Present perfect vs. past



If I ask a question such as: "Have you studied English before?" and the answer is "Yes," should the following questions (Where…?/How long…?, etc.) be in the simple past or present perfect?

Vera Mello
[email protected]


It depends on the context and what shared knowledge the speaker and listener have.

If you refer to a definite and limited time in the past—if you perceive that the studying of English is over, at least for now—you would use the simple past tense. Keep in mind, too, that the word before in your question is quite strong in provoking the use of the simple past; it refers to an action that is finished in a time before now.


When did you study English?

(As a child? In college? In 1999?)


Where did you study English?

(In New York in 1998? In high
school? At Oxford two years ago?)


How long did you study ?

(For ten years? For two semesters? Six weeks?)

In some cases, however, if you think of the action as not having stopped, you might use the present perfect or another tense:


Where have you studied English?

(In your life, so far, I assume you'll
continue studying English.)


How long have you studied/been studying English?

(I assume you'll continue.)


Why have you been studying/are you studying English?

(I assume you'll continue.)

In your question, it seems that once it is established that the listener has indeed studied English before, the questions would appear like this:


Where did you study English?

(You are not studying there any more.)


How long have you studied/
been studying English?

(You will continue studying English.)


Why have you been studying/are you studying?

(You will continue studying English.)

There are some distinctions between American usage and British, with American usage being more permissive in using the past as well as the present perfect in some instances.

(To read additional comments on the present perfect, click here)