Difference between the Present Perfect Tense and Past Perfect Tense

Updated on April 10, 2017

The sentences “I have seen the cat” and “I had seen the cat” seem to have the same meaning: the speaker saw the cat and it happened sometime in the past. However, the usage of “have” (present perfect tense) and “had” (past perfect tense) actually change the exact message of the two statements. So, what is the difference between the two?

Descriptions

Present Perfect Tense

The present perfect tense is formed by adding “have” (plural) or “has” (singular) to the past participle of the verb. For example:

  • Has or have taken
  • Has or have tried
  • Has or have eaten

It is used to talk about:

  1. An event that started in the past and continues up to the present; for example: Mrs. Tullo and Mr. Naraja have been teaching Foreign Languages at the Polytechnic University for 38 years.
  2. An event that occurred in the past and the time is unknown or unspecified; for example: Martha has seen Angelina Jolie in person a couple of times.
  3. The relevance of a past event; for example: She couldn’t get in my own house because she has lost her keys.
  4. A repeated action or any past event that happened more than once; for example: I have seen the movie “The Atonement” seven times.
  5. The duration of an action or event with the adverbs “for” and “since”; for example: Professor Cooper has taught Physics for a very long time.
  6. Questions that use the word “ever”; for example: Have you ever met the executive producer of this show?
  7. Actions that were never done; for example: Thomas said he has never dined at a fancy restaurant.
  8. A life experience; for example: I have been to Cambodia.
  9. An observation that something changed after a certain period of time; for example: Rolando’s photo and video editing skills have significantly improved since he joined this group.
  10. Accomplishments and achievements; for example: A team of highly competent marine biologists has discovered a new species of starfish.

past perfect tense

On the other hand, the past perfect tense is formed by adding the word “had” (for both singular and plural) to the past perfect form of the verb. For example:

  • Had verified
  • Had presented
  • Had shown

It is used to express:

  1. An event that occurred before a certain time in the past; for example: When Portia arrived home last night, she realized that she had left the TV on.
  2. A past action that happened before another past action; for example: I understood the discussion because I had read the topic.
  3. A past action that started and continued until another past action happened; for example: Samuel had had that bike for fourteen years before it was stolen.
  4. A condition, wish, or hypothetical statement; for example: I wish I had a million dollars!

Present Perfect Tense vs Past Perfect Tense

What, then, is the difference between present perfect tense and past perfect tense?

The most obvious difference between the two is how they are formed. The present perfect tense is formed by adding the words “has” or “have” to the past participle form of the verb, whereas the past perfect tense is formed by adding the word “had” to the past participle form of the verb.

The present perfect tense indicates an action that started in the past and continues to the present or any event in the past that happened in an unknown or unspecified time. It is also used with the cue words “since,” “for,” “ever,” and “never.” Moreover, it expresses an achievement, a change after a period of time, a life experience, a repeated action in the past, and the relevance of a past action to what is happening in the present.

On the contrary, the past perfect tense describes an action that occurred before a certain time in the past, a past action that started and continued until another past action happened, and a past action that happened before another past action. It is also used when the statement talks about a condition, wish, or hypothesis.

Comparison Chart

Present PerfectPast Perfect
“Has” or “have” + past participle form of the verb“Had” + past participle form of the verb
Used to indicate an action that started in the past and continues to the present; any event in the past that happened in an unknown or specified time; used with the cue words “since,” “for,” “ever,” and “never”; used when talking about an achievement, a change after a period of time, a life experience, a repeated action in the past, and the relevance of a past action to what is happening in the presentDescribes an action that occurred before a certain time in the past, a past action that happened before another past action, or a past action that started and continued until another past action happened; used when the statement talks about a condition, wish, or hypothesis