From an exercise book: How many mushrooms did you gather? vs How many mushrooms have you gathered? How is one to know without any context, that it should only be Present Perfect and not Past Simple?

I'm yet to hear a clear explanation on how to choose Present Perfect or Past Simple in some situations. My understanding is sometimes it's like with modal verbs, depends on the speaker, and not even a situation.

1 Answer 1


This is a complex question because there are subtleties, but ignoring those, the present perfect has a "perfected aspect."

I have done my homework


I was doing my homework

both relate to the past, but the first indicates completed ("perfected" in an old-fashioned sense) action, whereas the second does not indicate completion.

The primary distinctions between simple past and past perfect relate to recency, current relevance, and specificity.

If there is a specific marker of time, you must use the simple past.

I did my homework more than an hour ago.

indicates completion in the past: it has perfected aspect, but it is specific about time.

I have already done my homework

indicates completion in the past: it too has perfected aspect, but it is vague about time although it implies that it is relatively recent.

You can also use the these two tenses to indicate continuing relevance or its absence.

I lost my car keys and wasted an hour looking for them

I have lost my car keys and need a ride home.

In the first sentence, the simple past is used because there is no current relevance to that loss. In the second sentence, current relevance is the whole point.

Finally, there is an implication of relative recency when using the present perfect; that is the "present" dimension.

I have finished my term paper

implies that you finished it recently.

I finished my term paper

implies that you finished it some time ago. Unfortunately, "recency" is not a strictly defined term. It primarily depends on context. For more on that issue, this may help.

How to define the recent past: how recent is recent?

  • Thank you! So basically, what I understood is that all those exercise where you have to choose between PaS and PrP, that don't have any time context are wrong..
    – Ceejay
    Jun 5, 2020 at 9:32
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    Not having seen the exercises, I can hardly pronounce on their utility, but I doubt they are outright wrong. They may have implied sufficient context. Under most conceivable circumstances, "Have you done your homework" is not asking about homework that was due in the past. It almost certainly refers to homework that is currently due. Possibly the exercises oversimplified what sometimes is complex. Probably the exercises were intended to present situations where a typical context could be inferred with high reliability. Jun 5, 2020 at 12:33
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    I have reviewed your original question. First, I disagree that you must use the present perfect. But, second, asking that question ten years after the fact is unlikely: who would remember. Far more plausible is that the question is being asked soon after someone returns from mushroom hunting. In other words, the implied context is that we are dealing with the recent past, in which case the context is one where the present perfect is appropriate rather than mandatory. If there were additional context relating to a future supper menu, then current relevance may mandate the present perfect. Jun 5, 2020 at 17:16
  • What about something like "I have played football", could it mean both experience (used to play football, now I have that experience) and I played football only once, and it was recently, say, couple days ago, depending on the context?
    – Ceejay
    Jun 5, 2020 at 18:53
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    Now you are getting into another use of the present perfect: one to give emphasis. The normal way to say that you did something repeatedly in the past but not longer do so is with "used to." However, you can use the present perfect to emphasize that you continue in the present to have knowledge because of past experience. Notice that the presumed discussion makes your past experience currently relevant. So yes, you could use the present perfect in very different circumstances. No exercise book is ever going to reflect all the subtleties of social context that can influence the choice of tense. Jun 5, 2020 at 19:49

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