Explaining the Present Perfect Continuous
How you can give your students simple explanations to help them understand when and how to use the present perfect continuous.
Students can have real problems with the Present Perfect Continuous, partly due to the difficulty of forming a tense with two auxiliary verbs, but mainly because they have problems working out when to use this tense and when to use the Present Perfect Simple. It is introduced even in some Pre-Intermediate textbooks nowadays- a time when students tend to lack confidence and the language to understand complex grammar explanations, and are struggling with other aspects of the language and so can’t give all their attention to this tricky tense. What is needed then is some simplified explanations and then lots of fun controlled practice speaking games so that they can get used to using it in the right situation without having to think about it too much. The simple explanations are provided below, and my next article offers lots of Present Perfect Simple and Continuous games.
Things to get out of the way before you start
Make sure students are very familiar with when Present Perfect (Simple) is used, e.g. in contrast to Simple Past. The easiest form to have started with is “Have you ever…?” but you should probably leave Present Perfect Continuous until after you have dealt with other uses like “yet” and “already”.
Students should also be very familiar with state verbs and action verbs, including perhaps verbs that can be both depending on their meaning like “I think so” and “I’m thinking of buying a new car”. If you tackled this point when doing both Present Continuous and Past Continuous (or revised the point by running through it with both those tenses just before starting Present Perfect Continuous) that would be ideal.
The magic words
With “How long” questions we usually use the Present Perfect Continuous, but with “How many” and “How much” questions we usually use the Present Perfect Simple. With statements we can work out which tense to use by thinking about which kind of question the statement would be an answer to. For example, “Two (windows)” could be the answer to “How many windows have you cleaned?” so the full statement is “I have cleaned two windows” rather than “I have been cleaning two windows”
Other magic words you might want to introduce include “yet”, “already”, “ever” and “still”, all of which are almost always used with the Present Perfect Simple. If students need an explanation of why, you could tell them it is because questions including those words are about whether you have done it once, and are therefore similar to “How many” questions.
The most important exception
State verbs can never be used with –ing and so can’t be used in Present Perfect Continuous either.
The statistical generalisation
Native speakers tend to use the Present Perfect Continuous when they can, so students who want to raise their level should think about using and then only rejecting the tense when it is impossible due to state verbs, How many questions, yet, already, ever, still, and the reasons below.
The simplest and most useful general explanation
With the Present Perfect Continuous, the action is important/ what we are concentrating on. With the Present Perfect Simple, the result is important/ what we are focusing on. This is why “How many” questions tend to be Present Perfect Simple, as they talk about how many things we have achieved/ completed. This is also why the classic textbook sentence “I am tired because I have been swimming” is in the continuous, because it is the action rather than the result that makes you tired.
The times when that doesn’t work- the biggest student question!
Students will probably have seen the question “How long have you worked here?” many times before they reach this point in the syllabus, and will be surprised to suddenly confront the question “How long have you been working here?” Both sentences are equally good, although questions like “How long have you been studying English?” tend to follow the generalisation that we choose the continuous form when we can and so are more common than students might think. I explain this difficulty (if it comes up!) by saying that “work” is something that has no clear result and so there is no contrast between the two tenses in the general explanation above.
The even more general but more difficult explanation
All continuous tenses are used to express something temporary and in progress. If we talk about the result (e.g. use “How many” questions or “already”), we are concentrating on how many things we have finished and so not emphasising the process being still in progress. We can’t usually use “How many” for Present Perfect Continuous because we end up with sentences like “Seven mosquitoes have been biting her”, which makes it sound like the same seven have been biting her over and over or for a continuous period, perhaps at the same time!
The true, popular but confusing and totally useless explanation
Because of the rule above, many students learn at school that Present Perfect Simple means that something is finished and Present Perfect Continuous means that something is still going on. As we have seen with “How long have you been working as a teacher?”, that is not in fact generally true. There are times when this is true, such as “already” sentences and “How long have you worked as a teacher?” when it means total job experience (maybe with major gaps) against “How long have you been working as a teacher?” often being used with “…here?” Despite the times when this explanation is accurate, I find it really holds up the progress of students, and only mention it if I need to disprove it. For one thing, they have already studied that Simple Past is used for finished past events (e.g. “How long did you work there?”), and so the word “finished” is almost guaranteed to confuse them.