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I've been told that, if the person preforming a certain action in a sentence is not alive anymore, then we should use the Past Simple, even in the contexts where one would normally expect a Perfect tense. As in,

Charlie Chaplin visited Birmingham twice.

(Just a random sentence, I don't know if he actually did).

It's quite clear that, since Charlie Chaplin isn't alive today, we cannot use the Present Perfect here. Although, if he were currently with us, than yes, we could do that. (Or at least that's how I was taught).

But I have another scenario in mind.

Tenacious D have been / were on Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show three times.

Of course, the guys from Tenacious D are still alive. But Craig's show isn't running anymore, because he ended it some years ago.

So, what tense would we use here? The Present Perfect or the Past Simple, and why?

  • Both are correct, but normally i't's on a program - unless they were just in the audience. – Davo Jan 22 '18 at 15:39
  • A complication is that the show is no doubt still viewable. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 11 '18 at 23:04
  • It depends on the context, as usual. If you are discussing all talk shows, past (including Craig's) and current, you could use the present perfect. – AmE speaker Feb 12 '18 at 6:00
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As usual with the use of perfect aspect in English, there is not a sharp distinction that one is right and the other is not: it depends on how the speaker is choosing to regard or describe the events.

We use a perfect form when the event is being seen as having present consequences. You are right that an event that cannot be repeated is not usually described in the perfect. But there are exceptions.

Many years ago I appeared on the TV programme University Challenge. Since this is long ago in my past, and not a thing I think about much, I would normally describe this in the past simple, as I just have. But if we were talking about the show today, I might say I have appeared on University Challenge, if I want to convey that I am seeing that as part of the continuing phenomenon.

Even earlier, I appeared on another programme, Ask the Family. As this programme is long gone, it would be unusual for me to use the present perfect to describe my appearance.

But suppose I decided to enter another quiz show, now, and somebody asked me whether I had ever done anything like that before. It would be perfectly normal for me to say "Well, I've been on Ask the Family and University Challenge", because in that context I was seeing both appearances as part of a continuing set of events.

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Can the group Tenacious D appear again as guests of Craig Ferguson's TV Talk programme, the Late, Late Show? No, they can't because Craig Ferguson no longer hosts that show. I think it's been taken over by James Cordon, there are so many night shows in the US that their names all blend into one.

If Craig were to announce his return, and if he did come back, then maybe Tenacious D would be invited on the show a fourth time.

We use the simple past tense for actions and events that cannot be repeated in the present or in the future.

Tenacious D were Craig Ferguson's guests on the Late, Late Show three times.

But were James Corden ever to invite the duo, then you can write (or say)

Tenacious D have been guests on the Late, Late Show four times.

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