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I know that it's correct but I can't wrap my head around it . Seems to me that when we're talking about the present state we should use Present Perfect only when we're describing something that is happening right now (as in we ARE in that state, f.i.:"I have lost my keys"), or has connection to now. Shouldn't we just use Past simple here, "I was better" or "I'd been better"? I know I'm wrong, but why? I can't put my finger on usage of Present Perfect here.

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  • If you give some context, e.g. a short conversation in which the example is used, someone will be able to help you. – Greybeard May 30 '20 at 8:01
  • -how are you? -I have been better. – Rrock Cj May 30 '20 at 8:01
  • As a former EFL teacher, my advice is to stop trying to wrap your head around it. In other words, stop "trying to put your finger on it". The whys and wherefores of tense usage in English are best left aside in my humble opinion. If you were one of my EFL students I'd simply tell you to imagine (again and again and again) the conversation: A: "How are you?" B: "I've been better". – acme_54 May 30 '20 at 8:05
  • I agree with the questioner and would like to know myself how on Earth it is possible that a stative verb used in the present perfect tense may not still be "valid" in the present. In other words, how is it possible that someone who has been better is not better anymore? – Lucas May 30 '20 at 14:37
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"I have been better [than I am now]." This is a fairly straight-forward construction. Without saying that you feel particularly "bad", you imply that you have, in the past, felt better.

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The point you raise is that given the context of “the present state”, a reply to something like “How are you?” should also reference the present state.

However, this isn’t always how informal conversations go.

When someone says, “I have been better”, they aren’t describing their current state. They are describing a past state, with only an implied reference to the present. That is, the “How are you?” question is not answered, at least not directly.

The clue to the relevance of the answer lies in the comparative, “better”. Better than what? The obvious comparison is with the present. Naturally, if the past is better than the present, the present isn’t as good.

Grammatically, the alternatives you offer (simple past and past perfect) aren’t problematic, but idiomatically, they suggest a rather serious current condition. The present perfect idiomatically provides a happy median (if you’d pardon the pun) between “I’m fine” and “Help!”

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  • When someone says, “I have been better”, they are indeed saying something about their current state. The sentence might not give much information, but it's about the present, so that explains the use of the perfect tense. – Rosie F May 30 '20 at 17:02
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    @RosieF - While their intent is certainly to convey some information about their current state, As Lawrence says, what they are saying about their current state is only implied by their statement about the past. – Jim May 31 '20 at 6:17
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-how are you? -I have been better.

I have been better. is a contraction of "There were occasions upon which I have been in a better state of health/mind than I am now."

Thus "I have been better" = "I am still somewhat ill/worried."

(The exact meaning of "better" will be determined by the context.)

"I was better" conveys the idea that you had recovered but that you have relapsed.

Compare

I have been happier - there have been occasions upon which I have been happier.

I was happy - I was happy but then my brother died and I became sad again.

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