One of the most common difficulties for intermediate level learners of English is the difference between the simple past (I went) and the present perfect (I have gone). This is especially difficult for ESL/EFL students in the US, because Americans sometimes don’t distinguish between the two tenses. But for speakers who want to be correct in their tenses, there is a difference, and it’s really not difficult at all.
Time Frame: Open or Closed?
When you talk about an action that happened in the past, the time frame can be either open (unfinished) or closed (finished). For example:
- Open: today, this morning, this week, so far, during my life (assuming I’m alive)
- Closed: yesterday, last week, last year, in 2015
The difference between the simple past and the present perfect really just comes down to whether the time frame is open or closed.
Closed Time Frame: Simple Past
If your time frame is closed/finished, use the simple past.
- I went to the gym yesterday.
- Last week I saw three great films.
- I was in Spain in 2016.
Open Time Frame: Present Perfect
If your time frame is open/unfinished, use the present perfect.
- I’ve already gone to the gym today.
- I’ve seen two films this week.
- I’ve been to Spain this year.
The present perfect carries a sort of “and…?” with it. It’s used not only when the time frame is open, but also when there’s an implied effect on the present or future.
- I’ve already gone to the gym today. (So I don’t have to go again.)
- I’ve seen two films this week. (And I’m planning on seeing one more.)
- I’ve been to Spain this year. (And I plan on going to France as well, or I don’t plan on going back to Spain.)
Over and Done
This contrasts with the simple past, which describes an action that took place in the past and doesn’t have any effect on the present or future.
- I went to the gym yesterday. (And… that’s it. I may go today, I may not.)
- I saw two films last week. (Nothing about this week. I may go to the movies, I may not.)
- I went to Spain last year. (It was a great trip. I may or may not travel this year.)
Have you ever…?
Ever is the perfect adverb to use with the present perfect. It means “at any point during your life,” and assuming you’re still alive, it’s an open time frame. When you ask ever, you’re asking about something that may or may not have happened during someone’s life.
- Have you ever been to Italy?
- Have your parents ever met your boyfriend?
- Has anyone ever said something so ridiculous?
Did you ever…?
But aha… you may have heard ever with the simple past tense, and that’s perfectly fine as well. It just means something different. If I’m thinking about a time frame that’s closed, but I expected something to happen at some point during that closed time frame, I may ask…
- Did you ever see your friend? (During your trip to New Orleans last month)
- Did they ever answer your email? (The one that you sent last week)
- Did you ever see that guy again? (At some point in the past, I expect it to be a closed time frame.)
If you ask ever? about someone who’s alive, you use the present perfect. If you ask ever? about someone who’s dead, you definitely need to use the past.
- Has Franz ever finished his symphony? (Franz is a friend of mine who’s still alive and composing music. I’m wondering whether he finished his symphony or not.)
- Did Franz ever finish his symphony? (This is a dead Franz, probably Franz Schubert of Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished) fame.)
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