Difference: Present Perfect and Present Perfect Continuous

The difference between the present perfect and the present perfect continuous can cause confusion for many learners of English. 

Firstly of course, the grammatical form varies:


Present Perfect: Has/Have + Past Participle

e.g. He has passed his driving test

Present Perfect Continuous: Has/Have + Been + Present Participle

e.g. She has been reading a book

The broad rule is that although both tenses relate to the fact that something is being referred to in the past, the present perfect refers to something that has finished, but the present perfect continuous refers to something that is continuing in the present.

However, although this is sometimes the case, there are more variations.

On this page we'll highlight some of the main ways in which you would choose one over the other. 

Choosing Either

In some cases we can choose either of the tenses. This is usually the case when we are referring to biographical type facts about someone's life, often with the words for and since or some other time frame.

For example:

  • He's eaten red meat his whole life
  • He's been eating red meat his whole life

  • He's worked for the company since he was a teenager
  • He's been working for the company since he was a teenager

  • I've lived here for three years
  • I've been living here for three years

  • They've studied English since high school
  • They've been studying English since high school

Short Term or Long Term Action

These facts in the examples above tend to be long-term. However, we tend to use the present perfect continuous to emphasise the fact that an event or activity has been happening over a period of time that is relatively short-term. 

Compare the long-term, which could be either present perfect or present perfect continuous: 

  • I've played tennis most of my life (long-term)
  • I've been playing tennis most of my life (long-term)

However, if we want show the fact that we've actually been playing (we could have just stopped or still be playing), then we use the continuous:

  • I've been playing tennis for two hours (short-term)

Continuing or Completed Action

Another difference between the present perfect and the present perfect continuous is when we want to show whether something is completed or not. The continuous tense shows that it is not completed.

Compare these:

  • He's read the book about JFK (the book is finished)
  • He's been reading the book about JFK (the book's still being read)

  • She's taken the medicine (referring to one completed action)
  • She's been taking the medicine (referring to medicine that is being taken over a period of time)

Repeated or Single Action

This is similar to the previous one, but it shows the continuous form can be used to show that something is repeated:

  • Your wife has phoned you (may have been only once)
  • Your wife has been phoning you - (she has rung several or many times)

  • I've gone to the local swimming pool  (could just be once)
  • I've been going the local swimming pool  (indicates going there on several or many occasions)  

State Verbs

State verbs are those that represent a state of mind, such as thinking, knowing, wanting, seeing etc. 

Though there are some we can use in the present perfect continuous tenses, generally most are cannot be used in the continuous tense and so they are only used with the present perfect:

For instance, we don't say this:

  • She's been knowing him for 3 days
  • He's been seeing the car go past every day

We would say:

  • She's known him for 3 days
  • He's seen the car go past every day