Home > Grammar, Oral English > The differences between the present perfect and the simple past

The differences between the present perfect and the simple past

Many ESL students get confused between the use of the present perfect (e.g. – “I have eaten Thai food before.”) and the simple past tense. (e.g. – “I ate some Thai food last night”.). This confusion is completely understandable given the fact that both the present perfect and the simple past tense refer to a past time. However, there is a subtle difference in meaning.
The most common use of the simple past tense is for past action that happened at a definite time in the past. In the example I gave above (i.e. – “I ate some Thai food last night.”), the simple past tense is necessary because of the use of the adverbial phrase, “last night”. This phrase indicates when the action happened in the past. In contrast, in the other example I listed above (“I have eaten Thai food before.”), the present perfect is necessary because it is unclear when the action actually occurred. In fact, this use of the present perfect is somewhat similar to the use of guo in Mandarin. As you know, guo is often used to indicate that somebody has experienced something before. So, one would translate this sentence as “wo yiqian chi-guo tai-guo cai”. This correspondence between the Mandarin use of guo and the English present perfect is something which may be useful for Chinese ESL learners to keep in mind.
However, it’s not necessary to actually use a past time adverbial in English sentences with the simple past tense. The definite past time may also be given by the context. For example,

Person A: “What did you do last night after work?”

Person B: “Not much. I just watched TV.”

As shown in the example above, the question that person A asked already provided the definite past time context for the use of “watched”.
Let’s practice this difference. Look at the sentences below and choose either the simple past tense or the present perfect (the answers are upside-down below):

1. He has studied / studied Accounting before.

2. Julia has studied / studied German when she was in high school.

1. has studied (the present perfect – the action happened at an indefinite time in the past).
2. studied (the simple past – the action happened at a somewhat definite time in the past; i.e. – “when she was in high school”).

Finally, I should point out one more fact about the present perfect. The present perfect is often used when a past action is somehow relevant to a current situation. In the example sentence, “I have eaten Thai food before”, the fact that I have eaten Thai food before may be relevant given the topic of the conversation. For example, two people may be talking about Thai food and the fact that one of the people has eaten it before will indicate that he/she has some experiential knowledge about this topic. However, the time when this action of eating Thai food may not be relevant. Is this similar to how the Mandarin sentence “wo yiqian chi-guo tai-guo cai” is used?
There are also other differences between the present perfect and the simple past, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Categories: Grammar, Oral English
  1. Anonymous
    July 21, 2017 at 8:01 am

    Hi Dave. Another English teacher here. I really like your explanation of the present perfect as a tense which primarily shows the relationship between a past event and the present situation or the present reality.

  2. Anonymous
    July 21, 2017 at 8:02 am

    Sorry, Mike not Dave!

  3. Anonymous
    July 21, 2017 at 8:08 am

    Last thought: maybe ‘relevance’ is more accurate than ‘relationship’ wrt the pres. perf.

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