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Deconstructing the Grammar of the Present Perfect Using Classic Songs Posted by on Feb 23, 2015 in Culture, English Grammar, English Language

As any student (or teacher) of English can verify, the present perfect tense can be a rather tricky and frustrating topic in English grammar. There are a couple reasons why this is the case. First, semantically, the present perfect tense overlaps significantly with the simple past and simple present tenses, and thus it’s easy to get by without it. Second, the present perfect involves complicated grammar, which further discourages students from using it.

Image of U2 via John Athayde / flickr

Image of U2 via John Athayde / flickr

Still, it’s important that students understand how to use the present perfect tense, as it is widely used in both spoken and written English. As such, it is featured in several popular songs. Here are some classic tunes that can serve as a gentle, enjoyable way to learn about the grammatical intricacies of the present perfect tense.

The basics of the present perfect: I’ve Been Everywhere, Johnny Cash

Even if you’re not a fan of country, Johnny Cash’s songs are great for English language learners, as he generally speaks slowly and clearly. And his 1996 hit “I’ve Been Everywhere”, in which he lists the various places that he’s visited, has plenty of great examples of the present perfect tense. In it, Cash highlights the very common use of the present perfect to talk about past experience, and illustrates the grammar of the present perfect as it is typically used in affirmative sentences in spoken English.

Key lyrics:

I’ve been everywhere, man

I’ve been everywhere, man

Crossed the deserts bare, man

I’ve breathed the mountain air, man

Of travel I’ve had my share, man

I’ve been everywhere


Using the present perfect in negative sentences: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, U2

A favorite among English teachers, U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” has ample instances of the present perfect tense in action. It’s a good song for reviewing the use of the present perfect to describe something that is ongoing — the singer’s search began in the past, and is still happening in the present. It also gives a good example of the present perfect in negative form (i.e., haven’t found), as well as its use in conjunction with adverbs of time (i.e., “still”).

Key lyrics:

I have climbed the highest mountains

I have run through the fields

I have run, I have crawled

I have scaled these city walls

Only to be with you

But I still haven’t found

What I’m looking for


Using the present perfect in questions: Have You Ever Seen The Rain?, Creedence Clearwater Revival

Forming questions in English is hard, and this is especially true when making questions with the already-complicated grammar of the present perfect tense. The popular song “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival is a relatively painless way to demonstrate how to use the present perfect in questions. In addition to illustrating how questions are formed (i.e., the subject “you” and the auxiliary “have” switch places), it also demonstrates the use of ever, a popular adverb of time that is used when asking questions in the present perfect tense. As an added bonus, it’s also a great way to introduce conversations in which you ask your students (or friends) what they have or haven’t done in their lives.

Key lyrics:

I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain?

I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain

Comin’ down on a sunny day?

These classic songs are a fun, engaging way to introduce the difficult grammar of the present perfect tense, including its use in negative sentences and in questions. For more modern examples of the present perfect tense in songs, consider listening to Rihanna’s Where Have You Been All My Life or Michael Buble’s I Just Haven’t Met You Yet. And don’t forget to sing along — in doing so, you’ll get in some valuable speaking practice, too.

paul_thumbnailPaul is an English teacher living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. You can check out their free English level tests and other language-learning resources on their website. Feel free to visit their Facebook page or contact paul@languagetrainers.com with any questions.

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