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When we introduce the Present Perfect and Past Simple tenses for the first time, students sometimes make mistakes and use one when the correct choice is the other. In order to avoid these mistakes, we need to understand clearly when we use each of these verb tenses.

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We use the Past Simple when we are thinking about a specific past time. For example, if you say ‘yesterday’ or ‘last week’ or ‘last lesson’ or any specific time in the past, you need to use the Past Simple. Let’s look at some example sentences (the Past Simple is underlined in each):

~ James told me about his party last week.
~ I wanted pizza but they only had pasta, so I ordered that.
~ She didn’t call her father on his birthday!

The Present Perfect tense is a little more complicated, as there are a few different situations in which we can use it. However, there is a general explanation we can remember to help us know when we need to use it: we use the Present Perfect when we are thinking about time before and up to now. For example:

~ My mother has never been to Vietnam.
~ Have they given you your ball back?
~ I have eaten pizza three times this week!

Consider the three examples above. In the first sentence, we are thinking about any time in the past up to the present, because my mother could have travelled to Vietnam at any point in that timeframe. In the second sentence, we are thinking about any time in the past up to the present, because your ball could have been returned to you at any point in that timeframe. And in the third sentence, we are thinking about the first day of the week up to today (now).

Besides this general explanation, there are three situations we must remember in which we often use the Present Perfect. They are:

1) To talk about our experiences
2) To talk about the duration of an action before and up to now
3) To talk about the result now of a past action

Let’s see some examples that illustrate these three situations:

1) He has read Hamlet.
2) Mark has lived in New York for ten years.
3) The baker has broken his arm.

These sentences, in order, mean that:

1) He has the experience of having read Hamlet.
2) Mark moved to New York 10 years ago, and still lives there.
3) The baker broke his arm (specific past time) and the result now is that his arm is broken.

A special note for our students: it’s very important to remember that if you are talking about a specific past time, you must use the Past Simple. This includes a specific past time during the same day. For example, if today is Monday, and you are talking about what you had for lunch on Monday (the same day), you would use the Past Simple:

~ I ate a hamburger and a salad for lunch today.

Lunchtime is in the past; it is a specific past time, and therefore we need to use the Past Simple. Practice the Present Perfect and the Past Simple in the exercises included here!
A. Edstrom

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Alex Edstrom
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