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Key Differences Between Simple Past Tense and Present Perfect Tense

Many learners of the English language confuse two very important tenses – the simple past and the present perfect. There is no point blaming the learners though, for the confusion lies with the rules governing these two tenses. After all, both these tenses can be used to talk about actions that have happened in the past and are thus now over. Consider the sentences given below:

  1. I have read ‘Kafka on the Shore’ by Haruki Murakami.
  2. She ran into one of her school friends this morning. (‘Ran into’ is a phrasal verb which means ‘to meet accidentally’.)
  3. Have you finished your homework?
  4. My dad has not breakfasted yet.
  5. He left for work at eight in the morning.

As you can see, each of the sentences given above depicts an action that is already over. If you know the rules of these two tenses, you will immediately be able to figure out that sentences 1, 3, and 4 are in the present perfect tense. Sentences 2 and 5, on the other hand, are in the simple past tense. Also, it is worth mentioning that while sentences 1, 3, and 5 are affirmative sentences, sentence 3 is interrogative and sentence 4 is negative. Anyway, before I explain the rules that govern these tenses and the differences that you ought to keep in mind, let me give you the sentence structure for each type of sentence in these two tenses.

But before you read this post, I suggest you read my post on everything about subject-verb agreement by clicking here.

Let me state categorically that if you’ve understood the concept of subject-verb agreement, you will be able to understand whatever is explained here much better. Now, let’s begin with the present perfect tense. Study the chart given below and carefully understand the different sentence structures in order to avoid making silly grammatical mistakes. Keep in mind that these rules are only for sentences constructed in the active voice.

Present Perfect Tense – Understanding the Sentence Structure

Types of Sentences

Word Order

Example Sentences

AffirmativeSubject + has/have + Verb’s Third Form + Object + Adverbial ComplementsThe Mathematics teacher has given a very difficult assignment today.
NegativeSubject + has/have + not + Verb’s Third Form + Object + Adverbial ComplementsThe Mathematics teacher has not given a very difficult assignment today.
InterrogativeHas/Have + Subject + Verb’s Third Form + Object + Adverbial ComplementsHas the Mathematics teacher given a very difficult assignment today?
Negative InterrogativeHas/Have + Subject + Verb’s Third Form + Object + not + adverbial complements OR Hasn’t/Haven’t + Subject + Verb’s Third Form  + Object + Adverbial ComplementsHas the Mathematics teacher not given a very difficult assignment today? OR Hasn’t the Mathematics teacher given a very difficult assignment today?
Adverb InterrogativeQuestion Word + has/have + Verb’s Third Form + Object + Adverbial ComplementsWhy has the Mathematics teacher given a very difficult assignment today?

Adverb Negative Interrogative

Question Word + has/have + Verb’s Third Form + not + Object + Adverbial Complements OR Question Word + hasn’t/haven’t + Subject + V3 + Object + Adverbial Complements

Why has the Mathematics teacher not given a very difficult assignment today? OR Why hasn’t the Mathematics teacher given a very difficult assignment today?

Now, let’s focus on the word order for different types of sentences constructed in the simple past tense.

Simple Past Tense – Understanding the Sentence Structure

Types of Sentences

Word Order

Example Sentences

AffirmativeSubject + Verb’s Second Form + Object + Adverbial ComplementsShe returned your book last week.
NegativeSubject + did not + Verb’s Second Form + Object + Adverbial ComplementsShe did not return your book last week.
InterrogativeDid + Subject + Verb’s Second Form + Object + Adverbial ComplementsDid she return your book last week? (Don’t say – Did she returned…)
Negative InterrogativeDid + Subject + not + Verb’s First Form + Object + Adverbial Complements OR Didn’t + Subject + Verb’s First Form + Object + Adverbial ComplementsDid she not return your book last week? OR Didn’t she return to Delhi last week?
Adverb InterrogativeQuestion Word + did + Subject + Verb’s  First Form + Object + Adverbial ComplementsWhen did she return your book?
Adverb Negative InterrogativeQuestion Word + did + Subject + not + Verb’s First Form + Object + Adverbial complement OR question Word + didn’t + Subject + Verb’s First Form + Object + Adverbial ComplementsWhy did she not return your book last week? OR Why didn’t she return your book last week?

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How to identify the subject of the verb in a clause/sentence?

The subject of a verb answers the question ‘who’ or ‘what’.

For example, consider the question given below and its answer.

Question: Who gave us the assignment? Answer: The Mathematics teacher gave us the assignment.

Because ‘Mathematics teacher’ answers the question ‘who’, it is the subject of the verb ‘gave’ in the given sentence.

Nonetheless, if the subject is a non-living thing, it answers the question ‘What’.

For instance, to the question, ‘What looks beautiful?’ one might answer, ‘This flower vase looks beautiful’. Thus, ‘flower vase’ becomes the subject of the verb ‘looks’ in the given sentence.

How to identify the object of the verb in a clause/sentence?

Objects can answer a number of questions. While direct objects give answers to the questions ‘whom’ and ‘what’, indirect objects answer questions like ‘with whom’, ‘about what’, ‘in what’, ‘for whom’, etc.

What are adverbial complements?

Adverbial complements are those parts in a sentence that answer the questions, ‘when’, ‘where’, and ‘how’. For example, in the sentence, ‘They came here on Sunday’, the parts ‘here’ and ‘on Sunday’ are adverbial complements as they answer the questions ‘when’ and ‘where’ respectively.

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What Are the Differences?

Anyhow, the questions that arise now are these: When should we say a sentence in the present perfect tense? And can the present perfect and the simple past tenses be used interchangeably? Well, after having read the points I have given below, you will be able to not only answer both these questions, but also correct the mistakes of others.

#Rule 1

You can use the present perfect tense to talk about an action that is over but without using a time marker that denotes the past. However, if you use a time marker denoting the past, you have to say the sentence in the simple past tense. Study the below-mentioned example sentences to understand this rule better:

  1. He arrived at the railway station last night.
    OR
    He has arrived at the railway station.
  2. Did you meet Samantha yesterday?
    OR
    Have you met Samantha?
  3. I returned to Kashmir in June.
    OR
    I have returned to Kashmir.
  4. My best friend met with an accident this morning.
    OR
    My best friend has met with an accident this morning.
  5. We discussed the issue with the manager this week.
    OR
    We have discussed the issue with the manager this week.

As you will have noted, in the first three examples, the time marker denotes the past; hence, when they are said in the present perfect tense, the time marker is removed. Nevertheless, in the last two examples, the time markers ‘this morning’ and ‘this week’ denote the present. Therefore,  you have an option to say the sentence in either the simple past tense or the present perfect tense.

Activity #1

Let’s do a small activity now to see if you have understood this point.  Identify which of the following sentences given below are incorrect. The answers are given at the end of this post.

  1. The Prime Minister of India has addressed a gathering in August.
  2. Their parents attended the meeting today.
  3. Why have you not completed your work yesterday?
  4. Haven’t you been to Kerala?
  5. We have understood the lesson.

#Rule 2

We generally use the present perfect tense to talk about actions that have a link with the present. Nonetheless, it is also possible to use the past tense to express such actions. Also, the adverbs ‘just’, ‘recently’ and ‘lately’ can be used to denote that the action being spoken about happened in the recent past. It is also possible to use the adverb ‘already’ to denote that the action is completed. However, if the sentence happens to be negative, we oftentimes use the adverb ‘yet’ provided the sentence is said in the present perfect tense. Look at the example sentences given below:

  1. Our company has launched a new product recently/lately.
    OR
    Our company launched a new product recently/lately.
  2. You have not answered my question yet.
    OR
    You did not answer my question yet. (rare but possible)
  3. Has he already corrected your mistakes?
    OR
    Did he correct your mistakes? (Since this is an interrogative sentence is the past tense, the adverb ‘already’ hasn’t been used.)
  4. Your male cousin has just provided us with the details of the matter.
    OR
    Your male cousin just provided us with the details of the matter.
  5. Did you talk to her over the phone lately?
    OR
    Have you talked to her over the phone lately?

Activity #2

In each of the following sentences, identify the part comprising a mistake. The answers are given at the end of the post.

  1. Where have (A) you hide your (B) mark sheets (C)?
  2. Did your mother (A) not attend (B) the meeting already (C)?
  3. His colleagues (A) have complained (B) about him (C) to the boss yet (D).
  4. When has the robbery (A) took place (B) according to the police (C)?
  5. My brother and I (A) did not visited (B) the Taj Mahal on our trip to Agra (C).

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#Rule 3

We use the present perfect tense when we talk about how long an action or situation has lasted. These sentences usually contain the preposition ‘for’ or ‘since’. Consider the sentences given below to understand this rule better:

  1. I have lived in Delhi for ten years.
  2. We have watched ten TV shows since the morning.
  3. Martha has written ten letters since last evening.
  4. He has stayed at our place for over five years now.
  5. Have you not met James since you graduated from college?

It is important for you as a learner to understand that ‘for’ is used when we talk about a duration while ‘since’ is used when we refer to the start time of an action. Also, notice that in the last sentence ‘since’ functions as a conjunction. The first clause (Have you not met James) is in the present perfect tense, and the second clause (you graduated from college) is in the simple past tense.

Now, let’s do another activity. This activity will help you understand this rule much better. All you need to do is identify which of the following sentences are wrong. The answers are given right after this activity. Some more rules pertaining to these tenses will be discussed by me in one of my forthcoming posts.

Activity #3

  1. They have played tennis since too long.
  2. How many poems have you composed since Friday?
  3. The price of onions has skyrocketed since this party came to power.
  4. How long have you taught English?
  5. This story created a lot of impact since it was published.

Answers:

Activity #1

1. The Prime Minister of India has addressed a gathering in August.
Incorrect
Explanation: The time marker ‘in August’ denotes the past. Therefore, the sentences cannot be said in the present perfect tense. The right way of the saying the sentence is: The Prime Minister of India addressed a gathering in August.

2. Their parents attended the meeting today.
Correct

3. Why have you not completed your work yesterday?
Incorrect
Explanation: The given sentence contains an adverb of time (yesterday) that indicates the past. Hence, the right way to say the sentence is: Why did you not complete your work yesterday?

4. Haven’t you been to Kerala?
Correct

5. We have understood the lesson.
Correct

Activity #2

1. Where have (A) you hide your (B) mark sheets (C)?
The error is in part B. Use ‘hidden’ instead of ‘hide’; for with the helping verb ‘have’, you cannot use a verb’s first form.

2. Did your mother (A) not attend (B) the meeting already (C)?
The error is in part C.  Adverb ‘yet’ and not ‘already’ is used in negative constructions.

3. His colleagues (A) have complained (B) about him (C) to the boss yet (D).
The error is in part D. This sentence is affirmative, hence, you can use ‘already’ but not ‘yet’.

4. When has the robbery (A) took place (B) according to the police (C)?
The error is in part B.  As the sentence has the helping verb ‘has’, verb’s third form must be used. Thus, it’s correct to say – When has the robbery taken place…?

5. My brother and I (A) did not visited (B) the Taj Mahal on our trip to Agra (C).
The error is in part B. A negative sentence in the past tense contains ‘did not’ followed by the verb’s first form.

Activity #3  

Except sentences 1 and 5, all are correct. While in the first sentence, the preposition ‘for’ should be used and not ‘since’, in the fifth sentence, the first clause should be said in the present perfect tense, i.e., you must use ‘has created’ instead of ‘created’.

I hope this post was useful. If you have any questions, feel free to mail us at literaryexpress@gmail.com.

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SIDDHARTH VAMSI
SIDDHARTH VAMSI
1 month ago

Useful!

Prithviraj Shirole
Prithviraj Shirole
1 month ago

Thanks for a productive grammar lesson. Difference between simple past tense and present tense was easy to understand. Thanks for making it simple.

laxman baral
1 month ago

wow nice info article undet here

Malachi
1 month ago

Amazing lesson will recommend this for my younger siblings

Godwin Nwaobasi
1 month ago

I guess it’s not to late to learn this.. Thanks

Entertainment
1 month ago

Your knowledge is great

Mohammed jalaluddin
Mohammed jalaluddin
1 month ago

It was good ☺️ to read it

ugvibe
1 month ago

This great

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29 days ago

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