It is said to have been a great place.

In the preceding sentence, is the perfect part of have been a great place implying that the place has been great up till now — as the sentence is in present form — or that it was great at some point in past?

  • 2
    The Coliseum in Rome is said to have staged spectacular scenes. – WS2 Mar 29 '15 at 21:01

When you need to put a past tense in a context that doesn't permit a finite (inflected) verb, you use "have". The conversion of a non-finite past tense to "have" was proposed by T. R. Hoffman back about 1967 (as I recall, Harvard Computation Lab report NSF-17) and has been explored by McCawley, discussed in his The Syntactic Phenomena of English.

"They say it was a great place" gives "It is said to have been a great place". Similarly (and this was Hoffman's concern), when you express the possibly in "Possibly they left early" as instead the modal may, you have to convert the past of left to have: "They may have left early." That's because modals can only be followed by (unmarked) infinitives.

This have from a past is merely a grammatical change, having nothing to do with the tense logic of the perfect.

| improve this answer | |

"To have been", by itself, as others have noted, means that there was a time in the past that the place was great, and does not say whether the place is still great, or whether that time is gone.

However, in the context of the entire sentence, the passive "It is said" implies distance between the author of the sentence and whoever said it. Likewise, the "to have been" can serve as an additional distancing mechanism. Both of these support an implication that the author doesn't necessarily believe what was said, and takes no responsibility for it.

This is in contrast to a very similar sentence in active voice:

I heard that place had been great.

Here, the author is making clear their belief that they heard stories, but now believe that the place is no longer great.

What about:

I heard that place was great.

In this case, the author may be expressing a recommendation, presumably based on a report from some time in the past.

| improve this answer | |

Possible readings:

People say: "This was a great place once."


People say: "This has been [until recently] a great place."

but mainly the first, as the perfect infinitive describes an action completed at the time of the (calling) verb.

See the pages around this point in this reference:

A Semantic and Pragmatic Examination of the English Perfect By Peter Fenn

| improve this answer | |

The first part of your answer — to your own question — is correct.

Perfect progressive tenses inform you the incident was in progress until now, or up to now.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    The sentence is present tense, and there is no progressive aspect to be seen. – tchrist Mar 30 '15 at 1:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.