We take a look at a perfectly good, yet underused tense…
One of the tenses that is often ignored by Spanish speakers using English is the Present Perfect. This is probably because it is used less frequently in Spanish and is not as useful. However, in English it is a very high frequency tense and we use it in many different ways. Although the Present Perfect is usually taught at the end of elementary courses, students of all levels should use it regularly.
Past to now (unfinished past)
This is the principle difference between Spanish and English perfect forms. It is also the most common use of the Present Perfect in English. It refers to something that started in the past, but has not yet finished. In the example above, I arrived in Colombia in 2012 and I still live in Colombia. The Present Perfect makes this sentence shorter, simpler and with a single verb: “I have lived in Colombia…” Using the Present Perfect like this allows you to be more precise with your language. Finally, we use the present perfect to refer to things we finished in the past but without giving a time reference. For example “I have finished the article”. In this example, there is no idea of when the action happened. This allows us to concentrate on the action, or to avoid giving information (for example, I finished the article late, but I don’t want to say that to my editors!).
For and Since
With this primary use of the Present Perfect we usually use a time reference. In my experience, this is a very common error for students. It’s actually not that complicated, and it has a rule! Yes, an actual rule in English! ‘For’ is used with lengths of time, and ‘since’ with points in time. For example, I have lived in Colombia for two and a half years. I have lived in Colombia since 2012.
We also use the Present Perfect to talk about life experiences. This is similar to Spanish. For example I have lived in Japan. Note that for experiences in life we don’t use a time reference with the present perfect I have eaten hormigas culonas
Have you ever..?
A very common question form using the Present Perfect is have you ever + past participle. This is a fun way of asking people about their experiences in life, especially for unusual things. For example “have you ever done a bungee jump”? Or “have you ever eaten insects?” Think of five interesting things to do, and make “have you ever…” questions for your English speaking friends. You might discover some interesting facts!
The verb ‘to go’ is irregular in almost all languages and English is the same. For the present perfect, a particular problem occurs with go, as it has two participle forms “been and gone”. The basic difference is that been refers to someone who went somewhere, did something, and is not there now. For example “She has been to Brasil” (but she has returned, she is not there now) or “I have been to the shops” (but obviously I am not at the shops now). Gone simply means that the subject has left one place and is now in another place. “James has gone to Real Madrid”. Note that we don’t always know where someone/something is “Oh no! My cheese has gone!” (I don’t know where my cheese is).
We also use the present perfect to show that we have completed tasks early or within a deadline: “(This week) I have done some exercise and swum (note we do not have to repeat the ‘have’ with a second verb in a sentence) in Melgar”. The week is not yet finished, so we use the present perfect to show that we might have done other things by the end of the week. This point is also very important in the past and future perfects, which we will look at next issue.
In Spanish, ‘conocer’ creates a problem when talking about your travel experiences. Although it is possible to use ‘know’ idiomatically in English “I know London like the back of my hand”, this requires a good level of English. It is much more normal to use the present perfect with a verb such as visit or go “I have been to Medellín”. “I have visited Almaty”. This is important because students often ask “do you know Argentina?”. In English this question sounds like “do you know any information about Argentina?” or “do you know that Argentina exists?” but the speaker usually means “have you been to Argentina”, which is a very different question, as most people know about more places than they have visited.