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English Verb Tense Practice: When to Use the Perfect Tenses

Understand Differences in Meaning

Past Tense
I dropped my pencil.
you dropped the pencil anytime before now

Present Perfect
I have dropped my pencil.
you dropped the pencil a moment ago

Present Perfect Progressive
I have been dropping my pencil all day.
you dropped the pencil numerous times during the day and might drop it again

Past Tense
I worked hard last year.
you worked hard in the past, last year

Present Perfect
I have worked hard since last year.
you worked hard during a length of time that started last year and continued up to the present moment

Present Perfect Progressive
I have been working hard since last year.
almost the same as present perfect, but stresses your hard work more

Past Tense
He went to the new office.
he went anytime before now

Present Perfect
He has gone to the new office.
he isn't here now, he left to go to the office

Present Perfect Progressive
He has been going to the new office every day.
he has gone to the office at least one time each day and may go again

* Why "present" perfect? Because "have" or "has" is present tense. It shows action that happened before and may continue to happen.

Use the Perfect Tenses

Present Perfect Progressive
Use to show a length of time. It could be several hours or several years. You usually have to say "every day," "for years," "since January," something that shows the length of time. The action started in the past and continues into the present.
Present Perfect
Use to indicate something that happened a moment ago or recently. Also use to indicate something that started in the past and ended recently or may continue into the present.
Past Tense
Use for general time in the past. Also, you usually use it after  present perfect or present perfect progressive. For example: I have been cleaning all day. I washed the dishes and I vacummed the rugs. After that I took a nap. Another example: He has gone to work. He took Highway 5.

Here is one more example:

I have tried to help him multiple times. He never listens to me. -- Based on these sentences, the speaker may or may not try to help again. It is uncertain.

I have been trying to help him multiple times. -- This sentence does not work well. The present perfect progressive continues into the present, but "multiple times" restricts this sentence to former events.

Practice Tip 1: If these tenses seem hard, start with "I have been ___________ all day." You can say this in late afternoon or evening. This phrase is very, very common and shows a length of time as well as a person's efforts. You do not need to be continuing to work, clean, or whatever you were doing. This expression is used informally. It's also best to speak the contraction-form: "I've been _________ all day."

Practice Tip 2: Remember that you can switch to past tense after making one statement in past perfect or past perfect progressive. See examples under "past tense" above.


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