What is meant by 'an external event'? For example, death.

Let there be two celebrities, one who is still alive (Leonardo DiCaprio), and one who is dead (Christopher Lee, who played Saruman in the "Lord of the Rings).

Suppose I want to convey the idea "I have seen such and such actor in person".

As a non-native speaker of English, I'm accustomed to thinking that the choice between Past Simple and Present Perfect doesn't depend on the lifespan of a particular individual. I like to think that it only depends on what I consider to be important / where my attention goes.

Thus, I would say the same thing in reference to both actors:

1) I have (or haven't) seen Leonardo DiCaprio in person. 2) I have (or haven't) seen Christopher Lee in person.

However, another non-native speaker suggested that it might be incorrect to say this about the late Mr.Lee. Because, well, there is no way for me to see him in person anymore, no matter how hard I try!

So, this speaker believes that the only acceptable way would be to say:

3) I saw Christopher Lee in person / I never saw him in person / I didn't see him in person.

Please note that there are no other details, such as "when I was in New York back in 2007" or so.

The situation would be more like two people discussing a video on youtube and spotting a familiar face. One of them says: - Oh, I know this guy! You're not gonna believe it... I've seen him in person!

So, which logic is correct? Does Present Perfect really depend on somebody's date of death?


1 Answer 1


The present perfect designates a present state which has arisen out of the prior action; in the case at hand it's an existential or experiential perfect designating the "state" of the speaker's current experience. So it's fine to say "I have seen Christopher Lee play many roles".

What you cannot say is "Christopher Lee has played many roles"—because Christopher Lee is now incapable of sustaining the experiential state!

  • Well, this will be a hotly debated topic, but I think it's perfectly fine to say "Christopher Lee has played many roles."...even if he is dead. Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 12:48
  • @michael_timofeev There was a lot of discussion in the 1980s about this point (and related ones) under the rubric of the 'Present Perfect Puzzle'. The usual test utterance was "Einstein has visited Princeton"; the consensus was that this is only acceptable in situations where the statement was not about Einstein but about Princeton, equivalent to "Princeton has been visited by Einstein". Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 17:21
  • Acceptable by who, and under what conditions and context? Also was this done in the US or the UK? Commented Jan 23, 2016 at 1:59

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