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Grammar essentials: past simple versus present perfect

If you’re trying to improve your band score in IELTS it’s essential that you work on improving your general English. You need to build your vocabulary and brush up your grammar. I know it may sound like hard work, but that’s why I’m here to help. Today, let’s take a look at the difference between the present perfect and past simple tenses, something lots of people have trouble with. What’s the difference in meaning between these two sentences? a) I made notes on the most important things. b) I’ve made quite a lot of notes. Sentence a) uses the past simple tense while sentence b) uses the present perfect tense. But what is the difference in meaning? Well, one is talking about an event that started and finished in the past, while the other links the past with the present.  a) I made notes on the most important things. (I’ve finished making the notes) b) I’ve made quite a lot of notes. (I may make some more notes) Another difference is that we use the past simple to talk about a finished action that happened at a specific time, while we use the present perfect to refer to an unspecified time in the past.   a) I read the leaflets in the library. (It implies a specific time as you are no longer in the library) b) Have you read the leaflets? (At some time before now) When we talk about someone’s life experience, finished actions in someone’s life, it makes a difference if the person is alive or not. Let’s look at some examples: a) My father has been to Norway three times. (He’s still alive, this is his life experience) b) My great-grandfather went to Norway twice. (He’s dead, this was his life experience)  We also need to be careful when we use time expressions that we choose the correct tense. The past simple uses time expressions that show the time is finished (last week, last month, in 1887) and the present perfect uses time expressions that show the time is unfinished (this week, this month, this year, today): a) I’ve read six articles this week. b) I read five books last week.   Let me show you some examples: Common adverbs in the past simple:  last night, last year, yesterday, today, ago, first, then, later, when ●    I went to a party last night. ●    When I was a child I watched a lot of TV. Common adverbs in the present perfect:  before, after, already, yet, for, since, recently, still ●    I have applied for my dream job in Australia already. ●    I haven’t taken the IELTS test yet. ●    My sister has worked in the UK since 2016. Now that you have the basics, why not have a go yourself? Here’s a great exercise from Grammar for IELTS to practise choosing between past simple and present perfect.  (Click on image to enlarge). Look out for more in this series focusing on a range of essential grammar tools and techniques. Emma

Emma Cosgrave

27 February, 2020

Grammar essentials: past simple versus present perfect

grammar

If you’re trying to improve your band score in IELTS it’s essential that you work on improving your general English. You need to build your vocabulary and brush up your grammar. I know it may sound like hard work, but that’s why I’m here to help.

Today, let’s take a look at the difference between the present perfect and past simple tenses, something lots of people have trouble with.

What’s the difference in meaning between these two sentences?

  • a) I made notes on the most important things.
  • b) I’ve made quite a lot of notes.

Sentence a) uses the past simple tense while sentence b) uses the present perfect tense. But what is the difference in meaning? Well, one is talking about an event that started and finished in the past, while the other links the past with the present. 

  • a) I made notes on the most important things. (I’ve finished making the notes)
  • b) I’ve made quite a lot of notes. (I may make some more notes)

Another difference is that we use the past simple to talk about a finished action that happened at a specific time, while we use the present perfect to refer to an unspecified time in the past.  

  • a) I read the leaflets in the library. (It implies a specific time as you are no longer in the library)
  • b) Have you read the leaflets? (At some time before now)

When we talk about someone’s life experience, finished actions in someone’s life, it makes a difference if the person is alive or not. Let’s look at some examples:

  • a) My father has been to Norway three times. (He’s still alive, this is his life experience)
  • b) My great-grandfather went to Norway twice. (He’s dead, this was his life experience

We also need to be careful when we use time expressions that we choose the correct tense. The past simple uses time expressions that show the time is finished (last week, last month, in 1887) and the present perfect uses time expressions that show the time is unfinished (this week, this month, this year, today):

  • a) I’ve read six articles this week.
  • b) I read five books last week.
 

Let me show you some examples:

Common adverbs in the past simple
last night, last year, yesterday, today, ago, first, then, later, when
●    I went to a party last night.
●    When I was a child I watched a lot of TV.

Common adverbs in the present perfect
before, after, already, yet, for, since, recently, still
●    I have applied for my dream job in Australia already.
●    I haven’t taken the IELTS test yet.
●    My sister has worked in the UK since 2016.

Now that you have the basics, why not have a go yourself? Here’s a great exercise from Grammar for IELTS to practise choosing between past simple and present perfect. 

Grammar exercise from Page 22 of Grammar for IELTS

(Click on image to enlarge).

Look out for more in this series focusing on a range of essential grammar tools and techniques.

Emma

top-tip

Top tip: Remember to pay close attention to adverbs. Adverbs give hints, or clues, about which verb tense you should use.

Emma Cosgrave

Emma has been teaching IELTS for 20 years. She enjoys helping people to develop both their language skills and confidence.

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