Present perfect continuous and simple

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Compare these two situations:

There is paint on Kate’s clothes.
She has been painting her bedroom.

has been painting is the present perfect continuous.

We are thinking of the activity. It does not matter whether it has been finished or not. In this example, the activity (painting the bedroom) has not been finished.

The bedroom was green. Now it is yellow.
She has painted her bedroom.

has painted is the present perfect simple.

Here, the important thing is that something has been finished. ‘She has painted’ is a completed action. We are thinking about the result of the activity (the painted bedroom), not the activity itself.

Compare these examples:

  • My hands are very dirty. I’ve been repairing my bike.
  • Joe has been eating too much recently. He should eat less.
  • It’s nice to see you again. What have you been doing since we last met?
  • Where have you been? Have you been playing tennis?
  • My bike is OK again now. I’ve repaired it. (= I’ve finished repairing it)
  • Somebody has eaten all the chocolates. The box is empty.
  • Where’s the book I gave you? What have you done with it?
  • Have you ever played tennis?

We use the continuous to say how long (for something that is still happening):

  • How long have you been reading that book?
  • Amy is writing emails. She’s been writing emails all morning.
  • They’ve been playing tennis since 2 o’clock.
  • I’m learning Arabic, but I haven’t been learning it very long.

We use the simple to say how much, how many or how many times (for completed actions):

  • How many pages of that book have you read?
  • Amy has sent lots of emails this morning.
  • They’ve played tennis three times this week.
  • I’m learning Arabic, but I haven’t learnt very much yet.

Some verbs (for example, know) are not normally used in continuous forms (be + -ing):

  • I’ve known about the problem for a long time. (not I’ve been knowing)
  • How long have you had that camera? (not have you been having)

For a list of these verbs, see Unit 4A. For have, see Unit 17. But note that you can use want and mean in the present perfect continuous (have/has been + –ing):

  • I’ve been meaning to phone Anna, but I keep forgetting

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