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I have a question regarding negative present perfect for past events with effects extending into the present.

Scenario: Just leaving coffee shop with friend #2. “That was fantastic; I haven’t seen friend #1 in years.” However, I just saw her moments ago. Would this use of present perfect be more colloquial, or is it a true example of stative/resultative present perfect? That is, can one still express the effects of not having seen that friend in years via negative present perfect, even though you just saw her?

Could we also have said “I hadn’t seen friend #1 In years”?

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    – tchrist
    May 24, 2021 at 20:06
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    "I haven’t seen friend X in years" is obviously correct if you last saw X 7 years ago. But it is also commonly used as an abbreviated form of "I hadn’t seen friend X in years before [a very recent occasion]", when meeting X has just been mentioned. Mar 21 at 14:01

2 Answers 2

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"Had not" is correct, because the period of not having seen the friend, and the end of that period, both occurred in the past. In the present, you have seen the friend.

You would still be understood if you said "I have not seen friend #1 in years" even as she walked away, but it's less precise grammar. It's like saying "I have seen Bob yesterday" instead of "I had seen Bob yesterday" or using simple past tense.

"I have not seen Diane in years" is correct until you do see her. Then, you must describe it with "had not" (or simple past tense).

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Scenario: Just leaving coffee shop with friend #2. “That was fantastic; I haven’t seen friend #1 in years.”

  1. In English, you are probably aware of the historic present tense in which immediacy of a past action is emphasised by use of the present tense:

“It is 1201 and King John has problems with his barons.”

The historic present perfect also exists to fit in with this tense:

“He has tried exerting his authority and has issued numerous decrees.”

(See https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/78026/can-i-use-present-perfect-when-describing-a-historical-event)

2 The other use of the present perfect, related to the above, is where, as you point out, a past action has effects in the present:

“That was fantastic; I haven’t seen friend #1 in years.”

The enjoyment of the past action reaches the present.

The negative past perfect is commonly used in this context.

Well, that was bad; I haven’t been in such pain / haven’t seen anything worse / haven’t worked so hard, etc.

These two are varieties of the same species and, in all of the above, the verb can be changed to the past perfect. But doing so removes the immediacy or the idea that the past actions still affect the present.

So which is it?

My opinion is that it is both: the speaker has a choice – both forms are valid. As neither presents grammatical problems, the reason for using the present perfect is the idea of immediacy.

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