By Cath McLellan

31 Jan 2020 - 15:07

Perfect "tenses" in English

Have you ever felt confused about which verb tense to use in English?

The answer to that question is almost definitely 'yes'. If we ask that question in English - Have you ever felt confused about which verb tense to use in English? - we are referring to something (confusion) in the past, and yet we are using the present perfect tense.  Not surprising that you might feel confused, particularly about the use of perfect tenses in English. 

When we talk about tenses, we also need to talk about aspect. Tenses tell you whether something is in the present, past or future, whereas aspect tells you more information about a verb - is the action finished or in progress? How does it relate to other actions or times?

Which tenses use the perfect aspect and when do we use them?

The present perfect:

We can use this tense to link the past with the present.

  • I have studied this grammar point so many times and it's still difficult.   
    This connects the past (studied) with the present (it's still difficult). 

We can also use it to talk about actions or times that haven't finished.

  • I have lived in Spain since 2003.
    (The action 'live' here is unfinished. This person still lives in Spain. We use for or since to say how long the action has lasted).
  • I've been to the gym three times this week.
    (The time 'this week' here is unfinished. Maybe it's Thursday and the person is going to go to the gym three more times before the week finishes).

But it is not true to say we use the present perfect only to talk about 'unfinished actions' (as some coursebooks would have you believe). We also use it to talk about experiences we have had that are in the past and finished, but when we don't specify when.

  • I have been to the USA three times.

You could argue that this is similar to the 'this week' example, as we are talking about going to the USA in 'our life', which, obviously, is not finished yet.

We also use the present perfect with just to talk about things that have finished very recently.

  • I've just heard the news - it's unbelievable!

And we use this tense with yet and already to ask questions and make statements about things we have or haven't done .

  • I've already seen this film - the ending is terrible.
  • Have you cleaned the bathroom yet?
    (The speaker here assumes that you are going to clean the bathroom at some point.)

Another perfect tense that connects the past with the present is the present perfect continuous:

  • He's been sending e-mails all morning. 
    (He started sending them this morning and he is perhaps still sending them or has very recently finished.)

We use this tense when we want to focus on the duration of an action up until another point in time.  We can also use it when an action has just finished and we can see the results. If I arrive in the classroom and I am out of breath, I might tell my students - "I've just been running around getting everything ready for today's class''.

The past perfect:

  • After dinner I felt really full because I had eaten three portions of ice cream. 
    This connects the past (felt full) with the previous past (I had eaten three portions).

We can also use the past perfect continuous: He had been living in LA for three years when he got his first film role.  This refers to something that was happening before the time we are focussing on (when he got his first film role).

The past perfect is very useful when telling stories. We can use it to differentiate between different times in the past.  Look at the difference between:

  • Yesterday I got up. I left my wallet on the table. I left the house and I arrived at the metro station. I had to go back home.
  • Yesterday I got up, left the house and arrived at the metro station, but I had to go back home because I had left my wallet on the table.

In the second example it is easier to understand the relationship between these past events. We don't often tell a story event by event in exactly the chronological order they happened (it would be very boring if we did).  It is a useful tense for giving background information to the main point.

We use the past perfect continuous in the same way but here we focus on longer or repeated actions that were happening before the past time we are focused on.

  • He had been working there for two years when Joanne started at the company.

The future perfect:

This tense is used to connect the present with the future and it is the one to use if you are very sure about the future and when things will be finished.  

  • By next year, I will have passed my driving test.
    Now: I am learning to drive. Next year: I will take my test. I think I will pass.)

 We often use the future perfect with time references like 'in three weeks' time', 'by 2025', "when I am sixty'.

 We can also use the future perfect continuous to talk about things that will still be in progress at a future time. Again, here the focus is often on the duration of the action.

  • When I finish this course I will have been studying English for ten years.

What are the structures for these tenses?

Present perfect simple
  • I/you/we/they have eaten chips
  • he/she/it has eaten chips

 Present perfect continuous

  • I/you/we/they have been eating chips
  • he/she/it has been eating chips

Past perfect simple

  • I/you/he/she/it/we/they had eaten chips

Past perfect continuous

  • I/you/he/she/it/we/they had been eating chips

Future perfect simple

  • I/you/he/she/it/we/they will have eaten chips

Future perfect continuous

  • I/you/he/she/it/we/they will have been eating chips

Exceptions and variations

 The perfect aspect is not used in the same way in all variations of English. In American English it is much more common to use the past simple when in British English the present perfect is used.

 For example:

  • Did you eat breakfast yet? (American English)
  • Have you eaten breakfast yet? (British English)

We very often use contractions with all of these tenses, which can sometimes be confusing for the listener:

  • I have known her all my life >
    I've known her all my life.
  • He had been working hard all morning >
    He'd been working hard all morning.

With some verbs (especially live and work) it is possible to use the present perfect simple or perfect continuous tense without any change in meaning

  • I've been living here for three years
  • I've lived here for three years.

Some people say that if both tenses are possible, the continuous sounds more natural.

We use 'for' with periods of time (2 years, 3 days, 18 months), and 'since' with points in time and dates (January, last year, I was a child).

Common mistakes

Remember that we cannot use state verbs (verbs that describe states rather than actions) in continuous tenses.

  • I've been loving this album for many years. ✗
  • I've loved this album for many years. ✓

If we talk about past events and we give a time reference (i.e. say when they happened), we need to use a past tense, not a perfect one.

  • I've been to the library last week. ✗
  • I went to the library last week. ✓

In English the tense we use might depend on the time of day. For example, if it's 11.30 a.m. we might say:

  • I've been to the bank this morning. ✓

But once it's afternoon (and so the morning has finished), we would say:

  • I went to the bank this morning. ✓

Famous examples

U2 lamented in their popular song that they 'Still hadn't found what I'm looking for', and fellow old time rocker Rod Stewart asked his partner 'Have I told you lately that I love you?' in his hit song.

Future perfect (Futuro Perfecto) is a 2016 Argentinian film which follows the life of a Chinese girl in Argentina getting to grips with Spanish and starting a new life where she speculates about her future self.

Mini quiz

Each of these sentences has an error with the verb tense. Can you correct them?

  1. I have got up at 7 a.m. yesterday.
  2. Terry has been working as a teacher for five years when he decided he needed a change.
  3. By next year George has finished university.
  4. Javier lives in London for three months.
  5. Natalia was tired yesterday because she didn't sleep the night before.
  6. Elena has been working on the project since three days. 

Answers (a long way) below:





  1. I got up at 7 a.m. yesterday.
  2. Terry had been working as a teacher for five years when he decided he needed a change.
  3. By next year, George will have finished university.
  4. Javier has been living / has lived in London for three months.
  5. Natalia was tired yesterday because she hadn't slept the night before.
  6. Elena has been working on the project for three days.