The present perfect continuous is one confusing tense! When you hear it being used, you may not immediately know what the speaker is trying to convey about the timing of a certain activity. Let's take the example of a conversation where this tense is applied to the verb "to jog."
You call your friend to check up on how she is doing. "So what's going on?" you ask. "I've been jogging," she answers. Now what could she possibly mean?
- She could mean that she has started jogging at some point in the past and is continuing to jog in the present.
- She could be trying to tell you that she has been jogging on a regular basis over the last several weeks and plans to continue doing it.
- She may already have finished jogging a few hours ago or days ago, but there's some emotional factor or piece of news related to that activity that she wants to let you in on.
Based on the three possibilities above, you can now see that the present perfect continuous can be used in three different ways.
Usage #1: Ongoing Activity
The first way—describing an activity that has been going on for a while and is still continuing—is relatively straightforward.
Just think about the situation of going out to the movies with a friend. You've agreed to meet at a nearby park before heading over to the movie theater, but when you arrive at the park, you notice that your friend isn't there. You call him and say "I've been waiting for you, where are you?" or "I've been waiting for you for 15 minutes already, hurry up!"
The continuing aspect of this verb sends a reassuring message to your friend: Although you have been waiting for him for a while and are growing impatient, the waiting isn't necessarily over. That means he doesn't have to worry about you going back home and leaving him to go to the movies by himself.
On the other hand, if you were a little less patient, your phone call might resort to the present perfect and sound like this: "I've waited you for 15 minutes already, and I've had enough!" You may even finish that sentence with "I am heading home now."
The example above demonstrates that a sentence can take on drastically different meanings based on your choice of tense—the present perfect continuous (I have been) or the present perfect (I have). But just to make sure you are 100% clear on the difference, I'd like to analyze it in more depth.
Let's say you see your grandmother and grandfather playing cards when you come to their house. "How long have you been playing cards?" you would ask them, choosing to use the present perfect continuous. "For an hour now," your grandmother would answer. If you saw them putting their cards away, you may use the present perfect instead to phrase your question. "Have you just played cards?" you would say. This is the use of the present perfect to refer to a recently completed activity.
Usage #2: Habitual Activity
Now let's move to the second way the present perfect continuous may be used—in a habitual capacity. To illustrate this second use, we will resort to a reenactment of a typical movie scene.
A husband comes home to find his wife in the arms of a stranger. Naturally, he wants to find out all about this illicit relationship, this tawdry extramarital affair. The first question he asks his wife: "How long have you been seeing him?"
His question is not about this particular encounter, but about the long-term history of their relationship. So, the present perfect continuous can thus be used to talk about long-term activities that are 1) either expected to continue, or 2) are not guaranteed to have ended. You can tell from the husband's question, for instance, that he doesn't think his wife's affair with her lover is over. This is because the present perfect continuous applies only to active/current events, whether long-term or short-term.
Now, if you’re discussing a long-term situation that has taken place in the past but is no longer continuing, that requires the past perfect continuous, as in "The woman discovered at that point that her husband had been seeing a lover for about a year," but that’s another topic.
Sometimes it's hard to tell whether the present perfect continuous is referring to a one-time event or a habitual activity. Thus, "I have been playing golf" can have two meanings. On the one hand, it can refer to the game of golf that the speaker is playing right now. On the other hand, it can refer to multiple golf games that he has played over a long period of time. You obviously need context to figure out the meaning. Below are some examples of such.
- Phone call: “Hey, I am at the golf course and I've been playing golf for about an hour now.”
- Current ongoing one-time activity
- Phone call: “I've been playing golf ever since my girlfriend got me interested in it.”
- Habitual/ long-term activity
Now let's see how both of these ways of using the present perfect continuous apply to the statement "I've been eating ice cream"
- Sally meets John at a restaurant where John arrived a half-hour earlier. When she walks over to his table, she notices a bowl with a scoop of ice cream and concludes that he has been eating ice cream.
- The use of the present perfect continuous here refers to an ongoing activity because John has started eating ice cream and it seems like he hasn't finished just yet. But if there was no more ice cream left for him to eat, we would use the present perfect and say: "When she walks over to his table, she sees an empty ice cream bowl and concludes that he has just eaten his ice cream." Of course, in everyday speech, many Americans would say "he just ate" in this case. This is possibly because people don't feel the need to be precise about the timing of their food consumption.
- John calls Sally to tell her about all the different ice cream flavors he has tried over the last few weeks. "I've been eating so much ice cream Sally, it's unbelievable. I tried a new flavor every day."
- The context of this sentence makes it clear that John is using the present perfect continuous to refer to a habitual activity.
Usage #3: Past Activity with Relevance to the Present
It's now time to explore the third possible use of the present perfect continuous: discussing events that are not continuing at the moment, but are still relevant. The basic reason why you use the present perfect continuous is such instances is because the action, while factually completed, is still continuing in an indirect way as it has an impact on the present, either causal, emotional, or both.
Suppose that one day Sally discovers a chocolate and raspberry stain on John's shirt. "So you've been eating chocolate and raspberry ice cream," she says to him. In this example, John's consumption of a particular flavor of ice cream, although it’s a completed action, is continuing indirectly because it made Sally discover the stain related to the ice cream (causal impact) and made her react with surprise to it (emotional impact).
In an analogous example, John may say, "I am going to send you a letter I've been writing." This is a letter he may have written a long time ago, so this is not a case of an action continuing in the present. It is rather a case of the letter writing process continuing indirectly through the related action of sending that letter (causal impact).
To review, let's go over all of the three cases within one example.
Sally: We're ready to go out!
John: I am not ready.
Sally: You've been combing your hair for over 15 minutes now. Hurry up. We need to get going!
John: And your hair is still dripping cause you've been showering for a whole 45 minutes!
Sally: You've been really paying too much attention to your hair. Every time we go out, you're stuck in front of the mirror trying to get the perfect hairdo.
- In Sally’s second line, she says that John has been combing his hair. In this case, combing is an action that began in the past and continues in the present.
- After that line, John says Sally has been showering for a whole 45 minutes. Here, showering is an action that has ended but continues to be relevant in the present because it has an emotional impact on the present moment. The emotion is John's mixture of surprise and frustration at the length of Sally's shower--although admittedly, it may just be playful mockery more than anything else.
- Finally, in the last sentence, Sally says that John has been really paying too much attention to his hair. This is a case where the act of paying attention is a long-term activity. John has been paying too much attention to his hair not just this time, but many times.
The present perfect continuous tense can be a little tricky, but keep practicing and you’ll get the hang of it!
Hero Image by Erin Eve (CC BY 2.0)