Using the present perfect for life experiences

by Adriana Stein
April 06, 2021
man practising Using the present perfect for life experiences

The present perfect is an English tense that refers to actions that happened in an unspecified time in the past, or that started in the past and still continue today.

In this article, I will focus on teaching you about using the present perfect to introduce life experiences, since it is an extremely common usage of this particular tense.

An overview on the present perfect tense in English

When you use the present perfect, the focus is on the experience itself, not on its details. The listener or reader won’t know when the action happened in the past, just that it did.

For example, if you want to say you visited France in the past, but don’t care to specify when or how it was, you’d use the present perfect, as in “I have been to France” at some point in the past.

On the other hand, if you want to describe your last holiday in France, you’d say “I went to France.” 

A good way to distinguish when to use either tense is by asking yourself what you are trying to communicate:

Is it a specific experience? -> Use the past simple. 

Is it a general event that happened in the past, but the specifics don’t matter? -> Use the present perfect.

How many tenses do English speakers actually use? 

How to construct the present perfect in English

The present perfect in English is formed by the simple present of the verb “have” and the past participle of the verb you want to use. 

Here are a few simple examples:

We have been to Indonesia before. (unspecified time in the past)

She has witnessed the crime. (it happened recently, but at an unspecified time)

I have driven several cars. (happened in the past but at a unspecified time)

Now let’s go over how this tense is constructed.

Negative form of the present perfect

The negative form of the present perfect is formed by adding “not” to the verb “have” in the regular construction. The contracted form of “have not” is “haven’t”. 

Here are a couple of examples:

We have not been to Madrid.

They haven’t cleaned the place.

You can use “never” instead of “not” when talking about something you have never experienced, like in the following example:

I have never seen a real elephant.

When we use “never”, a contraction is not possible.

Grammar for job interviews in English

Asking questions in the present perfect

Questions in the present perfect are formed by using “have” followed by the sentence’s subject, and then the past participle of the verb. It’s the standard way of constructing a question in English. For example:

Have you read Ayn Rand’s books?

Has he studied for the test?

To ask a question with the present perfect’s negative form, you either use the contracted form “haven’t”, or add “not” after the subject. 

Haven’t you heard the news? The new president has just been announced.

Has she not realised she’s crying over spilled milk?

When do you use the present perfect?

As mentioned above, we use the present perfect in English when we talk about actions that happened in an unspecified time in the past. The unspecified time part distinguishes the present perfect from the past simple, and being able to use them both is an essential element of advanced English skills. 

When you talk about an action using the past simple, you must specify when it happened:

I was in Italy last August.

Here you are giving more detailed information about your trip to Italy by adding when you went there. Removing “last August” from this sentence would make it meaningless, as past simple requires you to specify a time.

If you want to introduce a past life experience you use the present perfect:

I have been to Italy. 

Here you are saying you visited Italy in the past, but don’t care about (or don’t need to mention) the specific time. You are introducing a life experience that happened when you have been to Italy, not describing your visit. You can’t add “last August” to this sentence. 

When using the present perfect for life experiences, it is quite common to add how many times you have experienced the action expressed by the verb.

Consider the following examples:

I have tried the driving licence’s exam three times.

They have studied marketing for five years.

It’s interesting to note that both sentences could work with the past simple in place of the present perfect, but then they’d have different implications.

When you use the past simple, it is implied that you completed the action described, so you have finally gotten your driving licence, or you have completed your marketing studies. 

Conversely, by using the present perfect, you are implying the action is still going on today. You are attempting to get your licence, and you aren’t done with your marketing studies.

When you are learning English, this difference is important to take note of, because the listener could understand something completely different than you intended if you use these tenses incorrectly. As always, practise, practise, practise and you’ll get the difference without hesitation

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