“Queue here please, we’re British!” Present Perfect vs Past Simple

200330172-002I recently travelled around Italy and Spain for work with an English colleague.  I am very used to both of these cultures having travelled there at length, so it made me smile that my colleague was so outraged when she discovered people there don’t queue like British people!  Anyone who has visited Britain will have noticed that British people love queuing and consider it an important part of their culture.  In fact it’s quite offensive when people try to push in!

My colleague and I were standing in a queue for a taxi outside the airport when 3 people pushed in front of us without a second thought and she said;

“That’s so rude! We’ve been queuing for 20 minutes, how dare they push in!”

I thought I would use this situation to address a problem that often arises with my students; that is when to use present perfect (simple / continuous) instead of past simple.

The important thing to remember is that we use:

Past simple for past events or actions which have no connection to the present, and

Present perfect for actions which started in the past and are still happening now OR for finished actions which have a connection to the present.

Here are a few examples that should help to make the difference clearer:

1. That’s so rude!  We have been queuing for 20 minutes, how dare they push in!
(I am still queuing – the action started in the past and continues to the present)

2. I have queued here many times before
(I still queue here – the action finished in the past but is connected to the present)

3. I queued for half an hour for a taxi this morning
(The action of queuing is in the past and has no connection to the present)

We never use the present perfect with a finished time word (e.g. yesterday, last week, last month etc.), so the following sentences are INCORRECT ENGLISH:

• I have been queuing for 20 minutes yesterday.

• I have queued for 20 minutes last week.

If you’re ever in the UK, make sure you queue, and when deciding which tense to use, think about whether the action is related to the present.  Good luck!

Laura Carter has been teaching foreign students of all ages since 2007 and qualified for CELTA two years ago. She is a really enthusiastic, energetic teacher who loves to find ways to make classes relevant to her students so that they have a greater impact. Laura has also worked in a corporate teaching environment as part of L&D teams in a variety of roles over the past 4 years. Laura is a valued tutor for Viva Languages and is available to deliver online English lessons as well as face-to-face classes.

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