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Past simple vs present perfect

When to use “Past perfect” and “Past simple” in English

 

Do you know the difference between the meanings of these sentences?

 

“I have been to England five times.”

“I went to a yoga class yesterday.”

“He hasn’t finished the painting yet.”

“They wanted to leave early.”

 

All of these actions refer to events that happened in the past, so what’s the difference?

Why use past simple in some, and present perfect in others?

 

Read the tables below to check your understanding then try the exercise at the end of the article.

 

Comment below with your answers and we’ll let you know how you did!

 

Present perfect
Usage Example
To describe an action that started in the past and hasn’t finished (with “since”, “when”, or “for”). I’ve wanted to meet Scarlett Johansson since I saw the movie Lost in Translation.
To describe a life experience (finished). He has been to every country in the world.
To describe something that has never been experienced. I’ve never eaten meat.
To ask questions about life experiences. Have you ever drunk alcohol?
To describe an action that has finished, but has importance in the present. I can’t come into work today, I have been arrested!
To describe an action that started in the past and has finished recently. They have just finished lunch.

 

Past simple
Usage Example
To describe an action that happened one time in the past (with “one time”, “one day” or “once”). I went to America one time when I was 6.
To describe a habitual action in the past. When I was younger, I always imagined that I had an alien as a best friend.
To describe finished actions in the past. I knew Matt for five years, but then he got a different job and moved to South Korea.
To ask questions about the past. What did you do last weekend?

 

Note:

Both present perfect and past simple can be used with time expressions, but be careful which ones you use!

Present perfect can only be used with time expressions that haven’t finished. For example, “this week”, “today” and “this semester”.

 

“I haven’t been into class this week”.

 

Past simple can use any time expression that is in the present or past. For example, “today”, “yesterday” and “last month”. Of course, it is impossible to use future time expressions, such as “next week”!

 

“I met my mother for coffee today”.

 

Try it yourself!

Here are 6 sentences using present perfect and past simple. Which ones are incorrect? Comment below and we will tell you if you are correct!

  1. I have eaten dinner yesterday.
  2. What have you done last month?
  3. I wanted to move abroad but my girlfriend didn’t want to.
  4. I’ve never eaten meat.
  5. I’ve lost my wallet. Can you pay for me?
  6. I once met Ryan Gosling in New York.
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2 thoughts on “When to use “Past perfect” and “Past simple” in English

  1. MarijeNo Gravatar

    1 and 2?

    • Darren HainNo Gravatar

      you got it Marije!!!

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