I’ve been everywhere, man, looking for someone … searching for someone … Where have you been all my life?

A shout-out here to the pop singer, Rihanna, whose 2011 hit song, “Where Have You Been,” has provided, perhaps, a key to explaining when to say, for example, “I saw” vs “I have seen;” or, in Rihanna’s case, “Where have you been” vs “Where were you.”

Native speakers of English might not be aware of the difficulty foreign learners of English have in understanding the “have been” verb tense, grammatically known as the present perfect. This is because that tense is either rarely used, or simply does not exist in many languages, including French, Latin American Spanish and Portuguese, and German. In those languages, the tense known as the “simple past” (saw, had, played, did, etc.) usually does the job — “Did you already see that movie?” — with another form of assist from the present tense that translates as: “I wait for you since two hours!”

When Rihanna belts out the chorus, “Where HAVE YOU BEEN (caps mine) all my life?” she should be asking a new-found love why he has not shown up until now. (Note: Do not use this whole song as a good example – just the chorus.) The idea of “now” is key in the present perfect: this tense expresses an idea rooted in the past – in this case, why wasn’t Mr. Right around, say, five or ten years earlier – and relates to the present. But the happy fact is, Mr. (or Ms.) Right is there at last – now. Rihanna, born in 1988, is currently 26 years old; her man, let’s say, is 29. “Where have you been all my life” is a happy question, because there is still plenty of time for them to be together.

On the other hand, if Rihanna sang, “Where WERE YOU all my life?” the story would suddenly change: the verb “were” is the simple past tense, meaning an action is over, completed, finished. The simple past tense makes it sound like Rihanna’s life is just about over, completed, finished; that maybe she’s now 99 years old and has discovered her true love at the very last minute. “Where were you all my life?” suggests that there is little or no time left to enjoy this relationship.

In a less dramatic context, let’s say your company has transferred you to New York from France for three years. At first you are so excited, thinking of all the places you want to see while in the United States and that being here for three years should give you plenty of time to explore. The reality is, work is time-consuming, and for one reason or another, your first year flies by with your never having left New York City. You go to a party and someone asks you, “How do you like the United States?” You reply:

WRONG: I like New York but I didn’t go anywhere else.

RIGHT: I like New York but I haven’t gone anywhere else.

The “right” response relates to now. Since you have only been in New York for one year out of three, you still have two years left to see the Grand Canyon, Washington, D.C., or lie on a beach in Miami.

The “wrong” response would only be correct for when, after three years, you are back in Paris and someone asks how you liked the United States. At that point, your time in the States is over, completed, and finished.

The “have done”/present perfect tense does not focus on when you do something – it just cares whether you have done it or are still doing it. The simple past tense is all about “when”: last week, a minute ago, the day you were born, and so on. So the sentence, “I have seen that movie” is perfect for when you and a friend are trying to pick a move to see. But “I have seen that movie last week” is wrong, because “last week” is over, so the correct verb should be “saw,” or “I saw that movie last week.”

Native English speakers never confuse their tenses in the above situation; however, there are times when they do mix the two, such as in, “Did you eat lunch yet?” (It will probably sound like “Djoo-weet lunch yet?”) That sentence, and similar usages, are common enough to have become standard English – and yet technically the question conflicts with the “rules” of each tense: “Did you eat” = some point in the past, but “yet” = “up until now.” The truth is, native English speakers typically do not know the rules behind these two tenses (and probably wouldn’t care if they did). The decisive factor here is that it’s quicker to say “djoo-weet yet” than “have you eaten yet” and since speed and ease of saying things often (and in other languages, too) trump being “correct,” the two forms of past tense have found a certain amicable co-existence.

Has this helped you? If so, just ask Rihanna where she has been all your life!