English can be a difficult language to use, especially when it comes to verb tenses (for a comprehensive review click here). Like other (often related) languages, English can use one verb tense but actually refer to a different point in time. An excellent example is when talking about the future. English has two distinct ways that often give the sentences different meanings: the first uses the present simple with the modal verbs “will or shall” while the second uses “going to” (present progressive). (Differences between the different ways to refer to the future can be found by clicking on the link.)
The past also is not safe from this dual manner of referring to events. English has two ways to refer to past events: Past Simple vs Present Perfect. But what makes these two tenses different from each other? Why would you use one and not the other? To answer this question, we need to look at the two forms more in-depth.
But when to use past simple vs present perfect?
The past simple tense, the forms of which can be found here, is used to describe something that happened at a stated or understood point in the past. This action is also considered finished. In contrast, the present perfect (its forms can be found here) is used when the time is not given or not important and which often has an effect on the present.
If this sounds a bit complicated, consider the following:
I went to the supermarket yesterday.
I have been to the supermarket recently.
In the first sentence, which is in past simple (‘went’), an action happened yesterday and was completed. The time is both completed (yesterday) and the action of moving to the store (and implied action of buying food) has also been finished. In the second sentence the verb in the present perfect is used for two reasons: the first is that a time is not specified (recently is not a specific time) and the second is the fact that the result of this action still affects the present.
Is it possible that we can use both?
There are some cases where we can use both the present perfect and the past simple in the same sentence. However, please keep in mind that they usually do not mean the same thing. Take a look at the following example:
What did you do at school today?
What have you done at school today?
In the first sentence the questioner is asking about the activities that were done at school. Did you learn about algebra? Did you learn English? What subjects did you cover? Additionally, in this case, the school day (the time a student spends at school) is considered to be over.
In the second sentence the questioner is asking to be shown the results of what was learnt that day. What have you learnt in mathematics today? – Show me. Additionally, the day is not over yet.
If you liked this post, why not check out my Teaching English page for more articles. Specialised English topics can also be found under posts such as Doublets (and Triplets) in English or The Basic Characteristics of Scientific Language.
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