What to use instead of the present perfect in French

Have you ever…wondered how to say “Have you ever in French?”

Don’t worry: the confusion you might have felt while wracking your brain for an answer is totally understandable. This verb tense, which is called the present perfect in English, flat-out doesn’t exist in French! 

I can’t tell you why that is, but I can tell you how to say “Have you ever” and other present perfect phrases in French. Let’s talk about how to translate the present perfect tense into French!

Is there a present perfect tense in French?

There is no present perfect tense in French. When I first realized this, I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. We use the present perfect tense so often in English that many of us may not even realize it’s a thing. So, how can the French live without it?

What do you use instead of the present perfect in French?

We see the blurred back of someone's head as they look down to check their watch/ They are wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase.

It turns out that it’s totally possible not to have the present perfect as one of your language’s verb tense options.

As a general rule, the present perfect tense is expressed in French as either the present simple or the passé composé, depending on the context.

There could be other options because language is an uncertain thing. But 99.9% of the time, you’ll use one of these two tenses.

In order to determine which of them you’ll need, you’ll have to figure out why you’re using the present perfect tense in the first place.

That may sound easy, but for many native English speakers, it can be hard to explain. Let’s look at the main reasons we use the present perfect in English, and the French equivalent for each one.

A note about the present perfect in English

Before we start, just a reminder: Some English dialects use the present perfect more or less frequently than others. For instance, in informal situations, an American English speaker might use the past tense instead, saying something like “I already saw that” rather than “I’ve already seen that.”

This may seem confusing, but it may also be a clue as to why there is no present perfect in modern French. Some verb tenses die out over time, or become very rare  or imperceptible – think of the subjunctive in English.

You could say that American English shows us that the present perfect isn’t absolutely crucial for being understood…even if, as most English-speakers will probably agree, it does sound nicer to the ear.

How to translate the present perfect into French

An awesome photo of a long-haired brown tabby - maybe a Maine coon or Maine coon mix - with fluffy white tufts in its ears and a big feathery tail that is lifted in curiosity. The cat looks at the camera with an intrigued expression on its face. Its eyes are yellow and its nose is a dark orangey-red. It stands in front of concrete steps that were once painted many colors, but the paint has worn away.

Here are the most common reasons we use the present perfect in English and how to translate them into French:

Actions that started in the past and are ongoing

In English, you might hear someone say something like “We’ve lived in this house since 2008.”

In this case, the present perfect tense signifies that the people in question began living in the house in 2008 and are still living there, as opposed to “We lived in the house in 2008,” which would mean that the people no longer live in the house.

In French, you would simply use the present tense: Nous habitons cette maison depuis 2008.

The tense and the phrase depuis 2008 do the work of the present perfect tense. The use of the present simple shows that the people are currently living in the house, and depuis 2008 shows that this has been going on since a time in the past.

Here’s another example: Cela fait dix ans que je ne l’ai pas vu. (I haven’t seen him in ten years./It’s been ten years since I’ve seen him.). Note that the present tense is used for the main idea Cela fait dix ans. After, the passé composé fills in, since when we talk about a past action that has strong impact on the present, we use this tense.

Which brings us to our next reason for using the present perfect…

Past actions that have a strong impact on the present

This use of the present perfect can be hard to explain. I know it was for me when I had to teach this tense to my French-speaking students. But it’s one of the most common ways we Anglophones use the present perfect.

For example:  Someone has stolen my hat!

The action of someone stealing the hat is in the past. But if the speaker chose to use the present perfect instead of the simple past tense (Someone stole my hat!), it’s because the event will have an impact on the present, whether because the victim is worried they’ll be cold or because they really liked their hat!

In French, you would use the passé composé for this use of the present perfect, since it’s referring to a completed action in the past. Then, you can add to it to imply your feelings.

For example:

Simple translation : Quelqu’un a volé mon chapeau !

To imply feelings, you might see: Hé quelqu’un a volé mon chapeau ! (Hey! Someone stole my hat!) or Zut*, quelqu’un a volé mon chapeau ! (Darn/Damn, someone stole my hat!)

*You can replace this with a stronger French swear word, if you prefer….

Past actions not specified by a date or time

In English, we might say something like “Sophie has been to Tokyo.” This implies that Sophie went to Tokyo some time in the past, but we don’t know when, for how long, etc.

If we said “Sophie went to Tokyo”, on the other hand, that would imply that either Sophie recently went to Tokyo or that the information will be followed by a precise date (Sophie went to Tokyo last year/Sophie went to Tokyo in 2015).

In French, you would express this idea with the passé composé, usually accompanied by an adverb that would imply the idea that this is somewhat significant and not recent. For instance: Sophie est déjà allée a Tokyo.(Sophie has (already) been to Tokyo./Sophie has been to Tokyo before.).

To describe an action that’s just ended

There actually is a precise French equivalent for this use of the present perfect! Take a moment and picture imaginary confetti falling all around you.

Now, let’s get back to it.

To express this in French, you’d use the phrase venir de + infinitive.

So for example: Sam has just left. = Sam vient de partir.

In French, you can add a little bit more to this phrase if you want to show that the action just happened or express the idea that it might be important for the listener to know. So, for instance, you could also say Sam vient tout juste de partir. (Sam left just now.)

You’ll probably hear venir de + infinitive used quite a lot on French TV series because it’s very common in everyday spoken language.

With certain words

In English, certain words are a sign that the present perfect is most likely going to be the verb tense we’ll use. These words are: ever, yet, already, recently, lately.

Here are the most common translations for each of these present perfect trigger words. Remember that for some, in other contexts they may be translated differently:

ever – déjà

Example: As-tu déjà pris un train ? (Have you ever ridden on a train?)

yet – encore (or in some cases, déjà)

Example: Non, nous n’avons pas encore mangé. (No, we haven’t eaten yet.)

already – déjà

Example : C’est une bonne idée de m’avoir acheté ce livre, mais je l’ai déjà lu. (It was a good idea to have bought me this book, but I’ve already read it.)

recently – récemment

Example : Récemment, le chat a pris l’habitude de voler les fleurs qui sont dans le vase. (Recently, the cat has started stealing flowers from the vase./The cat has recently started stealing flowers from the vase.)

lately – dernièrement/récemment

Examples : Je ne l’ai pas vu récemment./Je ne l’ai pas vu dernièrement. (I haven’t seen him lately.)

Again, there can be exceptions — in French as well as in English — and so much depends on context, but these translations work as a general rule.

When it comes to pairing them with the French verb tense equivalent of the present perfect, just use the one that makes the most sense. As we’ve seen, this usually means choosing between the present simple or the passé composé. You can determine the tense to use based on the other reasons for using the  present perfect.

For instance, if you want to say “I’ve already seen this movie”, think about it being a past event with an impact on the present. As we’ve seen, this means that in French, the passé composé would be used, along with, of course, the translation of “already” – déjà.

So: J’ai déjà vu ce film.

How about the phrase that I started this article with, “Have you ever…”? In French, this refers to a past event or experience that is finished, so it would be used with the passé composé. In this case, “ever” would be translated as déjà as well: As-tu déjà…/Avez-vous déjà…?

Example dialogue:

As-tu déjà vu le film « Shining » ? (Have you ever seen ‘The Shining’?)

Non, je ne l’ai jamais vu. (No, I’ve never seen it.)

(Note that while jamais (never) can be used with the present perfect, it’s not a trigger word, since it’s commonly used with a number of other tenses as well.)

The present perfect continuous in French

A woman gives a presentation at a meeting. Her colleagues are in the foreground at a white table with their laptop computers open. Some are taking notes. They are a mix of youngish women and men, all dressed casually. We see t-shirts, jeans, hoodies. The woman in the foreground is blurred ubt has a topknot and is wearing a yellow plaid blazer, perhaps an ironic homage to Cher Horowitz in "Clueless"? The woman giving the presentation is in the background. She wears jeans and a short-sleeved white t-shirt. Her long black hair is down. She is gesturing to a number of colorful post-it notes that have been put on the wall in groups.

Another common form of the present perfect in English is the present perfect continuous. This is when you use have/has + been + a verb ending in -ing.

For example: She has been working here for 3 years.

The present perfect continuous is used to emphasize the duration of something. So in our example, the speaker might be pointing out that the person in question has three years’ experience – or, if it’s a toxic work environment, a lot of patience!

If you said “She has worked here for 3 years”, the meaning would simply be related to the fact that she started working here in the past and the action is ongoing.

Regardless, when you want to use the present perfect continuous tense in French, you use the present simple or passé composé, just as you would when translating the regular present perfect. To emphasize the duration, use other words or phrases.

For example: Elle travaille ici depuis 3 ans is the general statement.

You could say Ça fait déjà 3 ans qu’elle travaille ici to show surprise or respect for the duration.

There are even more ways to express that surprise/respect for duration, depending on how creative you feel.

How can I practice the present perfect in French?

Since there is no present perfect tense in French, you can’t practice using it the way you would other verb tenses. The answer actually lies in doing things backwards. Do an online search for present perfect exercises for French-speakers who are learning English, by typing “Le present perfect en anglais” into your search engine! 

You can then look at how each example to translate or answer in French is written.

This webpage that includes some examples of the present perfect, as well as exercises for French speakers, is a resource I used to use with my French students.

And this present perfect lesson includes a good list of translated examples.

Another way to get familiar with translating the present perfect into French is to expose yourself to a lot of modern spoken and written French. As I mentioned before, for instance, you’ll often hear sentences with venir de in things like French TV shows.

J’espère que cet article t’a été utile (I hope this article has been helpful). Don’t worry: with practice and time, you’ll be as comfortable not having a present perfect tense in French, as you are using it in English!

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.