Here are two sentences patterns:

Have you ever been to the opera when you lived in Milan?


Did you ever go to the opera when you lived in Milan?

What is the difference between them? How can we say, which is right sentence?

  • Present Perfect requires or implies a reference point in the present. But Simple Past can only possibly provide a reference point in the past. So it doesn't work or make sense. Scratch the two words "you lived", and it works again.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jun 24, 2015 at 12:27
  • Neither sentence is correct English, because in English you do not “go to opera”, but to the opera. Jun 24, 2015 at 12:36
  • @JanusBahsJacquet 'the' added, but that makes it more obvious that the first sentence is not correct because of the tense with the 'when...' clause. Also, Rob's tense question (possible duplicate) doesn't include the 'did you ever...' pattern.
    – Mitch
    Jun 25, 2015 at 2:01
  • @Janus: I too had misgivings on that score, but I faithfully reproduced OP's text without the on the grounds that I figured it was at the very least "credible" (older and wiser, I've now fallen into line! :). I certainly have no probably with article-less I don't really like opera, or The State should not subsidise opera. I guess the article only becomes necessary when it's actually more of a reference to the opera house. Jun 25, 2015 at 21:20

1 Answer 1


I should start by admitting that although I can describe a usage distinction between Did you [verb] when [context]? and Have you [verbed] when [context]?, I can't explain exactly why it applies.


1: Did you ever go to the opera when you were a drunk?
2: Have you ever been to the opera when you were drunk?

...where #1 probably refers to a single past timeframe (during which you had alcohol abuse issues), but #2 simply restricts the scope of the question to the co-occurrence of two past activities (being at the opera, and being drunk), either or both of which may never have occurred. Since I don't think the word ever makes any real difference, I'll also throw in...

3: Did you cry when you were a baby?
4: Did you cry as a baby?
5: ? Have you cried when you were a baby?
6: ? Have you cried as a baby?

...where the when/as-clauses are similar to #1 above - during a specific period which definitely occurred in the past, and won't occur again now or in the future. And to my ear, whereas the "did" construction also works in context #2 (at the same time as doing something/being in a specific state), the "have" version doesn't. Which is why I've marked #5, #6 as "questionable" forms.

It seems to me Have you [past participle]? is a present perfect form, which means it should imply some relevance to current time (of utterance). So perhaps the reason I can't endorse the last two examples above is simply because the specified past time period can't possibly occur again.

  • @AndyT: Wow! That's a new one on me! Would you also say I was drunk when I said that and Did you say that when you were drunk don't work? If it's specifically "present perfect + when" that you don't like, what about I usually eat three meals a day, but I have sometimes skipped breakfast when I'm late for work? Would that have to be ...if I'm late for you? Jul 7, 2015 at 13:10
  • @AndyT: I think almost no British schoolchildren have been formally "taught" things like this for over 50 years. Americans seem to go in for it more, probably because historically they've had a higher proportion of non-native speakers (and obviously NNS themselves need this kind of information). But in general, native speakers don't consciously "know" many grammatical rules - they just have opinions on what "sounds right" (or doesn't) when they hear things. Jul 7, 2015 at 15:06

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