up subconsciously how this verb tense is formed and might discern when to use it. However, most children will need this verb tense explained, and will need to practice it over and over, year after year, in school.

Although grammar is less stressed in schools today, a good teacher or tutor will notice if her students speak or write with the past tense when they should be using the present perfect tense. That teacher will offer a lesson on this verb tense. One or two lessons usually isn’t enough. The present perfect needs to be reinforced with practice. You can find practice activities online and in grammar handbooks.

Why is it important to master the present perfect verb tense? After all, some languages have existed hundreds of years without such a verb tense. Can’t a student write, “Yes, I went there several times,” instead of writing, “Yes, I have gone there”? The meaning is clear both ways.

As I tell my students, people you want to impress as you get older—the person who interviews you for college acceptance, or the person who reads your admissions essays, or your professors, or the person who interviews you for a professional job, and the parents of your future spouse—might judge you by how you use English verb tenses. These people are not reading or listening to hear if you use certain verb tenses, but they will know immediately when you use a verb tense incorrectly, and your status might drop in their eyes. Not fair, you say.  Maybe, but that’s the way of the world.

Correct use of the present perfect verb tense is a sign of a well-educated English-speaking person.

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