The Present Perfect Continuous
Once you feel confident using the present perfect simple form, it’s very useful to learn how to use the present perfect continuous. As you’ve seen, the present perfect simple is quite challenging, and this is also true of the continuous form. But once you’ve learnt how to use it naturally when you speak, you will stand out as someone with a good command of the language. So what is the present perfect continuous and how does it differ to the simple form?
What’s the Present Perfect Continuous?
As you probably remember, generally speaking we use the present perfect to connect something in the past to the present. For example,
I’ve lost my purse. Can you help me find it?
The action of losing the purse is recent and has a consequence now.
The present perfect continuous also has a strong connection to the present and is used in two situations:
- to describe the length of an ongoing action
She’s been working hard all day.
- to describe the effect of a recent action or situation
She’s tired because she’s been working hard.
How to make sentences in the Present Perfect Continuous
We create the present perfect continuous by using ‘have/has been’ and the main verb in the -ing form. For example,
You’ve been studying English for a few minutes.
Here is a table with a complete set of examples:
The Two Main Uses
Let’s look at the main uses of the form in more detail.
1) Ongoing actions
The present perfect continuous describes an action or situation that started in the past (usually in the recent past) and continues in the present. The actions are normally temporary situations. For example,
He’s been running since 3:30.
They’ve been talking all afternoon.
We’ve been waiting for an hour.
How long has it been raining?
I’ve been staying with Tim while my flat’s being renovated.
As you can see, it’s common to use for and since with this tense to express the time.
A good way to help understand this tense is to match it with the present continuous. For example,
He’s running. (present continuous to describe an action happening now.)
He’s been running for 45 minutes. (present perfect continuous to describe the duration of the action.)
2) Recent actions that have an effect on the present
This use of the tense focuses on the action and the effect it creates. Strangely, the action may or may not have finished, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the action itself and the consequence. For example,
The kids have been playing in the garden all afternoon and they’re covered in mud.
This means that the children started playing at the beginning of the afternoon. It’s probably late in the afternoon now. They might still be playing or they might have recently stopped. And the consequence of the action is that they’re dirty.
Here are some other examples:
Tom has been repairing my car. He’s got oil on his hands.
She’s red because she’s been lying in the sun all day.
They’ve got blisters on their feet because they’ve been walking since 9 a.m.
My eyes are tired because I’ve been working on my computer for a long time.
The ground is wet because it’s been raining.
Your eyes are red. Have you been crying?
Jacques has been baking a cake and he’s got flour on his clothes.
The Present Perfect Simple or Continuous?
As you know, we can also use the present perfect simple to describe both recent actions and unfinished actions. So when should you choose the continuous form instead of the simple one?
Compare these two sentences:
- Tom has repaired my car.
- Tom has been repairing my car.
Sentence ‘a.’, which uses the present perfect simple, means that the car is now repaired and works. The action is completed. Sentence ‘b.’, which uses the present perfect continuous, means that Tom has been occupied doing the action of repairing the car. He may have stopped or he may still be doing it. And we don’t know if the car is completely repaired or not. Our attention is on him.
When we talk about long-term situations and we want to express its duration, it’s more common to use the present perfect simple. For example,
I live in Berlin. I’ve lived there for 20 years.
In this case, the present simple works in combination with the present perfect simple.
When we talk about short-term, temporary situations and we want to express its duration, it’s more natural to use the present perfect continuous. For example,
I’m cleaning the house. I’ve been cleaning since 3 p.m.
The first sentence in the present continuous describes an ongoing action, and the second sentence which gives the duration is in the present perfect continuous.
Verbs that can only be in the Present Perfect Simple
In order to use the present perfect continuous, the verb must be an action verb. So all state verbs need to be in the simple form. These include verbs like be, believe, cost, have (for possession), like, love, hate, know, understand, want. For example,
We’ve known each other for years.
I’ve always liked this band.
How long have you had this car?
The different focus in questions between the two forms
When you ask information using the present perfect simple, you’re normally looking for a Yes/No answer, or a result. For example,
Have you finished yet? – Yes, I have.
How many times have you been to Florida? – I’ve been twice.
When you ask questions with the present perfect continuous, you want to know either the duration of an action or simply what the action is. For example,
How long have you been waiting? – I’ve been waiting for ages.
What have they been doing? – They’ve been playing computer games.
Compare these sentences:
A: What have you been doing this afternoon?
B: I’ve been reading ‘Animal Farm’. Have you ever read it?
A: No, I haven’t. How much of it have you read?
B: I’ve read about half of it. It’s very interesting.
Learning the present perfect continuous enables you to express important ideas in English and can make a huge difference to your level of communication. Start practicing it now with the fun quiz on this post.