Although the past simple and present perfect tenses are very different tenses, they can be used interchangeably in certain situations. I’ve distinguished their differences here with the use of different time markers.
Here is a chart of the type of time markers that can be used with each tense.
|Past simple||Present perfect|
|Without time markers||YES||YES|
|Past time markers||YES||–|
|Present time markers||sometimes||YES|
Past simple tense – Finished events
We use the past simple tense to talk about things that happened in the past. Here, events or actions are always finished.
Present perfect tense
On the other hand, we use the present perfect tense to talk about things that happened within a period of time, which started some time in the past until the present time.
However, when we use present time markers like “today” or “this week,” these time periods are unfinished at the time of speaking.
Without time markers
Both the past simple and present perfect can be used without time markers.
1. Recently finished events.
Often the past simple and present perfect can be used interchangeably when referring to recently finished events.
Past simple: “I lost my keys.”
This means that at some time in recent past, I lost my keys.
Present perfect: “I‘ve lost my keys.”
This means I lost my keys recently.
Present simple:“She went out.”
Present perfect:“She‘s gone out.”
Both of these mean the same thing.
2. Life experiences.
Here, the past simple and present perfect can also be used interchangeably. However the present perfect is usually preferred.
Present perfect: “W‘ve been to Tasmania once.”
This means I went to Tasmania once since I was born.
Past simple: “We went to Tasmania once.”
This means I went to Tasmania once in the past.
Present perfect: “I‘ve tried kangaroo meat.”
This means I tried kangaroo meat at least once since I was born.
Past simple: “I tried kangaroo meat.”
This means I tried kangaroo meat some time in the past.
3. With past simple – Past events that are not recent.
In these situations, using past time markers with present perfect would be grammatically incorrect.
Not – “Who has painted the Mona Lisa?”
Not – “I‘ve grown up in Brunei.”
With past simple – Past time markers
Past time markers are used to refer to a certain time in the past. Therefore it is not possible to use the present perfect with any past time markers.
Examples include: “yesterday,” “last week,” “from 1990 to 2001,” etc.
Not – “I‘ve lost my keys yesterday.”
Not – “They‘ve moved to Sydney in 1990.”
1. With past simple – Life experiences with past time markers.
As explained in the previous section, the past simple can be used to talk about life experiences. Here, it can also be used with past time markers.
- “Where did you go for your vacation last month?”
- “We went to Tasmania.”
- “I tried kangaroo meat four years ago.”
Present time markers
Present time expressions are typically used with the present perfect tense.
It is also possible to use certain present time expressions in the past simple tense. However more care should be taken as using the past simple can imply different things.
1. Unfinished time periods.
Past simple: “I went to Tasmania this month.”
Present perfect: “I‘ve been to Tasmania this month.”
Both are referring to a finished event within the current month.
Past simple: “What did you do today?”
Present perfect: “What have you done today?”
Both are asking the same thing.
2. With past simple – Present time markers that are actually in the past.
We can also refer to earlier parts of the day as the past. In this way, this cannot be used with the present perfect.
Past simple – In the afternoon: “I woke up late this morning.”
Not – “I‘ve woken up late this morning.”
Past simple – At night: “We went to Grill’d in the afternoon.”
Not – “We‘ve been to Grill’d in the afternoon.”
More time markers
Here are a number of other time markers you can use with the past simple or present perfect.
1. Vague general time expressions
Examples: “never,” “ever,” “before,” “so far,” “until now,” etc.
These are usually used in the present perfect when referring to finished events.
Some can be used with the past simple, although care should be taken as using the past simple can sometimes imply different things.
Present perfect: I”‘ve never been to Tasmania.”
This means that I have not visited Tasmania since I was born.
Past simple: “I never went to Tasmania.”
This means this never happened.
Present perfect: “So far, I‘ve been to the supermarket and the post office.”
Past simple: “So far, I went to the supermarket and the post office.”
Although the present perfect sounds more natural, both sentences have the same meaning.
2. “For” – To refer to the duration of a period of time.
Past simple: “They were married for 25 years.”
This implies this is finished. They were married for 25 years, but not anymore – either they divorced or one (or both) died.
Present perfect: “They‘ve been married for 25 years.”
This means this is ongoing and they are still married.
3. “Since” – To indicate when the period of time started.
The main clause is usually in the present perfect. “Since” introduces the event at a point in the past and is then followed by a specific time, the present perfect or past simple.
Present perfect + specific time: “I haven’t been back to Brisbane since 2003.”
Present perfect + past simple: “We‘ve tried the steak here since they hired a new chef last month.”
Present perfect + present perfect: “It‘s been years since I’ve eaten meat.”
4. “Already” – To emphasise that something is done.
Present perfect: “I already took a bath.”
Past simple: “I‘ve already taken a bath.”
Both sentences are saying the same thing.
5. “Just” and “recently” – To indicate something happened recently.
Past simple: “I just lost my keys.”
Present perfect: “I‘ve just lost my keys.”
Both sentences are saying the same thing.
6. “Yet” – To indicate that events are incomplete or not done.
Past simple: “Did you do your homework yet?”
Present perfect: “Have you done your homework yet?”
Both sentences are asking the same thing.
* Please note: I found some disagreements whether this can be used with the past simple or not.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “yet” is usually used with present perfect but not with past simple. However, in “Grammar in Use – Intermediate (3rd Ed., p. 16),” “yet” can be used with both the present perfect and past simple. There are also further disagreements in online English learning forums.
Personally, I think both are fine.
Original post: 13 April 2021