A common misconception about the difference between the present perfect and the past simple is that the former is used to talk about the recent past and the latter is used to talk about the distant past. In fact, the key difference between these two tenses is the period of time we are referring to and, specifically, whether that period of time is finished or unfinished.

Look at these examples:

Past simple

Yesterday I went to the cinema.

I was on holiday last week.

I was born in 1978.

She was here five minutes ago.

Present perfect

I have lived here for five years.

He has worked there since 2014.

I have worked a lot this week.

I haven’t had a holiday this year.

Past simple vs. present perfect

Have you ever been to the Isle of Arran (in your life/unfinished time)? Yes, I was there last year (finished time).

I live in Dundee. I have lived there since 2013 (still there/unfinished time). Before that I lived in Aberdeen (no longer there/finished time).

Have you seen John recently (unfinished time)? Yes, I saw him yesterday (finished time).

How long have you been waiting for the bus (still waiting now/unfinished time)? About an hour! But that’s nothing, my friend waited for an hour and a half yesterday (no longer waiting/finished time)!


Remember that the key is whether the period of time we are referring to is finished or unfinished. If an action took place five minutes ago it is very recent but we use the past simple because five minutes ago is finished time (e.g. I spoke to her five minutes ago). Likewise if an action began 20 years ago and continues today we use the present perfect because we are referring to an unfinished period of time that started twenty years ago (e.g. I have lived in Edinburgh since 1996).