The Perfect tenses are pretty unique to English – they don’t exist in some other languages (in fact, there are some languages that don’t use tenses at all!). As such, it is a challenge to learn a new verb tense for the first time, as students learning English must be able to conceive of the time concept that the Present Perfect demonstrates. TESOL teachers can helps students ‘envision’ the present perfect with the use of time lines.

Another challenge of the Present Perfect for students learning English is the fact that there are regular verbs and irregular verbs. Regular verb past participles end in –ed; irregular past participles have irregular forms. Students will be tormented with the repetitive process of memorizing these verbs: ‘begin, began, begun’; ‘go, went, gone’; drink, drank, drunk’… it’s a painful but necessary way to learn these verb forms. I tell students to study five a day, Monday to Thursday, then ‘test’ their memory, by looking at the infinitive form, and try to recall the past simple and past participle forms.

Yet another big challenge learning the Present Perfect is that there are many complex rules that go with the Present Perfect. Students learning English can be easily confused and overwhelmed with the hair-splitting details. In a nutshell:

  1. We use the Present Perfect Tense to talk about experiences. It is important if we have done it in our lives or not. It is not important when we did it.


I have been to Sentosa three times.
Shannon has never met a celebrity.
Have you ever eaten sea cucumber?

Remember! We often use adverbs of frequency, never and ever with the Present Perfect Tense to talk about experience.

  1. We use the Present Perfect Tense to talk about an action which started in the past and continues up to now.

I have been a principal for more than twelve years.
We haven't seen Uncle Tom since Monday.
How long have you lived in Singapore?

Remember! We often use since and for to say how long the action has lasted.

  1. We also use the Present Perfect Tense to talk about a past action that has its result in the present.

I have lost my car keys. = I don't have them now.
Peter has left for Greece. = He isn't here now.
Have you finished your homework? = Is your homework ready?

Remember! We often use just, already and yet with the Present Perfect Tense for an action in the past with the result in the present.

Challenges with these rules include:

1. The use of Present Perfect for events that happened in the past.

Students learning English must understand that there is a connection between the past and the present.

I ‘ve been to Pulau Ubin eighteen times.

Connection with the past: the event occurred in the past.

Connection with the present: in my mind, now, I have the memory of the event; I have experience of it.

2. Use of 'yet' and 'already' in questions, negative and positive forms

This is a common problem for new learners of the Present Perfect. Students must understand that ‘yet’ is only used in question and negative sentences, at the end of the sentence:

Have you finished your work yet?

I haven’t finished yet.

‘Already’ and ‘just’ are used in used in positive sentences; notice the position of these words:

I’ve already eaten breakfast.

I’ve eaten breakfast already.

I’ve just eaten breakfast.

Use of ‘since’ with points in time, and ‘for’ with periods of time:

They have been married for 15 years.

They have been married since 2001.

The difference between the Present Perfect and the Past Simple

Once students learn the Present Perfect, they often ask, “Why can’t I just use the Past Simple instead? What’s the difference?” The difference is quite significant. Compare the following sentences below:

Marilyn Monroe was married three times.

John has been married twice.

In the above examples, why do we use Past Simple for one sentence, and Present Perfect for the second? It may seem confusing at first for those learning English, but once they understand the difference, it’s very simple.

The Past Simple is used to talk about finished actions/states. In the above sentence, Norma Jean Mortenson (Baker) married James Dougherty, a neighbor’s son. After they divorced, Norma Jean became famous film star Marilyn Monroe, and eventually married baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. After that marriage ended, Marilyn married playwright Arthur Miller. Then she died. Her experiences with marriage are finished – she cannot marry again.

John on the other hand, married his high school sweetheart, but they eventually divorced. His second marriage was to an artiste, and they are still married. Present Perfect is used to talk about experiences that continue up to now. As happy as John is at the present time, as long as he is alive, there is always the possibility he might get married again.

Take a look at these next two examples:

I cut my finger.

I’ve cut my finger.

Students learning English may look at these two sentences and argue that they can’t be different; yet they have a critical difference.

Past Simple is used to talk about finished actions/states.

Present Perfect talks about a past action/state that has a connection to the present.

My finger is bleeding now; there’s a connection between the past action and the present.

Being a TESOL teacher can provide many challenges when teaching English to students, especially when students are learning English grammar items for the first time. With careful planning, anticipating challenges students may face with the language item and constant language support (such as context, lots of examples, and teacher and student controlled activities that aim at building accurate and confident interaction), you can help students overcome any challenge learning English.

Michael Bunyak

English Teacher at Canadian Education College, Singapore