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Distinguishing past tense from present perfect tense can be confusing particularly for us Filipinos–our many local languages’ tense system tends to use aspects instead of tenses.

Here’s a good question e-mailed by one of my workshop participants:

Which of the following is right:
I learned how to drive.
I have learned how to drive.

Both are right. The answer depends on the context.

1. I learned how to drive — that’s past tense.
2. I have learned how to drive — that’s present perfect.

Use past tense when you are talking about a specific event in the past, as if you were chronicling a specific situation where a specific time frame is expressed or implied. That is why when we use past tense, we use time expressions or time markers such as when I was in high school or yesterday or in 1988 or the other week or while I was attending a conference in Seoul.

In your sentence, we can use the past tense as follows:

  • I was 18 when I learned how to drive.
  • I learned how to drive when my brother finally lent me his car.
  • I learned how to drive in Maui. (NOTE: Here, if you notice, there is no specific time expression, but the time is implied–when you were in Maui. There is an implication that you either visited or lived in Maui, and when you said this statement, you no longer were living or visiting Maui. So there is a specific period implied.)
  • I learned how to drive by stealing my neighbor’s car. (NOTE: Here, the period is implied. We are limiting the action of learning how to drive to another event of stealing a car.)

One of the ways (there are several) in which we use the present perfect tense is when we refer to an action in the past without indicating when the action happened–there is no defined or implied time frame. So in your sentence, we can say:

  • I have not yet learned how to drive. (We use the present perfect when we use words like since, for, yet, already. There is no specific time frame when the learning did not happen)
  • I have learned how to drive without my father’s permission. (Notice that in this sentence doesn’t indicate a time when the speaker learned how to drive or when the father did not give his permission.)
  • What my father does not know is that I have already learned how to drive. (No specific time frame when the learning happened.)

English Page has a lovely discussion on past tense here and on present perfect here.

Let me know if you have another way of explaining the difference.

Photo credit: Vina’s Zone

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