#232: Present Perfect Simple vs. Present Perfect Continuous

by | Feb 16, 2022 | 14 comments

There is no doubt that the Perfect Simple & Continuous Forms in English are challenging to understand and use correctly.

And there’s a good reason for that.

Sometimes you can use both (the perfect simple or the perfect continuous), with no difference in meaning as in the often-used examples: 

  • I’ve lived in Washington DC for 3 years.
  • I’ve been living in Washington DC for 3 years.

And yet, other times there is a distinct difference in meaning or strict guidelines for which form you should use.

For example, we could say:

  • I’ve read that book already. 
  • I’ve been reading that book. 
  • I’ve been reading that book already. X

Despite years of using English, you might still feel unclear on which perfect form to use and, as a result, you feel frustrated and limited in expressing yourself.

Is there a way to finally get it right?

There is. 

By the end of this lesson with me today, you’ll know exactly how to decide which perfect form to use so you can make confident decisions in your English conversations.

You’ll discover: 

  • What the two forms have in common
  • When the two forms have the same meaning
  • When there are differences in meaning and how you can make the right choice between the PPS and PPC. We’ll look at 5 clear distinctions.

Along the way, I’ll share common scenarios where we need to make a choice between the present perfect vs. present perfect continuous so you can confidently make the best choice when you’re in the same situation.

Be sure to stick with me to the end because I have an opportunity for you to test your decision-making with present perfect simple and continuous forms.

Present Perfect Simple vs. Present Perfect Continuous | Ultimate Guide

What the Perfect Simple and Perfect Continuous Have in Common

Both forms highlight a connection or link from the past to the present.

And, both forms commonly use since or for.

 

  • I’ve taught English for more than 20 years.
  • I’ve been teaching English for more than 20 years.
  • I’ve taught English since 1996.
  • I’ve been teaching English since 1996.

When the Perfect Simple and the Perfect Continuous Are the Same

A common question is, what’s the difference between: 

  • I have lived in Washington D.C. for 3 years.
  • I’ve been living in Washington D.C. for 3 years.

And you might be wondering the same with the example sentences I shared about how long I’ve been teaching.

When we use verbs related to biographical information, such as:

  • To Study
  • To Work
  • To Live

There is no difference. Both can be used without any distinction. 

Let’s go back to the examples I shared at the beginning:

  • I’ve lived in DC for 3 years.
  • I’ve been living in DC for 3 years.

If you’ve felt stressed about which one is correct, the answer is both. 

You can use either form with no real change in meaning.

The same is true with: 

  • I’ve worked with this company since 2019.
  • I’ve been working with this company since 2019.

When There Are Differences Between the Perfect Simple vs. Perfect Continuous.

When to Select the Present Perfect Simple

Unchanging Situations — Stative Verbs

Stative verbs are verbs that describe unchanging situations that are related to a mental state as opposed to active verbs that express action.

Stative verbs are related to:

 

  • Thoughts/opinions: agree, believe, doubt, imagine, know, think
  • Feelings/emotions: like, dislike, love, hate, want, prefer
  • Senses/perceptions: be, appear, hear, look, see
  • Possession/measurement: belong, have, own, possess

For example: 

  • I’ve known him for many years.
  • I’ve been knowing him for many years. X

 

  • I’ve heard that’s a great book!
  • I’ve been hearing that’s a great book. X

 

  • I’ve always disliked/hated broccoli.
  • I’ve always been disliking/hating broccoli. X

 

Now, you might be thinking “Annemarie, people say ‘I’ve been loving this TV show.’ How is that correct?”

That is definitely true. 

Love is a stative verb and therefore the rule would suggest that we can’t use it in the -ing form. 

However, love can be an active verb when it’s used to indicate that you’re enjoying something at the moment. 

For example, “I’ve been loving The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix recently.” 

Quantity: How much/How many

The Present Perfect Simple is also the best choice if we are including quantity. 

For example:

  • I’ve read 3 books this month. (How many)
  • I’ve had quite a bit of coffee this morning. (How much)

 

Select the Present Perfect Continuous: 

New/Temporary Situations

Scenario #1: Imagine a gym near your home has officially closed and a friend asks you whether it’s any good. 

In this case, you might say “The gym near my place closed, unfortunately, so I’ve been going to the gym closer to work.” 

The gym closure and your move to the new gym are permanent, but it’s also a relatively new situation.

 

Scenario #2: Similarly, perhaps that gym is temporarily closed for renovation.

When a friend asks where you’re going, you might say “Since the gym near my home is closed, I’ve been going to the one near work.

In the example, the situation and your decision are temporary, so we use the present perfect continuous form to convey the same sense.

Emphasizing Length of Time

When it comes to time, there’s an easy way to distinguish which verb tense is most appropriate. 

Scenario #3: Perhaps you and a friend are tired of waiting for someone to show up for a get-together. 

In a moment of frustration, you might exclaim “We’ve been waiting for over an hour. Where could she possibly be?

You could also say, “We’ve waited for over an hour” and the sentence would be perfectly correct.

But it lacks the emphasis on time and therefore removes that sense of frustration.

Make a Choice Between Present Perfect Simple vs. Continuous with Difference in Meaning:

 

Singular vs Repetitive Actions 

One way to determine which verb tense to use is to consider whether an action has occurred once or repeatedly. 

When the action is singular, we use the present perfect tense. 

Scenario #4 Imagine you’re working on a project and the details need to be finalized. However, the client hasn’t responded to your message. You might bring up this fact and say, “I’ve already called them and they haven’t answered.” 

This is a single action that hasn’t been repeated yet. 

 

Scenario #5: Now, imagine you keep calling — again and again — but without an answer. 

In a moment of frustration, you might throw your hands up in the air and express, “I’ve been calling them for days!

In this example, we use the present perfect continuous tense. When an action occurs repeatedly using the present perfect continuous tense implies that it’s an ongoing situation. 

 

Similarly, habits and hobbies can also be categorized as ongoing and repeated actions. 

Scenario #6: Perhaps you’re discussing a habit that seems to be working well for you. To a friend, you might say,  “I’ve been carving out time for 20-minute yoga sessions every day”. 

Finished vs. Unfinished 

Let’s look at these examples:

  • I’ve read that book already! It was fantastic. – I’m finished with this book. 
  • I’ve been reading the book you told me about. It’s fantastic. – I’m not finished with it yet.
  • I’ve been reading all day. I just can’t put this book down. – The day isn’t finished yet, I’m still reading.

 

Scenario #8: Perhaps your mother is taking medication for her heart. And in a conversation you might say:

  • She has already taken her medication today. – The action is complete for today.
  • She has been taking medication for her heart. – The action is continuing or ongoing.

 

Note: The adverb already means “before now” and indicates that something is complete. As a result, we can use it with the Perfect Simple but it cannot be used with the Perfect Continuous, since the continuous form indicates an unfinished action.

Similarly, the adverb yet lends a sense of completeness and therefore is used with the Perfect Simple. Which is why you’ll hear: 

  • Have you read that book yet?
  • No, I haven’t read it yet.
Results/Outcomes

Finally, when considering whether to use the Perfect Simple vs. Continuous, think about the focus of the result/outcome/achievement.

Does the result come after an action is complete? 

For example:

  • They’ve done all their homework, so we’re going to the park. – The action (doing homework) is complete and we have a result from that finished action.
  • I’ve finished preparing dinner. It’s time to eat. – The action of preparing dinner is complete. And the result is we can now eat.
  • I’ve worked nonstop all day and now it’s time to relax. – The outcome/result I can now relax because I’ve completed a long day of work.

When a complete action leads to a specific result, we use the Perfect Simple.

 

However, let’s compare that to: 

  • They’ve been studying all day, so they’re eager to go to the park.
  • I’ve been preparing dinner all day and the kitchen is a disaster.
  • I’ve been working nonstop and I’m exhausted.

In these examples, it doesn’t matter if the action (studying, preparing, working) is finished or unfinished. The Perfect Continuous shifts the focus to the process itself or outcomes we can observe, feel, or see.

Time to Practice!

Let’s test your knowledge with a quiz.

Review the sentences below. Determine if the sentence is correct or incorrect.

If it is incorrect, can you identify why? How would you fix it?

You can find the answers in the comments below.

  1. I’ve been knowing our neighbors for 3 years. 
  2. I’ve been drinking more water lately, so I feel much better. 
  3. The students are finishing their exams already. 
  4. I’ve read your book all day. It’s a page-turner! 

You can share with me and the SCE Community in the comments below.

I look forward to hearing your responses.

~ Annemarie

 

P.S. Are you looking for a community to provide support, help you stay motivated, and guarantee that you grow? Check out our Confident Women Community.

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