Present perfect simple vs past simple in English

by Adriana Stein
September 14, 2020

Wondering about the difference between present perfect simple and past simple in English? There is a particular way to use each tense properly, so we’ve created a helpful overview to clarify how each one works.

The present perfect simple vs past simple

As a former English teacher, one of the most common points of confusion in English grammar was the difference between present perfect simple and past simple, especially because some languages simply don’t have “perfect” tenses. But if you want to improve your English skills, understanding this basic difference clarifies the rest of the English tenses, which in turn brings you that much closer to fluency!

How does past simple work?

Let’s first start with the simpler of the two tenses: present simple (also appropriately named!). We use present simple when we want to convey the following types of information: 

  • Things that are finished and don’t relate to the present
  • Facts from the past
  • Finished actions with a fixed end point

To form the past simple with regular verbs, we use the following structure:

verb + -ed

as in: walked, talked, listened, worked, focused, smelled, opened (and so on).

There are also irregular verbs that don’t follow any specific pattern, and unfortunately just need to be memorized. The most common is “to be”:

To be (past simple)
I was we were
you were  
he/she/it was they were

Other irregular verbs (among many others) are: 

eat = ate

sleep = slept

make = made

throw = throw

read = read

To put it all together, here are a few examples of complete past simple sentences with all forms of past simple verbs:

I ate a sandwich for lunch.

I moved from Paris to Berlin.

The first president of the US was George Washington.

Past simple time words

There are time words that help distinguish past simple from present perfect simple, including:

  • yesterday
  • last week
  • 2012 (any year)
  • 5 minutes ago

The key point here is that they are a “fixed” period in time. For example:

I finished work 5 minutes ago.

My holiday started yesterday.

They went shopping last week.

She was born in 1960.

How does present perfect simple work?

Present perfect simple is used a bit differently and makes sense in the following contexts:

  • Actions in the past that continue in or have an effect on the present
  • A finished action with no known or fixed endpoint
  • A finished action with a result in the present

The structure of a present perfect simple verb looks like:

have/has + past participle (the third form of the verb)

as in: have walked, have talked, have eaten, have slept, have met

Regular verbs have the same second and third forms (-ed endings), while irregular verbs have endings that again need to be memorized. 

A general rule is that each verb has three forms: infinitive (first form), past simple (second form), past participle (third form).

Here is a table for a few common verbs in all three forms to clarify the difference:

Infinitive (first form) Past simple (second form) Past participle (third form)
walk walked walked
talk talked talked
read read read
eat ate eaten
sleep slept slept
go went gone
be was/were been
do did done
have had had

Now we can combine the above information with the proper verb endings in some example sentences:

I have been to Germany three times.

We have now arrived home.

She has known her best friend for 20 years.

Present perfect simple time words

Present perfect simple also uses time words to describe “unknown” or “unclear” times, such as:

  • before
  • since
  • for
  • already
  • just

A few examples would be:

I have met you somewhere before.

The politician has just become president.

They have been married since 1980.

They have been married for 20 years.

She has already missed her appointment.

A quick comparison of contextual differences in both tenses

One of the most helpful methods in clarifying how these two tenses work is to compare two similar sentences where the meaning differs depending on which tense you use. You can view the below table to get a better idea:

Past simple Context Present Perfect Simple Context
I went to Paris last year.

The trip to Paris only happened last year.

(Finished action with a fixed end point)

I have been to Paris before. The trip to Paris occurred at some point in the past, but we don’t know exactly when or if it’s finished. (Unfinished actions in the past that continue in the present or have an effect on the present)
The couple got married in 1980. The couple got married exactly in the year 1980, but we don’t know if they’re still married. (Things that are finished and don’t relate to the present) The couple has been married since 1980.

The couple got married in 1980 and they’re still married now.

(A finished action with no known or fixed endpoint)

They ate dinner. The activity of eating dinner is complete. (Facts from the past) They have already eaten dinner. The activity of eating dinner is complete and is related to another topic. (Actions in the past that continue in or have an effect on the present)


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