English grammar help: present perfect and past perfect

Some of the most confusing tenses in the English language are the present perfect and past perfect. They become especially confusing when you have to identify which tense to use and which one is being used. So today, let’s practice both of those tenses.

Present perfect:

The present perfect is formed by using ‘has’ or ‘have’ and the past participle of the verb. For example, “I have watched the movie” or “She has watched the movies.”

So when do you use the present perfect? That is a great question. We use the present perfect when we are talking about an event that started in the past and the event still has some influence in the present. This influence could be something that you have experienced in your life that still has an impact on your life. It could also be used for things that have changed over a time, or a task that was unfinished in the past and will be completed in the future. Let’s take a look at each example:

An experience: “I have been to India.”

Change over time: “Her English has improved since she joined EF English Live.”

An unfinished task: “He has not finished cleaning the house. “

All of these tasks started in the past, but something about them still applies in the present time. Something about them could change in the present or future.

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Past perfect:

This is formed by combining ‘had’ with the past participle of the verb.

The past perfect is very similar to the present perfect because the event also started in the past. However, the difference between the events is that the past perfect event also ended in the past. This can be used with a specified time. For example, “I had studied in China last year”. This also implies the event happened a long time ago.

This diagram may help to explain further:


Also, a confusion that students tend to have is when they see ‘have had’ placed together in a sentence. For example, “I have had a cold”. So is this the present perfect because of ‘have’, or is the past perfect because of ‘had’? In order to identify the correct tense, always look at the first ‘have’ or ‘had.” In this sentence, we first used ‘have’, therefore this sentence is the present perfect.


Image: Alejandro Escamilla.