This is my attempt to explain the present perfect tense, and the present perfect continuous tense (a.k.a. the progressive tense), without causing your head to explode. Wish me luck.
The present perfect uses this structure:
- You have grown since the last time I saw you.
- My French has improved since I moved to Paris.
- I have seen the movie “Titanic” five times.
- That hospital has saved many lives.
The present perfect continuous uses this structure:
- I have been working on creating Japanese lessons.
- I have been busy in recent days.
- Tom has been waiting for a telephone call.
- Lisa has been seeing a divorce lawyer.
Watch out, Tom!
Anyway, both of these structures make liberal use of the verb to have, which is an “existence” verb. Specifically, to have something is to possess that thing.
Here, the thing that the subject of the sentence possesses is part of one, and only one, of two distinct categories:
- Present Perfect: States of action
- Present Perfect Continuous: States of being
First, let’s try a simple thought experiment. Let’s view these examples without “to have” as part of them. We are left with:
Present Perfect Continuous
- been working
- been busy
- been waiting
- been seeing
In the second case, that is, the present perfect continuous (the British and Canadians like to speak of the progressive), these describe states of being.
- A state of working.
- A state of being busy.
- A state of waiting.
- A state of seeing.
(For the record, there is no such word as “busying”.)
The continuous is so named for one very important reason: the continuous tense verb is incomplete without a phrase modifying – adding detail – to that state of being.
In other words, without telling you what I have been working on, “I have been working” is incomplete. Without telling you who Lisa has been seeing, “Lisa has been seeing” is incomplete. Without telling you when I have been busy, “I have been busy” is incomplete.
The continuous does not make sense unless the sentence continues, and provides detail to put the verb in context.
Now, let us return to the present perfect.
If I say, “You have grown since the last time I saw you,” I am stating one thing for certain:
You grew between the last time I saw you, and the exact moment I speak these words.
Question: Are you still growing now?
We don’t know.
Seriously. We don’t know.
The defining feature of the “present perfect” tense is that the past is clearly defined, but the present is completely UNDEFINED.
In other words, you might still be growing; you might not.
By the same token, my French may have improved since I moved to Paris (note that this is an example – I remain in Nova Scotia, Canada!), but my French might not be improving from this point in time onward. Perhaps I have become lazy. You do not know. I have not defined whether I am still improving.
Similarly, “I have seen “Titanic” five times” does not imply either of the following:
- I will see “Titanic” a sixth time.
- I will never see “Titanic” again.
We don’t know. The present perfect does not tell us.
“The hospital has saved many lives.” Will the hospital stop saving lives? I doubt that, but the sentence does not tell us.
The present perfect leaves the present, that is, this exact moment in time, undefined. We must either guess the truth from context, or appreciate that the speaker was deliberately vague about what the present – and the future – might hold.
Let me use a final example.
- I have driven on Highway 101.
- I have been driving on Highway 101 for thirty minutes.
If I said “I have driven on Highway 101,” and I was speaking to you while shopping for milk at a local grocery store, you would understand that I am not claiming to be driving on Highway 101 at the moment that I am speaking.
If I said “I have driven on Highway 101” while you are a passenger in my car, as I drive the car, and you saw us pass a sign reading “Highway 101,” therefore indicating that we are on Highway 101 at this exact moment, you would understand that I am saying that I have driven on this highway in the past, just like I am driving on it right now.
Now, let us look at our other example.
“I have been driving on Highway 101 for thirty (30) minutes.” You do not know, from this statement, whether I have driven on Highway 101 at any time in the past prior to thirty minutes ago. What you do know, is that I have been driving on Highway 101 for thirty minutes up until the moment I have said these words.
The implication is, I have been driving on Highway 101 for thirty minutes, and I still am driving on Highway 101.
The Present Perfect Continuous vs. The Past
“I drove on Highway 101 for thirty minutes.” This implies, I was driving on Highway 101 for thirty minutes, but I am not driving on it anymore.
“I have been driving on Highway 101 for thirty minutes.” This implies, “I was driving on Highway 101 for the last thirty minutes, and I still am.“
Incidentally, Highway 101 is a highway in Nova Scotia. Driving from Yarmouth to Halifax (or from Halifax to Yarmouth) on Highway 101 at the speed limit of 100 kilometers per hour takes approximately three hours, so someone who has driven for thirty minutes still has two and a half hours of driving to go. That is, of course, provided that the driver is traveling from one end of the highway to the other.
The present perfect defines the past clearly, but leaves the present undefined, and the future completely unknown.
The present perfect continuous defines the past, and implies that a state of being continues into the present (and may continue into the future).
The past defines the past, and implies that what happened in the past, stays in the past, and is not continuing into the present.
Thank you for reading. I hope that you have found this to be useful in your studies.