More Than the Simple Rule

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Should I Use Present Perfect or Present Perfect Progressive?

I want to know more than the simple rule! How are present perfect and present perfect progressive different?This point will take a while to explain because there are several things you need to know. (Remember: if you want to skip this LONG explanation, you can always use the SIMPLE RULE.) Are you still here? Okay, let’s get started.

First, you need to know that present perfectOpens in new window and present perfect progressiveOpens in new window mean the same thing: the action started in the past and has continued until now. Very often, we can use both tenses to say the same idea.

See Practical Examples:
  • I have taught at St. Mary’s Anglican School for twelve delightful years.
  • I have been teaching at St. Mary’s Anglican School for twelve delightful years.

    (These two sentences mean the same thing.)

  • Has Lola lived in Durham since 1989?
  • Has Lola been living in Durham since 1989?

    (These two sentences mean the same thing.)

We now know that present perfect and present perfect progressive have the same meaning. However, there’s a problem: present perfect sounds wrong with some verbs. With these verbs, when we use present perfect + a length of time, it doesn’t sound right to American ears.

Examples include:
  • Andy has fixed the TV for an hour.

    (Sounds wrong to an American.)

  • Lola has written her history paper since 2:00.

    (Sounds wrong to an American.)

The next question that usually comes up is, “Which verbs sound strange with present perfect?”

Okay, here’s the the thing: verbs that have a clear result or ending point often do not sound right with present perfect; for these verbs we need to use present perfect progressive. I know that probably sounds a little blurry, so let’s look at a few examples:

  • Felicia has baked has been baking a cake for an hour.

    (Bake a cake has a clear result: the cake, so we don’t use present perfect. We use present progressive instead.)

  • Sanders has washed has been washing the dishes for about twenty minutes.

    (Wash the dishes has a clear ending point, so we don’t use present perfect. We use present perfect progressive instead.)

  • Paul and Gladys have eaten have been eating dinner for about half an hour.

    (Eat dinner has a clear ending point, so we don’t use present perfect. We use present perfect progressive instead.)

  • Andy has fixed has been fixing the TV for an hour.

    (Fix the TV has a clear result: a working TV, so we don’t use present perfect. We use present perfect progressive instead.)

  • Lola has written has been writing her history paper since 2:00 p.m.

    (Write her history paper has a clear result: the history paper, so we don’t use present perfect. We use present perfect progressive instead.)

Important!  

Because some verbs sound wrong with present perfectOpens in new window it’s usually safe to use present perfect progressiveOpens in new window for actions that start in the past and have continued until now.

At this point you may be thinking, “Okay! Maybe I can forget about present perfect! I’ll probably stick with present perfect progressive most of the time.”

Well, before you make that choice, there’s one more thing you need to know: We can’t use present perfect progressive with stative verbsOpens in new window. That’s because we usually can’t use stative verbs in progressive tenses.

1.   Dealing with Stative Verbs

To show this meaning (actions that started in the past and has continued until now) with stative verbs, we have to use present perfect.

See Practical Examples:
  • Edmund has been loving has loved Gladys since the day they met.

    (Love is a stative verb, so we can’t use present perfect progressive. To show the action started in the past and has continued until now, we need to use present perfect.)

  • Andy has been understanding has understood Chinese ever since he studied it in college.

    (Understand is a stative verb, so we can’t use present perfect progressive. To show the action started in the past and has continued until now, we need to use present perfect.)

  • Kyle has been believing has believed in God since he was a child.

    (Believe is a stative verb, so we can’t use present perfect progressive. To show the action started in the past and has continued until now, we use present perfect.)

Now we can summarize what we’ve learned:

When we want to show an action that has started in the past and has continued until now, we use either present perfect or present perfect progressive for many verbs, BUT,
  • we can’t use present perfect with verbs that have a clear result or ending point.
  • we can’t use present perfect progressive with stative verbs.

That’s not a lot to remember, isn’t it so? Well, if that seems a lot too much to remember, remember you can always follow the SIMPLE RULEOpens in new window. If you follow this rule, you’ll always make a correct sentence.

2.   Since + a present perfect clause

Normally English speakers use since + a point in time, but sometimes you’ll also hear people use since + a present perfect clause, like this:

  • Eno must be a good cook! Edmund has gained ten pounds since they’ve been together.

When we use since + a present perfect clause, it means something like “during this time.” So the sentence about Edmund means that he has gained ten pounds during the time that he has been married to Eno.

The main clause can be simple presentOpens in new window, present progressiveOpens in new window, present perfectOpens in new window or present prefect progressiveOpens in new window.

Survey these examples...
Simple present
  • My life seems empty since you’ve been gone.
Present progressive
  • Kyle is looking really fit since he’s started working out.
Present perfect
  • Lola has made a lot of friends since she’s come to the United States.

You’ll also sometimes hear people use since + a present perfect progressive clause.

Examples include:
  • Lola has also been going to a lot of parties since she’s been here.
  • Andy looks so happy since he’s been dating Laurel.
  • Your English has really improved since you’ve been taking those ESL classes!

Weird, huh? Nonetheless, you’ll hear it pretty often. There are a couple of things that I’m not sure about when it comes to this pattern of speech.

First, I’m not 100% sure this is a standard usage. I hear it a lot, but I almost never see it written. Second, I’m not completely sure about the rules that govern this usage.

Sometimes it sounds okay to me as a non-native speaker, and sometimes it doesn’t, but I can’t always tell why. I haven’t found it mentioned in any grammar books, and so far I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what’s going on here.

The good news, however, is, this form is never necessary; you can always create a sentence using present perfect or present perfect progressive to mean the same thing.

Examples include:
  • My life has seemed empty since you left.
  • Kyle’s been looking really fit since he started working out.
  • Lola has made a lot of friends since she came to the United States.
  • Lola has also been going to a lot of parties since she came here.
  • Andy has looked so happy since he started to date Laurel.
  • Your English has really improved since you started those ESL classes!

If it’s already clear, we don’t need to say the length of time with present perfect. If the length of time is clear to both of us, then I can leave it out. However, it’s always okay to leave it in, and we actually do leave it in nearly all the time.

Examples include:
  • Juan’s cousin from Mexico is visiting me. She’s really enjoyed her time here (since she arrived).

    (Because it’s clear that I mean “since she arrived, I can leave it out, but it’s also okay to say it.)

  • Edmund and Gladys got married forty years ago, and they have had a wonderful life together (since that day).

    (Because it’s clear that I mean “since the day they were married,” I can leave it out, but it’s also okay to say it.)

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