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When is the present perfect tense used instead of the past tense?

I know that the present perfect tense is used when some adverbs (e.g., never, ever) are present in the sentence; the same is true for sentences like the following one.

When you returned, I have been at home since 3:00 PM.

In which other cases should I use the present perfect? Do the following sentences require it?

I have walked downtown everyday for a year.

I have been at home since 3:00 PM.

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  • That example sentence doesn't really feel right. You sure you don't mean to use the past perfect?
    – Lee
    Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 10:52
  • I don't think the example that you gave is grammatically correct. I suggest that you edit your question and remove it to not cause any confusion about what you're asking.
    – b.roth
    Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 10:54
  • I removed the example, as I am not able to write a correct example of using the present perfect in a sentence. The question is when to use the present perfect.
    – apaderno
    Commented Aug 19, 2010 at 15:18
  • 1
    possible duplicate of Which is correct "has died" or "died"?. I know we usually close later questions in favour of the first one asked, but I think there's a more "canonical" answer on the one linked to there. Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 12:23
  • 2
    possible duplicate of Must present perfect tense be used if the action takes place more than once?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 11:10

6 Answers 6

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I have walked downtown every day for a year.

The "perfect" part of "present perfect" means that the action has been completed. You are saying that your action of walking downtown every day for a year is complete (which doesn't mean that you won't keep doing it).

The "present" bit means that the action has been completed in the present. Let's contrast it with the past tense:

I walked downtown every day for a year.

There is no longer a time frame here. This might have happened years ago, for all we know.


As a side note, please refer to Brians's Common Errors on the subject of "everyday".

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The present perfect is used for unfinished or undefined time. I don't think your example is correct, since for a year is understood to be a finished time. A time period of one year. It would have been correct if you wrote:

I have walked downtown every day this year.

In that case you'd have unfinished time. The time period would be up to and including now. If you used a defined and finished time in the past like last august, then you'd have to use the simple past.

I walked downtown every day last August.

Since last August is finished time, you have to use the simple past.

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  1. The present perfect is used to show that the event's timeframe started sometime in the past and continues into the present (and possibly will continue beyond).

  2. It is also being used to denote the connection to the present. That is the focus is on having the experience of walking every day for a year.

Contrast this to the simple past which only shows the event happened in the past. We do not know when it started, nor do we know how it is connected to the present. Additionally, the focus is on the simple fact that the event happened, not how it changes things for you in the present.

Arguably, if you really want to show the event continues through the present, you'd want to use the continuous, but that's a side note.

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You are actually talking about two different things here. There is tense (past, present) and there is aspect (finished, ongoing, punctual, etc.). In English these are often somewhat hard to tell apart.

Your example has a tense mismatch. The first part is past tense, while the second part is present tense. You can think of it as equivalent to:

I have been at home since 3:00 PM, when you returned.

Which is clearly ungrammatical, because the first part is present tense and the second is past. The "returning" event took place in the past, so your having been home must have occurred in the past as well. So it would be:

"I had been at home (since X time) when you returned...."

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End of story: Say, "I've seen three police cars this morning" if it's still morning. (You might see more police cars)

Say, "I saw three police cars this morning" if it's after twelve o'clock. (Action started in the past and finished in the past)

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Dec 2, 2021 at 5:08
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The simplest answer is that present perfect always refers to an interval of time ending at the present time, not before. It never refers to a simple point in time, to a time interval that ended before the present, or to a time interval any part of which is still in the future.

For example, in the sentence "I have been at home since 3:00 PM", the present perfect makes "since 3:00 PM" equivalent to "from 3:00 PM until now".

Present perfect does not imply that an action or state necessarily fills the time interval referred to. "I have been at home since 3:00 PM" could mean either "I have been at home ever since 3:00 PM" (for the entire time from 3:00 PM until now) or "I have been at home at least once since 3:00 PM" (one or more times during that time interval).

"I have not been at home since 3:00 PM" means the opposite of either interpretation of "I have been at home since 3:00 PM", but it still refers to (reports on) the same time interval.

Sometimes present perfect may suggest something about the present itself, but that has to be based on context and is not inherent in the use of present perfect.

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  • Any further explanation for the "I have been at home at least once since 3:00 PM" (one or more times during that time interval)."? With the clock time context, isn't that one sustained interval of time? As opposed to I have volunteered at the food pantry since I was 15. (not nonstop).
    – livresque
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 2:26
  • Being at home, like volunteering at the food pantry, does not have to be continuous. It may not be an action, but it is a repeatable state. If I was home at 4, gone at 4:30, back home again at 5, and gone again at 5:30, and if it is now 6 pm, then I could say "I have been home (twice) since 3:00 PM".
    – Forero
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 3:03
  • Forero, true, can you edit that difference into your answer ? Should you feel the need to put "twice" in parentheses, it means you haven't been at home since 3:00. Either you've been at home since you got home at 3:00 or you haven't (stative, have been from to be). Do you mean been in the sense of go back or come (action)? I've gone home twice since 3:00 implies came and went (action).
    – livresque
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 4:38
  • Having been home on multiple occasions counts as having been home, with or without an expressed count. Either I have indeed been home since 3 pm, or I have not. Between arriving and leaving again I was at home, so "I haven't been home since 3 pm" is false, and "I have been home since 3 pm" must be true. "Since" is ambiguous because it is valid even without an explicit "ever" or "at least once".
    – Forero
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 15:00

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