Past Simple vs Present Perfect

This sign will help you learn when to use the past simple vs the present perfect.

During a trip to Istanbul I saw this sign outside a café.  Ignore the Turkish and focus on the English question:  Did you try Latin American coffee?

Is the grammar correct?

Yes? No? Maybe?

First, what is the tense used in this question?

The past simple tense is used.  The past simple of "try" is "tried."  (By the way, tried is irregular.  If you need to review how the simple past is formed or irregular verbs, click here for help).

Second, is this the correct tense for this question?  If so, why is it correct?  If not, why not?

Past simple vs past perfect usage

The sign does not use the correct verb tense.

The present perfect tense should have been used instead of the past simple tense. The sign should read:

“Have you tried Latin American coffee?”

Actually, it should say "Have you tried our  Latin American coffee?" but that's not the important point.

What's important is to understand why we use the present perfect in this example.

Simple past usage

When the sign is in the past simple tense, the question would be referring to a specific, completed event in the past. That's the purpose of the simple past.

So the sign is confusing.  Did I try Latin American coffee?  What are you referring to?  What event are you talking about? This would be a strange question to have on a sign outside a café.

It would be correct, for example, to use the simple past if you were at a café and your friend arrived 20 minutes later and looked at your empty coffee cup and asked, “Did you try their Latin American coffee?”

That would be correct because the question refers to a specific event in the past.  Your friend's cup is empty so this event would have happened a few minutes or an hour ago in the past.

Present perfect usage

What the café actually wanted to ask on their sign was: 

At any point in the past (whether last night or last month or two years ago), did you try this type of coffee? The exact point in time is not important. What is  important is whether or not you have ever  tried that type of coffee before. Did you try it at least one time before?

To be even clearer, the café wants to emphasize they have something new.  Latin American coffee isn’t popular in Turkey. They know many people have never tried it beforeperhaps they didn't know anyone sold Latin American coffee in Turkey. 

So the café wants to highlight this to people walking past the café to get their attention and get them interested in trying something new.

Review of past simple and present perfect form and usage

Let’s recap before the practice exercise:

  • Past simple:  Use for a specific event in the past.
  • Present perfect:  Use for an event that happened anytime in the past.

The present perfect is formed with:  the verb have + past participle

(click here for a chart of past participle forms of irregular verbs)

Additional points about usage:

The present perfect is often used with "ever" and "never" to talk about experiences up to the present.

– Have you ever been to Istanbul? (= at any point in your life)

– No, I’ve never been there but would love to go! (= Up to this point in your life)

We also frequently emphasize something that has happened by using already or not happened by using "yet".

– The waiter hasn’t brought the bill yet.

– Don’t worry, I’ve already paid it.

Practice exercise

On a separate paper, write the correct answer in the blank line, choosing between the past simple or the present perfect. 

1.  Jen:  ___________________ your house yesterday afternoon but unfortunately you weren’t home. (I stopped by / I’ve stopped by)

2.  Stan:  Sorry, I was out. ___________________ to Paolo’s Café.  (I went / I’ve been)

Jen:  Oh, I love that place!

3.  Stan:  ___________________ to Paolo’s before? (Did you go / Have you been)

4.  Jen:  Yes, ___________________ lunch there two weeks ago. (I’ve eaten / I ate)  The food was really delicious and the atmosphere was great.  ___________________ their house coffee yet? (Have you tried/ Did you try)

Stan:  No, I don’t like regular drip coffee. I only like espresso drinks, like cappuccino or lattes.

5.  Jen:  Well, if you ___________________ their Latin American coffee you can’t say for sure that you don’t like drip coffee. It’s delicious! (didn’t have / haven’t had)

Stan:  Okay, if you think it’s that good I’ll give it a try. Shall we go this afternoon?

Jen:  Great idea. It’s a plan, Stan.

Answers to practice exercise

  1.  I stopped by
  2.  I went
  3.  Have you been
  4.  I ate / Have you tried
  5.  haven’t had

Your turn

So, have you ever tried Latin American coffee?  When was the last time you drank coffee?  I'd love to know.

I've also created an infographic on the past simple vs present perfect that is useful to student.

› Past Simple vs Present Perfect

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.