English Lesson: “Simple Past” vs “Present Perfect”

“Do you have any easy, simple ways to tell the difference between ‘simple past’ and ‘present perfect’?” – Thiago

No, no I don’t, especially when it comes to academic English. Most of the time, grammar focused questions are brought up because people need help with standardized tests like the TOEFL or TOEIC.

The best thing you can do to prepare for a standardized test is to take practice tests.

You need to become familiar with the format and style of questions they’ll ask you on that kind of test. The frustrating thing is, there’s people who do amazing on the tests but can’t speak English at all. On the same token, you’ll have people who are GREAT at actually using English, but fail again and again when taking their test.

Their self-esteem gets destroyed. They start to think they don’t have any language ability at all. That’s the classroom bubble for you– and one of the reasons why I’ve removed myself from that kind of environment.

So let’s focus on how to tie this into real life applicable skills.

Simple Past

When most people learn English verb conjugations, they learn them like this:

  1. talk
  2. am talking
  3. talked
  4. have talked

That third version, talked, is what we call the “simple past”. For a lot of the verbs out there, we can just add “-ed”. But be careful, there’s plenty of irregular verbs that you’ll have to memorize like drove, ate, spoke.

  • I talked to Sam last month.
  • I drove to the mall.
  • She already ate.
  • We spoke often.

In each of these sentences, they’re simple facts. Most often they’ll be answering a question. But even if they’re not a response, they’re very simple statements that don’t tell us too much.

They’re not really good for conversation. Here’s how they might look in a dialogue:

  • A: Hey, what’s new with you?
  • B: Not much really. I talked to Sam last month.
  • A: Oh that’s cool. Well, what’d you do yesterday?
  • B: I drove to the mall.
  • A: …
  • B: …
  • A: Um, you want to get something to eat? You can bring your girlfriend if you want.
  • B: She already ate.

All of the grammar above is correct. All the English is technically “perfect”, but it’s not good conversation.

When you stick with short and simple answers, you force the other person to carry the conversation. This isn’t very fun for them. They probably won’t talk to you much longer or ever again.

Present Perfect

Let’s look at our conjugation list again:

  1. talk
  2. am talking
  3. talked
  4. have talked

The fourth version, have talked, is what we call the “present perfect”. We’ll make it by adding “have” in front of the simple past.

So now for the big question: what’s the difference? You should think of present perfect in terms of the overall experience. It’s easier if we look at them side by side to compare:

  • Jon taught in Japan. (simple past)
  • Jon has taught in several schools– some in Japan, some in the US, and some online. (present perfect)

In the simple past version, it’s a short statement that’s a matter of fact. In the second statement, we get a little more insight into Jon. It’s much easier to continue the conversation when we have that information and detail.

  • I saw a movie yesterday. (simple past)
  • I’ve seen so many movies like this one. (present perfect)

If someone says the first sentence, I can try to continue the conversation. It’ll probably be boring, step-by-step small talk (i.e. What movie? Where did you see it? How was it?). But if someone says the second sentence, I can get a little bit more of their personality. Maybe they feel this movie is unoriginal, but you loved it.

  • She wrote a thank you letter. (simple past)
  • She’s written a thank you letter for every person who came to her party. (present perfect)

I think you get it by now. One has a simple fact. The other is going to give us insight. Remember, this is the key to continuing a conversation. This is the way to learn present perfect for speaking.

Don’t force yourself to always use present perfect. When someone asks you a question and you respond, native speakers will use simple past too. The only problem is when someone only sticks to using one verb form.

If you’re interested in learning more conversational English like this, connect with Jon to sign up for online private English coaching or face-to-face sessions in Boston. We’ll work on making you sound like a native speaker.

Published by Jon Dao

Formerly, the Conversation Coach

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