If you speak English, you make use of the English present tense every day. And chances are, if you're not an English scholar or planning on teaching English, you don't know how to explain how each of the four tenses making up the present tense are formed and used (or even that there are four variations!). For the average person; there is one present tense and that's all there is to know. If you want to know more (or plan on teaching English) then knowledge of each of the four minor tenses that make up the present tense is required. The four present tenses are: present simple, present perfect, present continuous and present perfect continuous.

This simple guide will tell you everything you need to know about the third of the present tenses, the present perfect tense.

When is the present perfect tense used?

The present continuous tense is used for:

- Referring to finished actions, with no specific time period being mentioned (this is how we refer to general experiences) e.g.

I have eaten sushi; She has been to Jamaica; I have not ridden a bike before

- Referring to finished actions, within a time period that hasn't ended yet e.g.

I have driven 400 kilometers today; I have gotten lost every day this week

- Referring to ongoing actions that began in the past e.g.

I have been a writer for six years; They have been living together since January

- Referring to actions that happened in the past and have present results

I've hit my head on the doorway (it now hurts); She has lost her car keys (They are now lost, she can't drive home)

How is the present perfect tense formed?

Tenses have three variations: Affirmative, Negative and Question

Note: The auxiliary verb "have" has two present forms: has (used with he, she, it) and have (used with everything else). Past participles are sometimes formed by adding a verb + ed, and often then are irregular (there are no rules on how to form them) – practice is required to learn them. Most good English dictionaries will contain lists of irregular verbs.

-Affirmative: Subject + Auxiliary verb "have" + Past participle

I have swum today; She has eaten; They have gone to the movies

-Negative: Subject + Auxiliary verb "have" + not + Past Participle

I have not swum today; She has not eaten; They have not gone to the movies

- Question: Auxiliary verb "have" + Subject + Past Participle

Have I swum today?; Has she eaten?; Have they gone to the movies?

Contracted forms

Contracted forms are more natural in spoken English. When combining the subject with the auxiliary verb "have", the resulting terms can be shortened as follows:

I have = I've

You have = You've

We have = We've

They have = They've

He has = He's

She has = She's

It has = It's

Note: Each contracted form is formed by adding the subject + an apostrophe + the auxiliary verb "have" minus its first two letters.

The above contractions are usually only used with the affirmative form. When used with the negative form of this tense, the sentence will still be correct but too formal for spoken English e.g.

I've not eaten today.

While this is correct, one would usually say: I haven't eaten today. Note that the auxiliary verb "have" + not forms the contracted term. These terms are shortened as follows:

Have not = Haven't

Has not = Hasn't

Note: These contracted forms are formed by combining the auxiliary verb "have" + not and replacing the "o" with an apostrophe.

When learning English, it is much more important to know how to form each tense correctly rather than to know each contracted form and when to use them. Sentences will still be correct without using contracted forms – they can be learnt later as one gains experience and wishes to speak English more naturally.

Making sense of time frames

The choice between "since" and "for", or "gone" and "been" can sometimes cause confusion.

"Since" is used with specific points in time e.g.

I have been a swimming instructor since 1988.

"For" is used with periods or lengths of time e.g.

I have been a swimming instructor for over ten years.

"Gone" is used when someone is currently on a trip e.g.

They have gone to the Addo Elephant Park (That is where they are at the moment)

"Been" is used when the trip is over e.g.

They have been to the Addo Elephant Park (They are no longer there, the trip is over)

Keep it simple

It may seem that there is no simple way of learning the English tense system, but by taking one minor tense at a time and practicing its formation and different uses, one will find that the tense system can be learnt fairly quickly. Knowledge of parts of speech and the rules to form each tense is important in the beginning, and once these are fully remembered, practice will see the entire system becoming much easier to understand and use naturally and correctly.