Difficult Tenses: ‘Past’ Meets ‘Present’


Distinguishing between the Past Simple and Present Perfect can be quite challenging. Below is a brief introduction and comparison between each form.

Lets take a look at the following sentences:

1. Lawrence broke his arm in 2002.
2. Unfortunately, Lawrence has broken his arm and will not be in school tomorrow.

In the examples above, both 1. and 2. present us with a reference of time: ‘2002’ and ‘tomorrow’. Additionally, both of these sentences are describing an event which started in the past: the breaking of Lawrence’s arm. 1. uses the Past Simple, while 2. makes use of the Present Perfect. So, what’s the difference?

The key to distinguishing between these forms is ‘recency’. ‘Recency’ (adj.- ‘recent’) can be defined as ‘a time occurring immediately before the present’. The first questions we must ask ourselves are as follows: ‘Which sentence is most ‘recent’ and ‘why’?

Looking at the above, we know that 2. is the more recent sentence. The time reference ‘tomorrow’ is much closer to the present than ‘2002’. For this reason, the sentence takes the Present Perfect. Yes, the event happened in the past, however, it’s effect is still present and affects Lawrence not only today, but tomorrow as well. It will most probably affect Lawrence way into the future and we are unsure of precisely ‘when’ he will make a full recovery. The fact that he ‘will not be in school tomorrow’ also tells us that we are moving from an action in the past to this very moment in time. So, ‘tomorrow’ has more relevance to the present than ‘2002’, as mentioned in 1..

Thinking about ‘recency’, we now have a better understanding about when to use the Past Simple. ‘2002’ is a more definitive, complete time reference than ‘tomorrow’. ‘2002’ tells us that Lawrence broke his arm further in the past and helps us assume that since this specific moment in time, he has made a full recovery.

The rules are as follows:

*Present Perfect: Used to describe a recent action, that started in the past and continues to have relevance to the present.

Present Perfect sentences often use a very recent or frequent reference of time . i.e. ‘today’, ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘recently’, ‘from time to time’.

*Past Simple: Used to describe an action that took place further in the past and ended before the present.

Past Simple sentences often use more specific, definitive reference of time. i.e ‘last year’, ‘six months ago’, ‘when I was child’.

Now take a look at these new sentences. Familiarize yourself with each tense. Is the sentence Present Perfect or Past Simple? Try to identify the time reference in each sentence.

3. When I was a child, I ate a lot of candy.
4. My College of choice is UC Berkeley but I have recently applied to Ohio State and St. Rose, NY.
5. Joshua has never liked coffee.
6. Before I left my country in 1994, I managed a successful restaurant.
7. Ouch! I have just twisted my ankle.
8. Last Christmas, the Thompson family went to Valencia.