Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

June 30, 2009

Describing the past to present part 2 – Present perfect – simple or continuous?

Yesterday I outlined the main occurances of the present perfect and, I hope, gave a few pointers to help you use the tense correctly.

Today I want to look at the difference between the simple and continuous forms of the present perfect tense and give you some examples of how to make the correct choice and get your message across.

Present Perfect Simple: continuous form

Rule:              auxiliary very to have +past participle of to be (been ) + ..ing form of the main verb (present participle)

Meaning:         actions or states in the present perfect that have been ongoing from past to now (and may continue into the future)

Used for:           talking about ongoing states ( e.g. living, working), focusing on the duration of a state or action, suggesting that states or actions are temporary, talking about a present result and focusing on the activity that led to it.

Some examples:

  • Talking about ongoing states or actions (often used with since and for) – She’s been working at the hospital for years.


  • Focusing on duration –  What have you been doing?


  • Temporary states and actions –  We’ve been insuring the car with Premium Insurance.


  • Focusing on the activity –  He won every match, he must have been training hard!

So what difference does it make when we use the continuous over the simple form?

Let’s have a look.

  • She’s worked in the hospital for years.
  • She’s been working in the hospital for years.

The first sentence states a fact the second emphasises the duration and even adds an emotional dimension. One can imagine the sentence culminating in a strong stress and a high intonation to express the longevity of it all – how could you not realise this fact!

  • What have you done?
  • What have you been doing?

In this pair the opposite seems to be the case. The simple form carries the nuance. There is something secretive perhaps or even sinister. The continuous form is a simple question about a longish period of time up to the present.

  • We have insured the car with Premium Insurance.
  • We have been insuring the car with Premium Insurance.

Here the simple form conveys a fact. The car is insured with this company, it happened some time in the past (we don’t need to know when) it has some permanence. The continuous form suggests a situation that is temporary, yet one that has been going on for a while. The implication is that we may change our insurer.

  • He won every match, he must have trained hard.
  • He won every match, he must have been training hard!

Again the simple form relates the information in its barest form. He trained and so he won. The second places a lot of emphasis on the actual training as an activity which must have been tough but has, in the end , paid off. An extra layer of  feeling is attached by the speaker.

The best way to make sure you get it right is to try them out!



1 Comment »

  1. […] Present perfect – there is only one use here – in a reference to the missing cat. The cat is missing , we only know this – no other information is provided.  He may return. This is a classic Present perfect use. (see posts on Present perfect  and choosing simple or continuous ) […]

    Pingback by Using narrative tenses « Rliberni’s Blog — December 21, 2009 @ 7:21 pm | Reply

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