Present Perfect – Verb Meaning and Use

The Present Perfect tense is very common in English, and also one of the most difficult to learn.

This post will show you how to use the Present Perfect. To see how to form the Present Perfect, click here.

When we use the Present Perfect there is always a connection with now. The state or action in the past has a result now.

  • They’ve learned English. (They know English now)
  • He told me his name, but I’ve forgotten it. (I can’t remember it now)
  • It hasn’t stopped raining. (It is raining now)
  • I can’t find my keys. Have you seen them? (I don’t have them now)

.

We use the Present Perfect to talk about actions or states that happened at an indefinite (not exact) time in the past. We don’t know exactly when the action took place, or it is irrelevant to the conversation.

Do not use time expressions that express a definite (exact) time in the past. When you mention a definite time in the past, you must use the Past Simple.

✔ I’ve read that book, it’s fantastic. (Sometime in the past, but we don’t know when)

✘ I’ve read that book last month.

✔  He has travelled all around the world. (Sometime in the past, but we don’t know when)

✘ He has travelled all around the world in the 1980’s.

✔ We’ve already eaten. (Sometime in the past, but we don’t know when)

✘ We’ve already eaten at 2:00.

✔ Have you met Jennifer? (At any time in the past, but we don’t know when)

✘ Have you met Jennifer at the conference?

.

The Present Perfect can talk about an action that happens only once, or repeatedly.

  • Freddy has been to Seattle once, but Alex has been many times.
  • Jasmine has failed her driver’s test three times!
  • It has rained everyday for three weeks now.

.

We use the Present Perfect to ask about life experiences with “ever”.

  • Have you ever seen a shooting star?
  • Have you ever ridden a horse?
  • Have you ever been to Europe?

Do not use “ever” in a response to this question. Affirmative answers should be “Yes, I have.” or “Yes, I have ridden a horse”, and negative answers should be “No, I haven’t” or “No, I’ve never been to Europe”.

* Note, do not use contractions in short affirmative answers.

✘ Yes, I’ve.

✔ Yes, I have.

✔ No, I haven’t

✔ No, I have not.

.

Adverbs such as “already”, “yet”, “still”, “so far”, “ever” and “never” are frequently used with the Present Perfect.

  • We’ve already made dinner.
  • They haven’t bought their ticket yet.
  • She still hasn’t done her homework!
  • So far, we have finished half of our work.
  • Have you ever seen that movie?
  • He has never been married.

.

“For” and “since” are often used when expressing continuing time up to now.

“For” + a length of time tells us how long and action or state has continued up to the present time.

  • I’ve worked here for a long time.
  • She’s lived there for six years.
  • How long have you been travelling for?

“Since” + a point in time tells us when an action or state began.

  • I’ve worked here since 2006.
  • She’s lived there since she was a child.
  • You’ve been travelling since last month.

.

* Note the difference between “gone” and “been”

  • Juan is away on holiday, he‘s gone to New Zealand. (he is there now, or on his way there)
  • Maria is back from holiday now. She has been to Thailand. (she is now back from Thailand)

* Don’t confuse the contraction of “is” with the contraction of “has” in the Present perfect.

  • He‘s working a lot = He is working a lot.
  • He‘s worked a lot = He has worked a lot.
Advertisements

Can vs. Be Able To

There is often some confusion about can and be able to, so let’s see if I can clear that up a bit for you.

Can and be able to are often interchangeable and you can usually use either one without a difference in meaning.  But not always.

Can is a  modal auxiliary verb that expresses general ability in the Present tense, or could for general ability in the Past tense.

Be able to is not a modal auxiliary verb, it’s just the verb “be” + the adverb “able” + the infinitive “to”. 

.

Present Ability. We use both can and be able to, but can is much more common:

✔ James can speak three languages.

✔ James is able to speak three languages.

✔ Michelle can easily multitask.

✔ Michelle is able to easily multitask.

.

Future Ability. We only use will be able to to talk about a future skill or ability that you don’t have yetbut you will have in the future. We never use can for an ability that you will only have in the future:

✔ When I finish training I will be able to run a 5 minute mile.

✘ When I finish training I can run a 5 minute mile.

✔ I will be able to see better when I get new glasses.

✘ I can see better when I get new glasses.

We use either can or be able to when we are talking about decisions and future arrangements:

✔ The doctor can see you next Monday.

✔ The doctor is able to see you next Monday.

✔ I’m busy now, but I can help you in an hour.

✔ I’m busy now, but I’ll be able to help you in an hour.

✔ Mom can drive you to school tomorrow.

✔ Mom is able to drive you to school tomorrow.

.

Past Ability.  We use could or was/were able to to talk about an ability that existed for a long time in the past, but which isn’t true now:

✔ When I was young, I was able to eat like a pig and not get fat.

✔ When I was young, I could eat like a pig and not get fat.

✔ When I was a teenager, I could stay up all night without getting tired.

✔ When I was a teenager, I was able to stay up all night without getting tired.

We only use was/were able to with action verbs to talk about an ability related to a single event:

✔ We were able to go sailing yesterday because the weather was so nice.

✘ We could go sailing yesterday because the weather was so nice.

✔ I was able to file my taxes online this year.

✘ I could file my taxes online this year.

✔ Yesterday we were able to get tickets for the concert.

✘ Yesterday we could get tickets for the concert.

But we use either can or was/were able to with some stative verbs (see, hear, feel, taste) to talk about an ability related to a single event:

✔ Were you able to see the fireworks from your balcony last night?

✔ Could you see the fireworks from your balcony last night?

✔ I was able to taste the salt in her cooking.

✔ I could taste the salt in her cooking.

✔ Because I was sitting in the front row, I was able to hear the teacher clearly.

✔ Because I was sitting in the front row, I could hear the teacher clearly.

We use couldn’t or wasn’t/weren’t able to for negative statements for both single events and a long period of time:

✔ Yesterday he wasn’t able to finish his dinner.

✔ Yesterday he couldn’t finish his dinner.

✔ I wasn’t able to swim when I was younger.

✔ I couldn’t swim when I was younger.

✔ We weren’t able to get tickets for the concert.

✔ We couldn’t get tickets for the concert.

.

Here is a visual chart to help you out:

Can/Could (affirmative) Cannot/Can’t/Couldn’t Be Able To (affirmative) Be Able To (negative)
Past Ability She could read when she was five. She couldn’t read when she was five. She was able to read when she was five. She wasn’t able to read when she was five.
Past Repeated Actions When they were young, they could run marathons. When they were young, they couldn’t run marathons. When they were young, they were able to run marathons. When they were young, they weren’t able to run marathons.
Past, Single Action, Stative Verb I could feel the wind in my hair. I couldn’t feel the wind in my hair. I was able to feel the wind in my hair. I wasn’t able to feel the wind in my hair.
Past, Single Action, Action Verb NOT POSSIBLE!! I couldn’t get tickets for the concert. I was able to get tickets for the concert. I wasn’t able to get tickets for the concert.
Present Ability They can speak Italian. They can’t speak Italian. They are able to speak Italian. They aren’t able to speak Italian.
Future Ability or Skill NOT POSSIBLE!! When we pass our driver’s exam, we will be able to drive a car.
Future Decisions and Arrangements The dentist can see you tomorrow morning. The dentist can’t see you tomorrow morning. The dentist will be able to see you tomorrow morning. The dentist won’t be able to see you tomorrow morning.

Stative Verbs

Stative, or non action verbs do not express action.  They express a state or condition, and usually only occur in the Present Simple.  When they do occur in the Present Progressive, there is often a difference in meaning.

Some common stative verbs are:

Attitudes and Emotions

  • love, like, hate, dislike, fear
  • want, need, prefer, appreciate
  • doubt, wish, care, mind, promise, deny, concern

Belief and Knowledge

  • believe, know, think, feel (= opinion), hope, doubt, imagine
  • mean, understand, realize, suppose, guess
  • remember, forget, agree, disagree

Descriptions and measurements

  • be, appear, look (= seem), look like, seem, resemble
  • sound, sound like
  • weigh (have weight), measure (have length), cost
  • fit, contain

Possession and Relationships

  • have, own, possess
  • owe, belong, depend on
  • include, contain, consist of

Senses

  • see, hear, smell, taste, feel
  • ache, hurt, burn, itch, sting

✔ He owes me money.      ✘ He’s owing me money.

✔ They seem happy.         ✘ They are seeming happy.

✔ I forget his name.           ✘ I’m forgetting his name.

✔ She knows the answer.  ✘ She is knowing the answer.

.

Some verbs can be both stative and active, with a difference in meaning.

Present Simple (stative)                                                     Present Progressive (active)

I think this is delicious (belief)                 We’re thinking about moving (mental activity)

It weighs a lot (measurement)                   I’m weighing it on the scale (physical activity)

She has six cats (possession)                                        She’s having a bad time (experience)

He has a nice house (possession)                        He’s having lunch with Jennifer (eating)

This soup tastes great (it has a certain flavour)       The chef is tasting the soup (action)

I smell something gross (it has a certain smell)           I’m smelling each flower (action)

I see him (he’s over there)                                    I’m seeing him (I’m dating / meeting him)

.

The “be” verb is usually stative, but when it’s used in the continuous it suggests temporary, or atypical behaviour.

Present Simple (stative)                                                     Present Progressive (active)

My kids are good. (they’re always good)  My kids are being good! (usually they are bad)

You are stupid (it’s part of your personality)                      You are being stupid (only now)

He wears nice clothes (all the time)                       He’s wearing nice clothes (only today)