The textbook for my class contains the following chart (in the chart, the relevant verbs are in bold, but it doesn't seem to be possible to replicate this on SE with its nonexistent support for tabular data):

|   | Present Perfect                  | Present Perfect Continuous     |
| 1 | Iris has done a lot of research. | Iris has been doing a lot of   |
|   |                                  | research.                      |
| 2 | I've taken courses at            | I've been taking courses at    |
|   | Hillsborough Community College.  | Hillsborough Community College.|
| 3 | Iris has worked evenings as an   | Iris has been working evenings |
|   | assistant manager for a year.    | as an assistant manager for a  |
|   |                                  | year.                          |
| 4 | I've made an effort to greet     | I've been making an effort to  |
|   | everyone at the beginning of my  | greet everyone at the beginning|
|   | shift since I realized this.     | of my shift since I realized   |
|   |                                  | this.                          |

Below the chart is this explanation:

  • The present perfect focuses on the completion of an action. It describes an action that is finished.
  • The present perfect continuous emphasizes the continuation of an action into the present and possibly the future. It focuses on an action in progress.

I don't think the part that I marked in bold is correct. I contend that, in the present perfect (simple), the action in sentence 2 is definitely finished, the action in sentence 4 is definitely ongoing, and and the action in sentences 1 and 3 may be ongoing but it is unknown whether that is definitely the case.

My problem is how to explain these differences. As a native speaker, it is clear to me that it is wrong to say that in all such cases the action is finished. So, how does one determine whether the action in a present perfect simple sentence is ongoing, finished, or undefined?

I speak and teach American English, and the textbook uses American English.

  • 3
    This is a very complicated matter; tense, aspect and Aktionsart interact in unpredictable ways. In fact, the progressive perfect may designate "completed" actions (I've been teaching his class for the last four weeks, but he's back now) and the 'simple' perfect may designate 'incomplete" actions (I've lived here for three years). What is the perfect, and how should I use it?, especially §3.2 Pragmatic meaning, may help, but they only scratch the surface. Jul 7, 2016 at 18:59
  • I don't think #4 is "definitely ongoing" - a person might say, "I have made an effort to greet everyone but as of today I am not doing that anymore." That's the same tense and construction, but clearly not ongoing.
    – stangdon
    Jul 7, 2016 at 20:17
  • @stangdon: You illustrated my position well by keeping the same tense and making a change to the sentence content, which alters the nature of the action. I believe #4 as written in the OP is, in fact, definitely ongoing, especially since there's no context. However, your version, which could also potentially be inferred from context in some situations, changes the ongoing nature entirely. Jul 7, 2016 at 21:26
  • 2
    The action isn't ongoing in #4; rather it has been ongoing. The present perfect is agnostic about the immediate future. In any case, it's not that the actions themselves cease or run to completion; rather it's that the epistemological frame has a terminus, the Now of the spoken word. That car alarm has been blaring for the last 10 minutes. The alarm could still be blaring, or it could have stopped. The present perfect is surd about anything beyond its own moment. The next sentence could be "Make it stop!" or "Thank heavens it has stopped". Jul 7, 2016 at 22:29

1 Answer 1


Perhaps instead of a prescriptive rule for your students, you could ask them what they think, and help them understand the varying degrees of ambiguity. For example, in sentence one, Iris has done a lot of research. you could ask "What is Iris's job?" which would elicit "scientist", "doctor", etc. Then you can ask, "Is she still a scientist now?" which leads to "Is she going to do more research in the future?" and so on. It's difficult to come up with one rule that covers all situations, but I think most students can deal with ambiguity given a little guidance.

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