The present perfect conspiracy


Have you heard about the present perfect?

Psst. Here’s a secret. There is a world-wide conspiracy going on and we have the English to thank for it. The Americans are in on it, but the English are to blame. “What is it?” you ask. It’s called the present perfect. The present perfect has been twisting the brains of English learners for as long as anyone can remember and ensuring a bit of job security along the way.

For those of us who never had to learn English as an adult, the present perfect is constructed in this fashion:


Noun or pronoun + have or has + past participle.
Have you had breakfast?


The problem

So, what’s so hard about that? Well, it’s neither hard to understand nor difficult to say. On the other hand, it is hard to remember when you should or shouldn’t be using it when your native language tends to be more focused on declensions, genders or liaisons. In addition to that, just for fun, there are several exceptions which are fuzzily agreed upon by most native speakers but left to others as an absolute mystery.



Have you had breakfast?
Yes I did.

Have you had breakfast?
Yes I have.


Which is correct? Both are correct. It depends on whether the answerer sees this action as a recent one which is relevant to the present or one that is done and dusted.

So, of these examples, which would you say is correct?

Have you had breakfast today?
Have you had breakfast this morning?


Answer: One and a half. The first sentence is correct while the second is correct, only if, it still happens to be the morning or breakfast time.


What languages focus on


The thing about the present perfect is that it has a lot to do with what the speakers of the language tend to focus on when they communicate. In this way, the way we use this time form, distinguishes English speakers from the speakers of other languages. While other languages may have 24 ways of saying “the” or change words or their pronunciation in connection with the speaker or the words that precede or follow them, English is high maintenance about placement of actions in time. 


For us, it’s important to know whether you did something, used to do it and stopped, did it occasionally, have done it recently or once in your life, do it regularly or are doing it right now as you’re reading this. Of course, it matters in other languages as well, but not to the extent that there would be such reliance on the tenses or confusion if you got it wrong.

The good and the bad

In English, you wouldn’t get away with saying “I have seen the film last night.” Also, statements like, ”I take out the rubbish and I am taking out the rubbish.” express completely different ideas in terms of time.  In other languages, not so much.  So the good thing about this is that it keeps English teachers busy. The negative thing is that your students may tell you, “I am sitting in the Munich office” when in fact, they are sitting right in front of you and you don’t happen to be in Munich at the time.


If you are teaching or learning the present perfect, a good way to think about it is like this: The present perfect is used when we refer to an action that either occurred, in its entirety, in the recent past or continues to be relevant now, or to an action that started in the past continues until now.  The most difficult bit about this is the concept of now.  What does “now” really mean and what are its parameters? Simply stated, “now” is the time that is “this time” or the time we are living in. In some cases, it’s microscopic. How much space would a photo finish occupy on a time-line?  In others, it encompasses a century or even all the time there is.


How big is now in these scenarios?

Before, there was no such thing as smart phones, now there are.
Before, flying vehicles were nonexistent, now there are.
in the past, dinosaurs walked the earth, now they don’t.


This way, if you or a class participant makes a mistake, you can ask whether the action occurs in this, or a very recent time?” “I have gone to the office yesterday.” doesn’t cut it.


Now the trick will be to test this often and in real time. Now that I have written this, I do believe I will have myself a sandwich. Oh wait! I’ve already eaten.