The 5 uses of the present perfect
Use 1: An action that begins in the past and still continues
This is one of the two most common uses of the present perfect. It is used when you want to say how long up to now (and probably continuing into the future as well) you have been doing an action (either a continuous or a habitual/frequent action) for. It is often followed by 'for'. 'since' or 'over' and a quantity of time (e.g. I was a boy, 6 months etc...).
How long have studied English for?
I have lived here for 10 years.
She has played football since she was a very young girl.
Using the present perfect continuous instead
With this use of the present perfect, you can normally (but with some verbs you can't) replace it with the present perfect continuous (e.g. I have been reading) and it has the same meaning. So 'I have been living here for 10 years' means the same thing as 'I have lived here for 10 years'.
Use 2: A finished action in the past that is relevant in some way to the present
This is the other of the two most common uses of the present perfect. It is used when you want to talk about an action which is finished, but is relevant to the present (e.g. a topic you are talking about, something which you have seen or heard etc...).
Have you ever eaten a frog?
I have read Tolstoy's War and Peace.
I have broken my leg before.
When it is used with this use, you can't say when it happened (e.g. 2 years ago, last year etc...). If you want to say when, you have to use the past simple tense instead of the present perfect.
I read Tolstoy's War and Peace last year.
I broke my leg 3 years ago.
However, you can say when it happened if you use 'this' in front of the period of time (e.g. morning, week, year etc...) or use today or recently
Peter: What have you done this morning?
Simon: I have been to the bank.
I have read Tolstoy's War and Peace this year.
Use 3: An action that has finished now or a little before now
This is used to say that an action has finished/been completed very recently (from a couple of hours to moments ago). This use of the present perfect is often used with the word 'just' between the two parts if the action finished now or moments before.
I have eaten, so I'm not hungry.
How long have you been here? I have just arrived.
Use 4: Repetition of things done up to now
This is similar to use 1 (an action that begins in the past and still continues). However, instead of one action starting and continuing until the present, you want to say how many completed actions (and you always have to say the number or give an approximation) you have done from a point starting in the past until now.
Like with use 1, it is often followed by 'for'. 'since' or 'over', or the period of time you are talking about (e.g. this week, this year etc...) or today/recently.
She has read 20 books since the start of the year.
We have written nearly 15 emails this morning.
Using the present perfect continuous instead
Unlike use 1, you can't use the present perfect continuous (I have been reading) instead of the present perfect in a sentence with this use and it still has the same meaning. If you do use it, it means that you haven't finished the actions, but are still doing all of them. For example, if you say 'she has been reading 20 books since the start of the year', it means the person is still reading the 20 books (she hasn't finished reading any of them).
Use 5: A past action which has a present consequence
This is similar to use 2 (a finished action in the past that is relevant in some way to the present) in that it talks about a finished action. However, the action was normally done in the recent past (minutes, hours or days before) and the action has directly caused a current situation to happen (e.g. a wallet is gone (the situation) probably because it has been stolen (the finished action which caused it)).For example:
The TV isn't working, who has broken it?
I don't have the money because I haven't had the time to go to the bank.
How to know which use of present perfect is being used
First of all knowing that there are these different uses of present perfect will help you a lot. But there are two things which will help you to decide which use of the present perfect is being used, and that is the words used with them and the context it is used in..
The words used with them
Certain words are only are used with certain uses. For example, if you see the word 'just' used, then the present perfect must have the use of 'an action that has finished now or a little before now'. Or if the verb is followed by 'for' or 'since', then it will either have the use 'an action that begins in the past and still continues' or 'repetition of things done up to now'.
The context it is used in
The other way that will help you decide which use of the present perfect is being used is through context it is used in. For example, if you are talking to somebody face-to-face in Paris and they say that they have been to London, then logically they are talking about something they did in the past (a finished action in the past that is relevant in some way to the present).
Using both the words which are used with them and the context is how native speakers decide which use is being used of the present perfect, and this is how you will decide what the use is yourself in the future.
The use of the present perfect in the negative can be confusing
You should now be able to identify the main uses of the present perfect when it is used in the positive, however, when it is used in the negative it can be confusing to know what the use is. For example, try to identify which of the 5 above uses of the present perfect is being used in each of the below sentences:
He hasn't eaten meat before.
He hasn't eaten meat since he was 18.
In the first sentence, we are not talking about a continuous or an habitual action for the man, but we are expressing that in the man's life no single instance/action of eating meat has happened. So like saying, 'he has eaten meat before', we are talking about a finished action in the past which is relevant to the present (use 2).
Whereas in the second sentence, we are focusing on the habitual activity of the man not choosing, wanting or having the opportunity to eat meat since a specific time. So in this case, it is an action that starts in the past and continues until the present (use 1).
If this is a little confusing, then use the words used when the present perfect is being used in a sentence to help you identify which use is being used in them. With the above two sentences, it is 'before' in the first and 'since' in the second which help you identify the use of the tense.
A little confusing I know, but knowing this now will help you in the future to understand and correctly use the tense.
Now do the quiz below to make sure that you can identify these five different uses of the present perfect.