What is present perfect continuous?

Present perfect continuous is a way of looking at events that have been happening in the past up until now and possibly also into the future… Although it is a present “tense”, actually a combination of “aspects”, it refers to the past, as we see it from now. It is a combination of two “aspects” or ways of looking at things. 

It is “perfect” in that it focuses on things that are finished or take place before a certain point of time, in this case now. 

Because it is “continuous”, it also focuses on the fact that a particular action is ongoing or repeated. 

How do we form present perfect continuous?

We make present perfect continuous by using two auxiliary verbs (“have” or “has” plus “been”) and a main verb. The present perfect continuous look like this:

I have been running

You have been running

He/She/ It has been running

We have been running

They have been running

When do we use present perfect continuous?

There are three main reasons for using present perfect continuous:

  1. to focus on the duration of unfinished actions that started in the past, for example, “I’ve been waiting for the bus for ages”, “She’s been running for an hour” and “He’s been working here since November”. With longer periods of time, we can also use present perfect simple. We could say, for example, “He’s worked here since 2011”.
  2. for temporary recent situations, for example, “I’ve been eating a lot of fruit recently”, “He’s been staying with his parents since he arrived back in the country”, and “She’s been spending a lot of time with him”.
  3. for actions that have recently stopped for which we can see a present result, for example. “You look exhausted. You must have been working really hard”. “I’ve been walking in the wind and rain so my hair is a mess” and “Her eyes are red because she’s been crying”.

What is the difference between present perfect continuous and present perfect simple?

We use present perfect continuous when we want to focus on the activity itself rather than the result. We use present perfect simple when the result of the action is more important. For example, we say “She has been running now for over an hour” but “She has run ten kilometres. The first sentence is about the activity that has been in progress whereas the second sentence is about the milestones or goals that have been achieved. 

Here is another example, over a longer time period: “He has been studying Marine Biology for seven years. he has completed his PhD”. The first sentences talks about the duration, focussing on how long the studying has been going on whereas the present perfect simple sentence tells us about the accomplishment, the end result. 

If you think of an activity over a period as a train, present perfect simple is only interested in the front edge of the train or its arrival at the destination whereas present perfect continuous is used when we are interested in the entire length of the train or the whole duration of its journey.

How do we  ask a question using present perfect continuous?

To make a question we use the first auxiliary verb (“have” or “has”) as the question auxiliary, for example, “Have you been waiting long? or  immediately after a question word as in “What have you been doing?”

The difference between “What have you been doing?” and “What have you done?’ gives us a good insight into the different emphasis that the two different tense structures focus on. If you haven’t seen a friend for a while, you ask “What have you been doing?” because you are interested in whatever activities they have been involved in lately or any number of events that may have cropped up in their lives. We would only ask “What have you done?” if there was a dramatic change in someone’s appearance such as a broken arm, all their hair cut off or something spilled on their clothes. This would be focussing on a result taher than an activity.

Can we use present perfect continuous with a state verb?

We don’t use present perfect with state verbs because their meaning already tells us that they are continuous. Consequently, we would never say “I have been knowing her for ages”. Instead we would use present perfect simple and say “ I have known her for ages”. “Knowing” is a state, not an action.

State verbs already express a continuous meaning so it makes no sense to “double up” (British English) or “double down” (American English) by using a continuous tense as well.

 We never say things like “I have been having a car for years” , “She has been loving him ever since she was a teenager” or “I’ve been being a teacher for twenty years”.

Is present perfect continuous difficult to use?

Although present perfect continuous has a complex name, it is quite straightforward.  We use it to focus on activities, not results, that have been happening recently, are often temporary and have a result of sorts in the present. We have been looking at present perfect continuous. I hope this blog post has been helpful.