The past simple and the present perfect can both be used to show actions or events that were completed in the past. In many cases, they can demonstrate the same event – so how do we choose which tense to use? This article explains, very briefly, the fundamental differences between the two, with a look at the two tenses side-by-side (as shown in The English Tenses Practical Grammar Guide).
Comparing the present perfect and past simple
The present perfect and the past simple can sometimes be used interchangeably, as they both demonstrate complete actions.
The important difference is that the present perfect demonstrates the action affects (or is linked to) something that is relevant now. The past simple does not demonstrate a link to the present.
- We washed the car. (The task was finished.)
- We have washed the car. (It was recently done, and / or it is now clean.)
- He went home. (He finished travelling home in the past.)
- He has gone home. (He travelled home in the past, and should be there now.)
The present perfect should be chosen instead of the past simple when the action either has a current or ongoing effect, or can still be added to. Otherwise, the past simple should be used for complete actions.
- She escaped from prison. (A single complete action.)
- She has escaped from prison and is running away. (A complete past event that informs us of where she is now.)
- She escaped from prison twenty times. (A total number of completed actions, with no suggestion that it can be increased.)
- She has escaped from prison twenty times. (A total number of completed actions so far, which can be added to.)