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Q&A: How to Explain the Present Perfect & Present Perfect Progressive

April 25, 2022

Welcome to our Q&A series! Our subscribers often write to our editors with excellent grammar or teaching questions. We wanted to share some of the more common questions and answers so that more people could benefit.

Question

Are there cases where the present perfect and the present perfect progressive tenses are both correct? How can I explain this to my students?

Answer

One of the main uses of the present perfect tense is often interchangeable with the present perfect progressive (also known as the "present perfect continuous"), so this is a great question.

When I was doing my teacher training, a present perfect lesson was my first teaching assignment with actual students! I'm not going to lie—I panicked and didn't explain it all that well.

In the years since, I got comfortable explaining both tenses, but I know how tough they are to teach.

Let's take a closer look!

1. Form

The first sentence below uses the present perfect tense (have + past participle). The second uses the present perfect progressive tense (have + been + -ing verb). Which is more common? Is there a difference in meaning?

  • I have studied English for five years.
  • I have been studying English for five years.

2. Function

Both the present perfect and the present perfect progressive can describe an action that started in the past and continues to the present.

The reason we would choose to use the progressive form is to emphasize that the action will continue in the future.

It's not quite that simple, though. The present perfect is also commonly used for an action that will continue in the future. So how do we explain when to use these tenses to our students?

3. Difference

The focus of both tenses is on a past action that is continuing, and it's often not important to know if the action may or may not continue into the future.

  • If the future meaning is not important (which is the most common case), stick with the present perfect tense.
  • If it's necessary to emphasize the future meaning, use the present perfect progressive tense.

4. Other tips

I also share the following info with my students to make sure they're clear on which tense to use.

  • Overall, the present perfect tense is more common than the present perfect progressive, so it's usually the best choice.
  • Verbs that are less active (like "live") use the present perfect more often, while more active verbs like "study" can take either tense—though the present perfect is also more common in this case too.
  • For example, it's more common to hear "I have lived in Canada for eight years," but that doesn't mean that "I have been living in Canada for eight years" is wrong (it's correct too, but less common and not necessary unless you really want to emphasize that you're going to keep living in Canada).
  • An example of a good time to use the present perfect progressive is during a job interview when you want to emphasize that your training is ongoing (e.g., I have been learning English since high school, and I'm still taking night classes to further improve my fluency.)

Related materials that will make teaching easier

For a more detailed look at these verb tenses (including diagrams, time markers, and exceptions), check out these posts on our blog:

We also have videos on these two tenses that are free to watch on Ellii's YouTube channel.

If you're subscribed to the Ellii platform, you can type "present perfect" or "present perfect progressive" into the search field on our site for a lot of great lessons and resources on these two tricky tenses, including the comprehensive Present Perfect and Present Perfect Progressive lessons in our Grammar Practice Worksheets section.

Good luck and happy teaching!

Share your thoughts

If you have any questions want to ask me or suggestions you'd like to share, please leave them in the comment area below.

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Comments (2)

Dennis O.(Teacher)

Thanks, quick and easy read!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

I'm happy to hear that, Dennis!

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