The Farlex Grammar Book > English Grammar > Inflection (Accidence) > Conjugation > Tense > Present Tense > Present Perfect Continuous Tense
Present Perfect Continuous Tense
What is the present perfect continuous tense?
The present perfect continuous tense (sometimes called the present perfect progressive tense) is formed by using the present tense of the auxiliary verb have (or has, if used with third-person singular pronouns) along with been (the past participle of the auxiliary verb be) and the present participle (-ing form) of the “main” verb. For example:
- “I have been living in New York City.”
The present perfect continuous is very close in meaning to how we use the present perfect tense. However, there are some key differences that distinguish when and how the present perfect continuous is preferable.
Generally, we use the present perfect continuous to talk about that which began in the past and is still happening in the present; the focus is on something that continues to happen, as opposed to something which happened (finished) sometime in the past. We can also use the present perfect continuous to emphasize the length of time that has passed while something is happening, or that something is only temporary. We can also use it to talk about something that has been happening lately or only finished very recently.
That which began in the past and continues in the present
The present perfect continuous is often used to talk about something that began happening in the past (anytime “before now”) and which is still happening (unfinished) in the present. We usually specify the duration of time involved, especially using the prepositions “for” or “since.” Sometimes we can use different adverbials; sometimes we don’t have to specify the duration at all. For example:
- “I have been living in New York City.”
- “I have been living in New York City for three years.”
- “I have been living in New York City since I was 18.”
- “I have been living in New York City all my life.”
In each of the above examples, it is understood implicitly that the speaker still lives in New York City; the only thing that changes is the duration of time. In this usage, the present perfect continuous is nearly identical in meaning to the present perfect tense, and, indeed, most of these examples would make perfect sense either way:
- “I have lived in New York City for three years.”
- “I have lived in New York City since I was 18.”
- “I have lived in New York City all my life.”
The only sentence that changes in meaning is the very first example: to say “I have lived in New York City” without any further elaboration gives the impression that the speaker used to live there, but no longer does.
This distinction between something being completed as opposed to still happening is important, because it highlights when you might choose to use the present perfect continuous instead of the present perfect simple in certain instances.
Let’s look at the very first example again, but this time using a different adverbial:
- “I have been living in New York City while I finish my Ph.D.” (correct)
- “I have lived in New York City while I finish my Ph.D.” (incorrect)
We can see that this sentence does not make sense at all in the present perfect simple tense, because the adverbial “while I finish my Ph.D.” requires the action to still be taking place. In cases like this, we must use the present perfect continuous tense to get across the meaning correctly.
This distinction can also be particularly useful when we are giving a response to someone:
- Person A: “Let's take the longer trail when we're hiking back down.”
- Person B: “But we have walked for three hours!” (present perfect)
- Person B: “But we have been walking for three hours!” (present perfect continuous)
We can see that the response is more appropriate in the present perfect continuous, because it lays emphasis on the continuous action of walking. It also puts emphasis on the amount of time that the speaker has been doing something.
Emphasizing length of time
The present perfect continuous is especially useful for putting emphasis on the length of time that has passed while something is happening. This is particularly true when the meaning of the sentence could otherwise be expressed in the present perfect simple. Here are some examples:
- “They have studied for three weeks for this exam.” (present perfect)
- “They have been studying for three weeks for this exam.” (present perfect continuous)
- “The girl has worked for five hours.” (present perfect)
- “The girl has been working for five hours.” (present perfect continuous)
The difference between these is slight, but noticeable. In both sets of examples, the present perfect continuous puts the emphasis on how long the action has taken, as well as the fact that it is still happening. The present perfect is simply reporting the completed result and how long it took.
Let’s look at another example:
- “He has talked on the phone for almost an hour.”
- “He has been talking on the phone for almost an hour.”
The first sentence is merely reporting how long the person was talking. With the present perfect continuous, the focus naturally shifts to the fact that an hour is a rather long period of time—and that he might continue talking for even longer!
That which is happening temporarily
Another subtle difference between the two tenses is that the present perfect is better at indicating that something is permanent, while the present perfect continuous is better at suggesting something is only temporary. For example:
- “I have worked in the shop for three years.”
- “I have been working in the shop for three years.”
The first sentence simply reports the length of time the speaker has been working in the shop. It does not suggest that he or she intends to stop working there at any point. The second sentence, however, makes the situation sound much less permanent. We can see the difference more clearly if we add a bit more information:
- “I have worked in the shop for three years, but I hope to find something else soon.”
- “I have been working in the shop for three years, but I hope to find something else soon.”
The first sentence sounds less natural than the second, because the new information specifically relates to the situation being a temporary one. In this case, the present perfect continuous is preferable.
That which has been happening lately or finished very recently
The present perfect continuous can also be used to express that which has been happening lately, but is not necessarily happening at the present moment in time. For example:
- “Bill has been coming into work late a lot.”
- “Don't you think Mary has been spending too much time on the computer lately?”
It can also be used without an adverbial to indicate that something was happening until only recently:
- “My neighbors are angry because my dog has been barking.”
- “Sorry I'm so sweaty! I’ve been exercising all morning.”
The action is not taking place at the exact moment of speech (in which case we would just use the present simple tense), but we can infer that it had been happening until very recently.
Present perfect continuous sentences can be made negative by using the word not. It appears after have/has, and the two can be (and very often are) contracted.
- “I have not been writing much recently.”
- “She hasn't been trying to find work since her divorce.”
- “I need to get up earlier, because I haven't been making it to work on time lately.”
We generally do not use never with the present perfect continuous.
Like the present perfect tense, an interrogative (question) sentence in the present perfect continuous has the subject and the auxiliary verb have inverted. For example:
- “Where have you been living lately?”
- “Has she been feeling OK?”
- “Why have you been lying to me?”
We can also make negative interrogative sentences in the present perfect continuous by adding not between the subject and been. We can also contract have/has and not:
- “Haven't you been writing a new book?”
- “Has she not been feeling well?”
- “Why haven't they been working on their homework?”
As we see in the first example, the meaning of the question can become rhetorical, implying that the speaker expected the answer to be “yes.”
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