Present perfect vs. present perfect progressive

 

Q:

I'm a new teacher at a high school in Hong Kong. I'm having a hard time getting my kids to understand when to use the present perfect tense and the present perfect progressive tense. Could you please help me?

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Could you tell me which one is the correct answer of the sentences below? Why?

(1) Somebody has been eating/has eaten my chocolates. There aren't many left.

(2)

Thank you very much for the camera. I have been wanting/I have wanted it for ages.

Hakan Bülken
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A:

The last part of sentence (1) indicates which form of the verb to use. There aren’t many chocolates left, but there are some, so the entire supply of chocolates has not been consumed. Therefore the speaker would not say “Somebody has eaten my chocolates.” That would be true only if there were no chocolates left.

Because the speaker sees evidence of chocolate-eating activity and that not all the chocolates are gone, she says, “Somebody has been eating my chocolates.” The eating of chocolates may still continue.

It’s the same situation as the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Goldilocks has tried all three bowls of porridge, but has finished the contents of the third bowl:

Papa Bear: “Someone’s been eating my porridge!” [Most of his porridge is still in the bowl.]

Mama Bear: “Someone’s been eating MY porridge!” [Most of her porridge is left too.]

Baby Bear: “Someone has been eating MY porridge—and they’ve eaten it all up! “ [The bowl is empty.]

The present perfect indicates completion of the chocolate-consumption, while the present perfect progressive indicates temporary activity that is incomplete. The same principle is at work in these examples:

Someone has been smoking in here. [The odor lingers in the air.]

You’ve been using my paintbrushes again, haven’t you? [The brushes are dirty.]

You look exhausted; has the baby been keeping you up at night?

This use of the present perfect progressive is based on present evidence of recent past activity. It focuses more on the effects of the activity than on the activity itself.

Sentence (2) in your question is different. The present perfect, “I’ve wanted it for ages,” is grammatically acceptable. Ordinarily, a stative verb like want does not take the progressive, because stative verbs by their nature already have duration. Nevertheless, a speaker may choose to emphasize the length of the time period by using the progressive form, have been wanting. Some similar utterances with stative verbs:

I’ve been intending to call you for ages, but have just never gotten around to it.

The new batteries in our kids’ toys have been lasting much longer than the old ones.

Welcome to our home! We’ve been expecting you with great eagerness!

The present perfect progressive with stative verbs leaves the state open-ended, while the present perfect simple brings the state only up to the present moment. The present perfect is by far the most common form with state verbs, and only with a very few stative verbs is the progressive form acceptable.

Marilyn Martin

More (a comment by Rachel)

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

(To read comments on the present perfect vs. the past, click here.)