When it comes to success in IELTS, you need a good grasp of grammar. That involves many things, from articles to prepositions to punctuation. One very important part is verb tense, and yet many people find this difficult. Today, we are going to look at the present perfect and past perfect tenses in order to better understand them.

If you want a full explanation of the present perfect tense, then read this article.

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Present Perfect and Past Perfect

In a sense, it is easy to see why people would mix up present perfect and past perfect. They actually look quite similar. For example:

  • He has waited for five minutes.
  • He had waited for five minutes.

The first one is present perfect and the second is past perfect. You can see that in these two sentences, there is just a small difference – in fact, only one letter is changed! However, the difference in meaning is very big.

When to Use Present Perfect

We use present perfect for several reasons, but most commonly it is used to talk about things that began in the past and lead up to the present moment. Here are some examples:

  • She has had four cups of coffee this morning.
  • He has been in trouble twice already.
  • My water tank has been broken for three months.

In each case, the verb (or the situation it describes) began in the past but it continues (or could continue) until the present moment. In other words:

  • She has had four cups of coffee this morning (but she could have more).
  • He has been in trouble twice already (and it could happen again).
  • My water tank has been broken for three months (and it is still broken).

Let’s now see how this compares with the past perfect tense:

When to Use Past Perfect

The past perfect is similar but the most important difference is that the time period has already ended. We could re-use the above expressions with slight modifications:

  • She had had four cups of coffee by midday.
  • He had been in trouble twice already.
  • My water tank had been broken for three months.

These look similar, but the difference is huge:

  • She had had four cups of coffee by midday (and now it’s after midday).
  • He had been in trouble twice already (this happened sometime in the past).
  • My water tank had been broken for three months (this happened sometime in the past).

In each case, we are looking back to a point in the past and then looking further back from then.

Note that in some of my above examples, the time frame was implied. In real-life situations, these would be stated. For example, if someone said “He had been in trouble twice already” then a time would have been mentioned in the previous sentence.

Present Perfect vs Past Perfect

As we can see, then, present perfect and past perfect are similar but with a key difference: present perfect is used for situations leading to the present moment and past perfect is used for ones leading to a set time in the past.

present perfect vs past perfect

For example:

  • They’ve lived here for three years.
  • By 2010, they’d lived here for three years.

In the first example, the verb tense tells us that they still live here. In other words, the time frame continues now. However, in the second example, the point of perspective is in the past.

Thus, past perfect is used to look further into the past from another point in the past.

Present Perfect, Past Perfect, and IELTS

I have already said that grammar is important for IELTS, so you can imagine that knowing the difference between verb tenses like these is necessary if you want a good score.

Verb tense can of course affect all four parts of the test (reading, listening, speaking, and writing). However, I find that it often presents the most difficulty in task 1 of the writing test. That’s because you have to describe data like line graphs (if you are doing the academic test).

Here, it is absolutely essential that your verb tenses are accurate enough to convey the right meaning. If, for example, you mixed up present perfect and past perfect, you would not give the reader the right information. This could cause them to be very confused.

Look at this example line graph:

ielts line graph electrical appliances

You can see that all the data comes from the past because the latest date is 2019. Thus, it would be totally inappropriate to use the present perfect here.

  • CORRECT: By 1960, the proportion of households owning a fridge had already surpassed the other two appliances.
  • INCORRECT: By 1960, the proportion of households owning a fridge has already surpassed the other two appliances.

It’s not only line graphs that we need to think about, though. When describing IELTS maps, we also need to pay attention to the dates given and then pick the right verb tense. You quite often find that there two or three maps with different dates, sometimes leading to the present and sometimes located in the past.

In short, you really need to think:

  1. When does this information come from?
  2. What verb tense should I use to describe it?

If the data leads up to the present, you will probably need the present perfect. If you are looking into the past from another point in the past, you will probably need the past perfect.

Final Advice

There are a few things you can do to maximise your chances of getting the right answer.

Firstly, always pay attention to the time frame. Sometimes it is obvious, but sometimes it is quite subtle (or even implied). Still, you need to ask whether the situation was ongoing in the past or whether it leads up to the present.

Secondly, look out for words that give you clues. We often use “for” and “since” with the present perfect. That’s because they typically suggest that something began in the past and leads to the present. However, there are exceptions, so don’t rely upon them too much. Use your brain and think about the rules.

You can also look out for the word “by,” which is frequently used with the past perfect tense. For example, we often see “by” and then some point in time:

  • By 1992…
  • By last week…
  • By the end of that year…
  • By the turn of the century…

In each case, it is very likely that we would need the past perfect tense. That’s because “by ____” indicates that we are looking for what happened in the period of time prior to a point in the past.

If you found this lesson useful, then check out these guides: present simple vs present perfect and past simple vs present perfect.