Today’s post is written by Paul Mains, an English Language Trainer based in Argentina. I had the pleasure of getting to know Paul through Gallery Languages’ blog which I curate and write occasionally for. A month ago he asked me if he could write a piece for English with a Twist. I said yes without hesitation. Paul is very successful at teaching English tenses through music and today he grapples with the present perfect tense – the tense all English Language learners love to hate! Over to you, Paul.
English learners everywhere will agree: the present perfect tense can be really complicated! Often times, it can be difficult to know when it’s right to use the present perfect. To help clarify some of this confusion, we’ll take a look at some popular songs that exemplify three of the most common uses of the present perfect. In addition to being fun to listen to, these songs show real-life examples of the present perfect in action, which should clear up some of the questions or doubts that you might have.
Before getting started, let’s check out the basics of the present perfect tense:
Form: present tense of have + past participle
Examples: He has taught English since 2007.
Have you ever seen a beluga whale?
I’ve just moved to London.
I can’t believe that she’s never eaten sushi.
Now, onto the music!
Usage 1: To describe life experiences
A very popular use of the present perfect is to describe your past experiences: to talk about the things you’ve done or the places you’ve been to. The exact time that these experiences occurred does not matter; we use the present perfect to demonstrate simply that they happened some time before the present moment.
Examples: I have climbed a lot of mountains.
She has been to six different countries.
In I’ve Been Everywhere, country singer Johnny Cash talks about some of the American cities that he’s visited in the past. In doing so, he gives us many great examples of this use of the present perfect.
I’ve been everywhere, man.
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man.
Of travel I’ve had my share, man.
I’ve been everywhere. I’ve been to:
Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota . . .
Note that Johnny Cash uses the contracted form of “I have” — I’ve — when talking about his experiences. Also, if you’re trying to brush up on your United States geography, this is a great song for learning the names of American cities and states!
We can also use the present perfect to ask about others’ life experiences. When asking this kind of question, we often use the present perfect in conjunction with the adverb ever. The song Glitter in the Air by Pink shows us how to ask questions about others’ experiences using the present perfect. Remember that the auxiliary verb “have” jumps to the front of the sentence in questions!
Have you ever fed a lover with just your hands?
Have you ever thrown a fistful of glitter in the air?
Have you ever looked fear in the face and said, “I just don’t care”?
Usage 2: To describe something that happened in the past and continues now
Another common use of the present perfect is to talk about something that started in the past, and is still happening in the present moment. This use of the present perfect is often accompanied by the adverbs for or since to indicate how long the event or action has been going on. Note that “for” is always followed by a period of time (e.g., a day, ten seconds, a while), whereas “since” is always followed by a specific date (e.g., 1492, last week, 5:30).
Examples: I have lived in New York for two years.
She has been a teacher since 2002.
London-based singer Sam Smith’s love song I’m Not The Only One uses the present perfect with the adverb “for” to describe something in the past that’s still happening in the present moment.
For months on end I’ve had my doubts
Denying every tear
I have loved you for many years
Maybe I am just not enough
Comprehension check: In the lyrics above, Sam Smith says that he began to have doubts months ago, and still does now. Later, he indicates that he started loving someone many years ago, and still loves that person today.
Another popular English band, One Direction, also sings about love using the present perfect in 18. However, instead of using the adverb “for”, they use the adverb “since”. Compare One Direction’s lyrics below to Sam Smith’s lyrics above to see the difference between “for” and “since” when using the present perfect:
I have loved you since we were 18
Long before we both thought the same thing
Usage 3: To describe the very recent past
The third common use of the present perfect tense is to describe actions and events that have happened in the very recent past, usually within a few minutes (for events that occurred further in the past, we use the simple past). In this case, we often use the adverb “just” in between the auxiliary (some form of “have”) and the main verb.
Examples: I’ve just eaten breakfast.
She’s left the office and is now on her way home.
To illustrate this use of the present perfect, we return to another song from Sam Smith. In I’ve Told You Now, Sam Smith describes a situation in which he avoids talking to someone, until he reaches his breaking point and finally says something. His use of the word “now” highlights the recency of the action.
Why do you think I come ’round here on my free will?
Wasting all my precious time
Oh the truth spills out
And oh I, I’ve told you now
I’ve told you now
In We’ve Only Just Begun, The Carpenters, a popular band in the 1970s, sing about newlyweds and their life ahead. They use the present perfect with the adverb “just” to show that the couple’s married life together has started very recently (the adverb “only” is added for emphasis).
We’ve only just begun to live
White lace and promises
A kiss for luck and we’re on our way
Indeed, the present perfect tense can be a challenge, but hopefully, these songs have made it a little bit less intimidating. Of course, don’t forget to sing along — that way, you’ll get in some speaking practice, too!
If you’d like to hear some examples of the present perfect when it’s spoken, not sung, consider trying your hand at a free English listening test. With a little practice, you’ll be well on your way to mastering the present perfect.
Have you found these songs to be helpful? What are some things you have done to study the present perfect?
Paul teaches English in Buenos Aires and writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. Try their free English language level tests, and check out their website for other language-learning resources. Feel free to visit their Facebook page or contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
Paul, Thank you ever so much for showing us how the present perfect can be learned through songs. If you liked Paul’s post please share it and don’t forget to subscribe to my blog if you want more ideas about the English Language.
Ciao for now