My students know that one of the things I'm picky about is using verb tenses correctly. And, for my German students at least, the pasts seem to be among the most difficult things to master in English, because the grammar seems similar to German, but is different. Look at these two sentences:
The both mean that my breakfast is sometime in the past, but do they mean the same thing? Nope. Today we're going to review the two time forms, and then take a quick pop quiz. (A pop quiz is a short test given without a warning or announcement.)
Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All English Tenses
If you want more information on the pasts, see the worksheet "The Pasts (Part One)" or try some of these other resources:
The simple past is probably the first form of the past that you learned when you learned English:
It's the "-ed past," formed by adding -ed to a regular verb. (You have to memorize the simple past forms of the irregular verbs, I don't know any tricks.)
You use the simple past with finished times. A finished time is any time that is over. Yesterday is over, so is last week and last Christmas. 1997 is also over. So, if you want to talk about these, you use the simple past:
If you want, now is a good time to brainstorm some times in the past and to form sentences using them. Remember to use the simple past!
The present perfect is what you might call the "have past." It's the form of the past formed by using the helping verb "to have" and the past participle of the main verb you want to use.
You use the present perfect with unfinished times. This is the simplest contrast between the two time forms:
when something has happened in the past, but in a time that is "unfinished" you use the present perfect. Some examples of times that are not finished are "this year," "so far today" and "since I graduated from college."
If you talk about what you've done at your job – and you still have the job – you want to use the present perfect, since the job isn't finished.
The hardest thing to learn is to know when to use the different forms of the verbs when you don't name a time at all. How do you know if you're talking about unfinished time or finished time when you're not saying a time? It's difficult to explain.
The first rule I can suggest is this:
in American English, it's almost never wrong to use the simple past. If you're not sure, it's always okay to use the simple past. But using the present perfect correctly will make your English sound more polished, more "intelligent," if you will. And so, here's some advice:
Does it seem like a lot? It is, but it's something you can learn with practice. Try the quiz to see how well you've learned (and internalized) the grammar.
Return from The "Pasts" in a Pop Quiz: Present Perfect and Simple Past to Bite Sized English