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Past Tense vs. Perfect Tense

Can sentence problems be a thing of the past?  That would be perfect…

Some issues with sentences are compounded by regional accent.  Confusion about when to use the simple past tense and perfect tense are sometimes an issue for pupils.


Firstly we should explain what each term means.

Simple past tense uses the past tense form of the verb.

Present tense (happening now) - I speak 
Past tense (happened in the past) - I spoke

The perfect tense uses the auxiliary verb ‘to have’ along with the main verb’s past participle, which usually ends in ‘ed’ or ‘en’.  Using the perfect tense creates a slightly different effect

Perfect - I have spoken

There is more emphasis here making the statement more final.

It’s also worth noting that it’s the auxiliary verb (to have) that dictates whether we use the perfect or past perfect:

Present perfect - I have spoken 
Past perfect - I had spoken   

Potential Problems

The present perfect is the one I’ve heard most often confused with the past tense, when pupils often neglect to use the auxiliary verb, eg. ‘I seen the film’ as opposed to ‘I have seen the film’ or ‘I saw the film’.

The perfect tense implies an action has finished:

‘I have visited my parents today.’ 

‘I have used all of the toothpaste.’

In the above examples, it’s worth noting that due to the main verb form, we could simply remove the auxiliary verb and it would leave us with the simple past tense, but this isn’t always the case.

‘I have seen the film.’ 

'I have done the housework.’ 

Sometimes pupils omit the auxiliary verbs and say ‘I seen the film’ or ‘I done the housework’ and in this case may need reminding of appropriate verb forms.

The following example of the past perfect gives a clearer illustration as to the differences between the two:

Past tense - The engine started when I turned the key.

Past Perfect tense - The engine had started when I turned the key.

Using the past perfect to make this statement suggests that the engine was already running when the key was turned .  This clearly wasn’t the case as any driver knows that the engine starts as a consequence of turning the key.

When to Use the Perfect

The perfect tense is used for actions that started in the past and continue to the present:

I have rented this house for six months - suggests I’m still living in it.

It is also used for actions that happened in the past, that may have caused a result in the present:

I’ve deleted my hard drive - suggests there is no longer any data on the hard drive because I deleted it.

Or when the emphasis is on the fact that something has happened rather than when it has happened.

I’ve watched ‘Avengers Endgame’ five times.  

The emphasis is on the fact that the film has been watched a number of times rather than the separate occasions that the watching took place.

In summary...

The perfect tense suggests that something has happened before the time referred to in the sentence.

‘I have finished the work’ implies that we’re talking about the present, but clearly the action (the work) has been completed in the past.  The focus of the sentence is that work has been completed.

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