Difference Between Were and Have Been
Consider these sentences:
- Many wars were fought in the 19th century.
- Many wars have been fought in the 19th century.
Which one is correct? Are the sentences interchangeable? Do they mean slightly different things?
All these are pertinent questions.
To begin with, the first question. If the sentences were to be spoken today, in the year 2015, the first sentence would be correct, and the second incorrect. If the second sentence is a quote from someone speaking maybe in the latter half of the 19th century, then it is absolutely all right.
We have already found out that the two sentences are not interchangeable.
They don’t mean different things, but they place the speaker in different time-frames.
Now, let us expand the scope of these words. Let us say ‘were’ is a representative of the past tense, and ‘have been’ a representative of the present perfect tense.
Finished and Unfinished Time
Let us look at a few more sentences:
- We’ve won the tournament.
- We won the tournament last year.
The third sentence refers to what is called ‘unfinished time.’ The result of ‘we’ winning the tournament could mean that we will get a holiday today – that is, though the tournament was recently over, maybe yesterday or this morning, its results will be felt now or in the immediate future. However, that is not the case with the fourth sentence, which refers to ‘finished time’ – your winning the tournament last year has no effect today. Maybe last year you enjoyed a holiday, but that is something that is over and done with.
Whenever we are dealing with unfinished time, we use the present perfect; and whenever we are dealing with finished time, we use the past simple. That is why it would be incorrect to say, for instance, ‘I’ve gone to school yesterday,’ instead of ‘I went to school yesterday.’
More about the Present Perfect
- We were in Egypt in 2009.
- She contracted typhoid in her childhood.
These sentences are in the past simple, and there isn’t too much room for confusion here.
It is the perfect tenses that often cause problems.
Let us consider some occasions when the present perfect is used:
- It is used to show an action or state that began sometime in the past and is continuing till now:
- I have been in Nairobi since 2003. (This means, ‘I came to Nairobi in 2003, and I am still in Nairobi.’)
- They have been silent for three hours. (This means, ‘They started being silent three hours ago, and they are still silent.’)
- It is used to refer to an activity that has just been completed:
- I have been unwell, but I am fine now. (This means, ‘Till very recently, I was unwell, but I am in good health now.’)
- The gates have been shut. (This means, ‘Till a little while ago, the gates were open, but now they are shut.’)
- It is used to refer to habitual actions:
- She has always spoken the truth. (This means, ‘She spoke the truth in the past, and she still speaks the truth.’)
- I have never thought of taking up acting as a career. (This means, ‘Never in the past did I think of taking up acting as a career, not do I do so now.’)
- It is used to refer to a past or recent action whose result is evident in the present:
- Sorry, I haven’t brought my glasses. (As a result, I can’t read.)
- There hasn’t been any rain the entire past week. (As a result, it’s very hot.)
Now, to end up, here is a little joke: an extremely fat teacher walks into class and says, “Who can tell me what tense this is? – I’ve been fasting for the last ten days.” A student replies, “It’s either past or future.”
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A Comprehensive English Grammar and Composition: S. Mitter (Calcutta Book House)