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Teaching tenses – the perfect aspect

small__5496936365One of the grammar points my students struggle with the most is how and when to use the present perfect, rather than the simple past or the present continuous.

For Italian (and many other European) students, the problem is that if something happened in the past, the choice is either a sort of historical past tense, or something that looks like the present perfect. To express the idea of continuous states or activities, the present continuous is used.

One of the ways I try to teach the use of the present perfect (and in fact, all perfect tenses) is to say that the perfect aspect is a bridge between two time zones.

The present perfect is the bridge between the past and the present.
The past perfect is the bridge between two times in the past.
The future perfect is the bridge between now and the future.

The idea is that if there’s a link between two time zones, we use a perfect form.

If a state or activity started in the past and continues to the present, we use the present perfect.
“I have lived here for ten years.”
“She has been making phone calls all morning.”

If there’s a link between now and the future, we use the future perfect.
“I’ll have finished the report by tomorrow.”

If there’s a link between two events in the past, we use the past perfect.
“When I got home, my husband had already made dinner.”

One of the difficult concepts, though, is that it isn’t always easy to see that link. Surely something that happened in the past belongs to the past. So the fact that I visited London five years ago is a past event.

It helps to point out that even if something happened in the past, the memory of it stays. So I visited London five years ago, but the experience is still with me. I can close my eyes and picture Big Ben, the London Eye, the crowds on Oxford Street, and so on. The present perfect makes that bridge between a past event, and the person I am today – which is why we use it to talk about experiences in general terms.

Photo credit: David Yu

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