Looking Back with the Simple Past and Present Perfect

One thing that can be quite confusing about English is the small differences between its different tenses. Since it’s the beginning of a new year, we’re going to take a look back at last year and think about the different ways to talk about the past. More specifically, we’ll look at the difference between the simple past and present perfect tenses.

Simple Past

In general, the simple past is used to describe an event that started and finished in the past and that happened within a specific period of time.

  • You came to work late last week.
  • I walked to school when I was younger.
  • Did she see the movie with George?
    • Although we don’t know the exact time that this event took place, it is obvious that it happened in a specified time: the same time at which George saw the movie.
  • He studied French in school.

Present Perfect

The present perfect tense, on the other hand, describes something that took place at an unspecified moment or multiple unspecified moments in the past. In cases where the present perfect is used, the important information is that something happened, not when it happened.

  • You have come late to work three times already.
    • We don’t know when specifically you were late – the important fact is that you were late.
  • I have walked to school before, but today I rode the bus.
    • At some point in the past, I walked to school, but it’s not important when.
  • Has she seen the movie?
    • We don’t want to know when she saw the movie, just whether or not she did.

Unlike in some languages, the present perfect (not the present) is also used to describe habits or experiences that started in the past and continue through the present.

  • I have lived in London for 7 months.
    • but note: I live in London.
  • He has known French since he was in school.
    • but note: He knows French.
  • We have been friends since preschool.
    • but note: We’re friends.
  • Sarah has played piano for two years.
    • but note: Sarah plays piano.

The present perfect progressive is often used for continuous actions that started in the past and continue nonstop through the present (although occasionally it can describe habits as well).

  • Sarah has been playing piano since noon.
    • Notice the difference from the above example. In this case, Sarah has been sitting at the piano without stopping.

What's your favorite place you have been? When did you go?
What's your favorite place you have been? When did you go?

American English vs. British English

One big difference between American and British English is that British people use the present perfect much more frequently. For actions that are very recent and relevant to the present moment, British speakers will often use the present perfect where Americans would use the past. In these uses, the verbs are almost always contracted.

  • Am.: Carol isn’t here; she went to the store.
    • Because the action of leaving is completed, Americans use the past tense.
  • Br.: Carol isn’t here; she’s gone to the store.
    • Because the action of leaving is quite recent and related to the present moment, Brits prefer the present perfect.
  • Am.: I just sent you an email.
  • Br.: I’ve just sent you an email.


In the new year, it’s common for people to take a look back at what they’ve done and decide what they’d like to do differently in the coming year. This is known as a resolution, something that you resolve to do. Let’s practice the different tenses as we look at some of the Kaplan blog team’s New Year’s resolutions.

  • Billie did not go to the movies very often last year, so she wants to go more often so she is up-to-date with popular culture.
    • Because Billie is referring to the actions in a specific year, this sentence needs the simple past.
  • Roberta has not traveled as much as she would like in the past few years, so she wants to save money to go somewhere.
    • The time is vague in this sentence and not specific, so Roberta needs the present perfect.
  • Last year, Daria did not talk to her family back in Estonia as much as she’d like, so she wants to call home more often.
    • Because Daria is talking about last year specifically, she needs the simple past.
  • Sarah has been using her phone too much recently, so she wants to use less technology and read more.
    • Sarah is talking about a recent event that continues to the present, so she needs the present perfect progressive.


What's your New Year's resolution? How about learning a new language?

Here are some other posts that might help you accomplish that one!

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