Present Perfect or Past Simple

How the difference between present perfect and past simple works:

The diagrams below show how the difference between the present perfect and past simple works.  They are all the same, but they show different contexts.

This is the key to understanding the present perfect and past simple is to apply the very simple rule to different contexts.

For speakers of all languages, this is quite difficult, because it involves changing how you think about different events:

Repeating events:

  • Talking about things which have happened many times
  • Talking about your career experience so far
  • Talking about your life experience so far
  • Talking about how long something has happened

Here are loads and loads of examples to show this in action in different contexts, all using the same rule from the diagram above:

  • Talking about things which have happened many times

1.

"The photocopier broke down 3 times yesterday"

Do you say when? Yes = past simple

"The photocopier has broken down 3 times"  [said at 11am Monday morning]

 Do you say when?  No

Can the event happen again? It is only 11am, so yes = 'have' (present perfect)

"The photocopier broke down 3 times"  [said at 7pm Monday evening]

Do you say when? No

Can the event happen again? It is now 7pm, the work day is finished, so no = past simple

2.

"Italy won the football world cup 4 times in the 1930s"

Do you say when? Yes = past simple

"Italy have won the football world cup 4 times" 

 Do you say when?  No

Can the event happen again? yes = 'have' (present perfect)

"West Germany won the football world cup 2 times"  

Do you say when? No

Can the event happen again? No, because 'West Germany' does not exist any more = past simple

  • Talking about your career experience so far

"I worked on 2 big projects last year"

Do you say when? Yes = past simple

"I have worked on 2 big projects"  

 Do you say when?  No

Can the event happen again? yes, because your career is still going = 'have' (present perfect)

"I worked on 2 big projects"    **CLASSIC MISTAKE**

Do you say when? No

Can the event happen again? 

When you are talking about the story of your career, the only way that this cannot happen again is..

- If you are retired

- If you hated big projects so much that you are certain that you will never work on one again

  • Talking about your life experience so far

"I went to Spain 3 times last year"

Do you say when? Yes = past simple

"I have been to Spain 3 times"  

 Do you say when?  No

Can the event happen again? yes

"I went to Spain 3 times"    **CLASSIC MISTAKE**

Do you say when? No

Can the event happen again? 

The only way that this will not happen again is..

- If you think that you are too old to ever go to Spain again

- If you hated Span so much that you can absolutely rule out ever going there again

  • Talking about how long something (has) happened

1.

"I worked for 12 hours yesterday"

Do you say when? Yes = past simple

"I have worked for 12 hours"  [said in the early evening]

 Do you say when?  No.  We say how long but we don't say exactly when = 'have' (present perfect)

Can the event continue? yes

"I worked for 12 hours"    [said just before going to bed]

Do you say when? No

Can the event continue? No = past simple 

The only way that this will not happen again is..

- If you think that you are too old to ever go to Spain again

- If you hated Span so much that you can absolutely rule out ever going there again

2.

"Rihanna has been an artist for 13 years"

Do you say when?  No.  We say how long but we don't say exactly when = 'have' (present perfect)

Can the event continue? yes, she is still performing

"Michael Jackson was a musician for 26 years"   

Do you say when? No

Can the event continue? No, he is no longer performing = past simple 

Be careful of some classic mistakes that English learners make when using 'for' and 'since'. Check them out here!

Talking about 1 specific event

  • A specific problem
  • A specific single event
  • A business trip or any single trip
  • A specific problem

When we talk about problems, often the event itself has finished, but the main questions is whether the consequences of the event are continuing.  If the problem has not been solved, then the consequences of the event are still continuing and only finish when the problem is solved.

"I lost my phone yesterday"

Do you say when? Yes = past simple

**CLASSIC MISTAKE**  Here we must always use past simple because we say 'when' it happened.  We use past simple regardless of whether the phone is still missing or whether you have found it.

"I have lost my phone, and I can't find it" 

 Do you say when?  No.  

Is the event (and its consequences) still continuing? Yes, I lost the phone in the past, but the consewuences are still true because it is still lost now = 'have' (present perfect)

"I lost my phone, but I have found it now"  

Do you say when? No

Is the event (and its consequences) still continuing? No, because it is not lost any more = past simple 

"It was a very productive business trip last week"

Do you say when? Yes = past simple

"It has been a very productive business trip" 

 Do you say when?  No.  

Are the consequences of the event still true? Yes, I am still on the trip = 'have' (present perfect)

"It was a very productive business trip"  

Do you say when? No

Are the consequences of the event still true? No, I am no longer on the business trip = past simple 

Do you know the difference in usage between present perfect and present perfect continuous? Check it out here!