It’s got to be … Perfect

Do you have trouble with Perfect forms in English? Then this post is for you.

I’m a teacher myself and I see that one problem learners have, from intermediate to advanced, is using Perfect forms correctly.

And keep this quiet … but teachers have problems teaching Perfect forms too! 

It’s just not that easy because …

  • There’s no ONE easy rule for Perfect forms.
  • People learn Perfect forms as tenses – when they’re not!
  • Teachers teach ‘perfect tenses’ which people don’t use!

So this post aims to clear up the confusion for English language learners.

Let’s clear up one thing first. The Perfect form is not a tense  which shows a specific time in relation to a speaker – but an aspect which focuses on how an action is done, like if it’s complete or not, or if it’s temporary.

English has two tenses, past and present, where the main verb form changes: I eat, you eat, he/ she eats in the present; I eat, you ate in the past. (We form the future using will so it’s not a tense because the main verb stays the same e.g I will go.)

But English also has two aspects: perfect (also called perfective to confuse you) and continuous (also called progressive). The continuous aspect suggests we’re in the middle of an activity (you are reading). The perfect aspect suggests a link between two times, events, or situations. Think of it as juggling times, events or situations and keeping them in the air at the same time.

And juggling is not easy! 

Perfect forms with all on board


Let’s take an example. The present perfect is often used as the opening question at a party, to start a conversation:

Question: Have you been to New York?

By using the present perfect form here (have/ has + past participle) we mean have you been to New York ‘anytime before now’.

We don’t care if you went there last week, last year, or last century!

Get the picture?

However, to answer the question, you’d switch to a past tense to talk about a specific time:

Yes, I went there last year. I had a great time.

So one use of the present perfect – the most common and useful perfect form – is to talk about things ‘anytime before now’.

Some other uses of the present perfect:

1. To talk about things that just happened e.g accidents or unforeseen events:

Oh damn – I’ve dropped a plate!

I’ve lost my keys!

Phil has just called to say he’ll be late!

Here we’re ‘juggling’ the present and something that’s just happened. And we’re focused on the results!

2. To talk about actions or situations that started in the past but continue into the present.

I’ve lived here for ten years.

Here we’re juggling three times: I started living here in the past, I’m living here now, and I’m going to continue living here.

Compare this with the past tense.

I lived here for ten years. (I lived here for ten years before and now I live somewhere else.)

Also, be aware the past tense tends to create a sense of distance between the speaker and the listener, while the perfect tends to bring you closer – because when you use the perfect you’re talking about something that’s important to you now.

A few more things to know about Perfect forms:

You don’t need to know all of them.

When you speak to people in the street, you won’t need past perfect or past perfect continuous as they are very rarely used

Brits and Yanks use them differently.

Brits use perfect forms more often so it would be normal for an American to ask at a party:

Did you see the new Spike Lee film? (past simple)

Whereas a Brit would say:

Have you seen the new Spike Lee film? (present perfect)

It’s a cultural thing. Don’t sweat it.

Okay. So today I’ve taught you about Perfect forms. (See, there’s another one … see how useful it is?)

Above you’ll find a video showing five uses of the present perfect, some of which I’ve mentioned. Here’s a short test to give you some practice. (And here’s some advice on how to teach present perfect for any teachers out there.)

If you’re interested, or the company you work for is interested in learning Perfect forms with All on Board, then call 030/3983 3993 or email to discuss a course.

While you’re here check out our other blog posts and website.

Apart from that, enjoy the spring sunshine and …