The Present Perfect Continuous Tense

By | December 1, 2016

The Present Perfect Continuous Tense

“I have been cooking dinner.”

 

This is an example for the Present Perfect Continuous: They have been painting the apartment. (The apartment now is covered in fresh paint.)

This is an example for the Present Perfect: They have painted the apartment. (The job is finished.)

The result referred to depends on the situation in which you say the sentence.

The Differences between the Present Perfect and Present Perfect Continuous:

There are a number of differences between the Present Perfect and Present Perfect Continuous tenses.

1. As in the example above, in the Present Perfect, the action is finished and no adverb of time is given, and the action can be repeated or happen again.

“They have bought a new car. (They have a car now.)

We don’t know when this action happened and can happen again.

2. The Present Perfect Continuous does not tell us whether the action is finished or not. Although the person speaking may not be performing the action at the time of speaking about it. Or the person may be going to continue to do it after speaking and the activity is not ‘complete’. In the example given above, we don’t know if they have completely painted the apartment or not.

3. The present perfect refers to a more or less ‘direct’ result, while with the continuous form the result is usually ‘indirect’, or a ‘side-effect’. The type of result referred to differs between the present perfect and present perfect continuous.

“I have washed the car.” (It is very clean now.)

“I have been washing the car.” (We don’t know what the end-result here; it could be that “I’m wet all over; “I’m tired”. Or, “The car is ready for us to ride.”

“I have cooked dinner.” (We have dinner to eat)
“I have been cooking dinner.” (We don’t need to eat out; we can eat home tonight)


4) The present perfect continuous is often used to answer ‘Why…?’ questions.
In the above example, (I have been washing the car), it might have been in response to the question ‘Why are you wet?’ Again, it is not clear from the second sentence whether I have finished washing the car or not.

Changing between the Present Perfect and Simple Past:

Students often have problems knowing when to switch from using the present perfect to the simple past in conversation. Usually, after starting a conversation with a question in the present perfect, we switch to the simple past to develop the exchange. However, this is not always the case, and we can follow the original question with more questions in the present perfect. Which tense to use depends on the exact situation we are talking about.

Consider the following exchange:

Susan: Have you seen any good movies recently?
Jim: Yes, I have as a matter of fact.
Susan: Oh, which movies have you seen?
Jim: I have seen ‘Benjamin Button’ and ‘Seven Pounds’.
Susan: Did you? How did you like them?
Jim: They are both very good.

In this conversation, Susan’s second question is about ‘which movies’, and, as she is not referring to a particular point in time, and it is still possible for Jim to see more movies, so it is natural to use the present perfect. For her final question she changes to the simple past as the time she is referring to (which is not actually stated) is “How did you like them?”, referring to the movies ‘Benjamin Button’ and ‘Seven Pounds’ Jim saw already in the past; so it’s proper to switch to the simple past.

Now compare the above with:

Susan: Have you been to a good restaurant recently?
Jim: Yeah. I have as a matter of fact.
Susan: Which restaurant did you go to?
Jim: I went to Upstairs Cafe.
Susan: Where is it? Was it good?
Jim: It is on 57 West Broadway. I had a club burger and the house salad.
Susan: How did you like it?
Jim: The burger meat was tender, and the salad delicious.

In the second question Susan uses the singular, ‘restaurant’, presumably because she is only interested in one, the most recent restaurant, Jim went to (“Which one did you go to?” but not “Which ones did you go to?”) She then uses the simple past as she is referring to the time “Was it good?” because she doesn’t imagine Jim goes to the same restaurant regularly or will go there again, at least, in the present.

Duration:

We use the simple present perfect to describe the duration (‘How long…’) of a state which is true now.

For example, compare: I have lived in London for eight years. (I live in London now.)
I lived in London for two years. (I don’t live in London now.)

Like all the other examples of the present perfect, we are being told something about the present in the first sentence. The second sentence tells us only about the past, although we would probably assume that the speaker doesn’t live in London now.

The present perfect continuous is used to describe the duration of an action which begins in the past and continuous into the present.

For example:

The Present Perfect Continuous: They have been watching TV since three o’clock this afternoon (They are still watching TV now)

The Present Perfect: They have been watched TV for three hours. (They may still be watching it or just stopped it.)

Both forms, the present perfect and present perfect continuous, are common in the question for with “How long…?”

How long have you waited to see the doctor? (She may be still waiting to see the doctor, or she is in the doctor’s office now).

How long have you been waiting to see the doctor? (She is, definitely, still waiting to see the doctor).

Compare the Present Perfect to Present Perfect Continuous:

I have lived in London for three years ( I live in London now, or I have just left London.)

They have been watching TV since three o’clock (Thet are still watching it.)

In both cases, the present perfect tells us the duration of the activity, but the present perfect continuous only tells us that the activity it is happening now.

Do not use

It is incorrect to use the simple present tense to describe duration, as in the following:

INCORRECT: I live in London for three years.

Present Perfect or Present Perfect Continuous?

With some verbs it is possible to use both the present perfect and present perfect continuous tenses.

I have worked at the City Bank for nine years.
I have been working at the City Bank for nine years.

The first sentence in the present perfect tense here can be considered the ‘neutral’ or normal form. In this sentence the verb ‘work’ has the meaning ‘have a job’ and refers to ‘the time duration’, but not the activity you actually do when you are working. The sentence simply says how long this (your having the job) has been the case.

The second sentence in the present prefect continuous tense would be used in slightly different situations. “I have been working at the City Bank for nine years.” suggests the importance of the action such that I am now an experienced employee and deserve a promotion.

In the present perfect continuous the time duration is not important or the action of having a job, but the consequence of working long years that may have resulted in having good experience.

Example:

Jim: I have been working here for five years, you know!
Stacy: Oh yeah? How much have you saved by now?

Here the present perfect continuous is used to give not just the duration of the action but also to imply a result of the action that Jim has worked there for five years, and as a result, he may have saved quite a large sum of money.

A common situation where the present perfect continuous is used is to imply that the situation is about to change:

I have been living here for ten years. I think it is time I moved on.

But note that the normal restrictions apply to verbs that

Do not use the present perfect continuous:

CORRECT: I have had this car for seven years. It is time I changed it.
INCORRECT: I have been having this car since 1987. It is time I changed it.

See the following section for more information on the use of the present perfect to give information about results in the present.

Just:

‘Just’ is commonly used with the present perfect to show that an action happened very recently. When ‘just’ is used the result referred to is often indirect, and this form can be used if you want to make it clear that the action is complete while at the same time explaining an indirect result of the action:

I have just washed the car (I am wet now). Being wet is an indirect result.

The present perfect continuous is formed with the auxiliary verb ‘have’ in the corresponding form for the subject of the sentence, followed by the participle ‘been’ of the auxiliary verb be, followed by the ‘ing’ form of the main verb.

Example sentences:

Affirmative: I have been waiting for three hours.
Question: Have you been waiting long?
Negative: I haven’t been waiting long.