Present Perfect Continuous

The present perfect continuous is a tense that sometimes gets confused with the present perfect simple.

There are times when both of these tenses can be used with little or no difference. But there are times when you can only use the present perfect continuous.

We are going to explain how to use the present perfect continuous and will look at the differences between this tense and the present perfect simple.

Form

  • I have been doing / he has been doing etc.
  • I haven’t been doing / he hasn’t been doing (I have not / he has not)
  • Have I been doing? / Has he been doing?

Actions that started in the past and continue in the present

When an action started in the past and continues in the present we use the present perfect. It is important to note that we only use this for normal continuous verbs and not for non-continuous verbs (grammatically speaking but see below).

  • I’ve been living here for a few years.
  • How long have you been learning English for?
  • She hasn’t been drinking for a few years.*
  • It’s been raining all day.

For non-continuous verbs we should use the present perfect. Some of these verbs include: want, need, like, have (possession), cost etc.

  • I’ve wanted to do this for a long time.
  • She’s had many cars in her life.
  • They’ve needed help for a while.

NOTE: Most non-continuous verbs can be and are used in the continuous form (especially in America).  You only have to think about the McDonalds commercial (take from Justin Timberlake’s song, ‘I’m Lovin’ It’)

It is common to hear people say: ‘I’ve been wanting to go there for ages’ for example.

In the negative form, it is more common to use the present perfect simple when talking about actions that you haven’t done for a specific amount of time, for example:

  • She hasn’t drunk anything for a few years.
  • I haven’t been there for a long time.

This focuses more on the result than the action, which is what we’re going to discuss next:

Focusing on the action

Take a look at the following two examples:

  • I’ve been drinking lots of coffee all day.
  • I’ve drunk a lot of coffee all day.

Both of these can be used to mean the same thing. But the first one focuses on the drinking of the coffee (the action) while the second one focuses more on the amount (the result).

This is more obvious when we look at the following example:

Ex. 1 – Paul buys 6 trees and wants to plant them in his garden. After he finishes planting them he says: “I’ve planted the trees.” All the trees are in the ground and he has finished.

Ex. 2 – Mark buys 6 trees and wants to plant them in his garden. His neighbor sees him sitting on his porch all dirty and asks him what he has been doing. He says, “I’ve been planting trees.”

The fist example shows that Paul wants to talk about the result and that he has completed an action.

The second example Mark focuses on the activity and it is not important if the activity has finished or not.

A conversation using the both the action and the result could go like this:

Ryan: You look exhausted! What have you been doing?

Seth: I am, I’ve been painting the outside of the house all day.

Ryan: I’m not surprised you’re tired. Have you finished?

Seth: I haven’t finished yet, no. I’m going to finish it tomorrow.

And a few more examples:

  • I’ve been reading for 2 hours.
  • I’ve read the first two chapters.
  • Lionel Messi has been playing for a long time.
  • Lionel Messi has played over 350 games.

We use the question, ‘What have you been doing?’ or the direct question when there is some evidence of a someone doing something in the recent past; some examples:

  • Michael sees that his friend is red in the face and asks, ‘Have you been exercising?’
  • Lucy has really muddy hands and her friend asks, ‘Have you been working in the garden?’

Recently or Lately

We also use the present perfect continuous with ‘lately’ and ‘recently.’

  • I’ve been working out a lot lately.
  • What have you been doing recently?
  • I haven’t been working hard recently, I just feel too tired.

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