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Suppose that a man disappeared twenty years ago and I haven't had a notice about him since then. What should I say to my interlocutor if I want to tell him about this story?

You know, Harry has disappeared.

Though it sounds like he has disappeared recently. Or:

You know, Harry disappeared.

But my opponent could think that Harry had disappeared some time ago and then again had been discovered. Or:

You know, Harry had disappeared.

But here... Why, it's rather strange usage here itself IMHO. That would mean I think that I wanted to tell about some events which had occurred in the past and that Harry had disappeared before those events and had never been discovered until then.

Can anybody throw light upon this matter?

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If your listeners oppose you, opponent is ok, but if they are merely listening (or conversing with you, as implied by interlocutor [a word that may be overly formal in casual conversation]) use the word listener or audience in place of opponent. – jwpat7 Sep 13 '12 at 18:46
up vote 3 down vote accepted

It wouldn't be Harry had disappeared because that would require two times and two actions to be involved - "When I went to the house, Harry had disappeared".

You could use Harry disappeared if you are stating it as a fact. "Harry? Oh yes- Harry disappeared"

You could use "Harry has disappeared" if his disappearance has present consequences - "We can probably sell his car now, because Harry has disappeared"

There is nothing inherent in present perfect that limits how far back in time it can go, but in practical terms the further back it goes, the less likely it is to have present consequences.

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You know, Harry has disappeared.

This sentence sounds like Harry just disappeared recently.

You know, Harry had disappeared.

Using had makes it sound like Harry disappeared, but subsequently reappeared. I think the most correct version of the three is:

You know, Harry disappeared.

While it is ambiguous, it doesn't lead the listener to think the disappearance was recent or resolved, like the other two versions. Better still would be:

You know, Harry disappeared 20 years ago and has never been found.

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The past tense in English (and, as far as I know, every other language) says that something happened in the past, period. We do not have different tenses for the recent past versus long past. If you say “Harry disappeared”, that sentence of itself, with no further information, does not say whether he disappeared twenty years ago or twenty seconds ago. You would have to supply additional words to specify.

If you say, “Harry had disappeared”, that is placing Harry’s disappearance relative to some other event in the past. The context should specify that event. Like, “When the bills became due, Harry had disappeared.”

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But that is ignoring the "Harry has disappeared" form which the question was also asking about - and, as Roaring Fish said, nearly always does imply recent past. – Colin Fine Sep 13 '12 at 17:06
True, I skipped "has disappeared". But I don't see how that implies the event was recent. "Is Sally a widow?" "I can't say for sure. Her husband has disappeared." I wouldn't assume that meant recently and not many years ago. This is a present perfect. It refers to actions that were begun in the past and continue to the present. In this case, it means that Harry is still in the state of having disappeared, i.e. he hasn't been found or come back. – Jay Sep 13 '12 at 19:47

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