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I'm having trouble understanding the difference between those two, as I recently had to write a sentence "There seem to have been some missing keys" relating to receival of aforementioned keys (particularly referring to steam keys I bought). I couldn't figure out if I had to write it in present simple or present perfect. I opted for the present perfect since the keys were missing recently and are still missing. I'm still wondering if the simple form would have been correct as well since they are missing in the general sense.

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    Did you notice that they were missing just now, or did you notice it when you received them?
    – alphabet
    Mar 30, 2023 at 16:03
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    (Also: "some keys missing" sounds much more idiomatic than "some missing keys.")
    – alphabet
    Mar 30, 2023 at 16:04
  • "There seem to have been some missing keys" might be justified as implication, dropping a hint and avoiding any direct accusations. It's common to use the formula "there seems to be" or "there seems to have been" where you don't want to outright say "Someone has lost some keys" but just want to suggest it. It's often bad to be too accusatory even if you think people have been negligent or dishonest. "There seems to have been some confusion about..." is another variation, where you mean "People have intentionally done the wrong thing".
    – Stuart F
    Aug 28, 2023 at 14:00

3 Answers 3

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TL;DR
Present tense was the better choice here, based on the specific scenario you describe.

This answer blatantly ignores the uncertainty that "seems to" expresses in this statement, because it simply does not change the part that this answer does focus on, i.e. "to be" vs "to have been". For the purpose of simplicity, I'm going to mostly refer to this as if you were speaking with certainty, simply because it would be annoying to have to always add the uncertainty in my explanation.

A simpler example

Take the following examples:

There seem to be 2 people in this room.

Right now, there are two people in this room.

There seem to have been 2 people in this room.

Up to (and possibly including) now, two people have been in this room. Maybe not even at the same time, one could've entered and left the room before the other entered it.

Pedantically, the second example does not particularly reveal whether any of these people are still in the room. I could be saying this in an empty room, a room with 2 people in it, or a room with 1 person in it (thus implying that a second person has since left the room).

If you're not sure how this could mean that some people have left and some people have not, or that these people could've been in the room at separate times, consider the following statement:

There have been 100 billion humans on this planet.

This includes both the (currently) living and the (currently) dead, and obviously there is no expectation that we were once all alive at the same time either.

Back to the original "people in this room" example: when you use perfect tense, idiomatically it will generally be inferred that both people aren't still in the room; unless the surrounding context of the statement suggests otherwise.
The particular scenarios in which you might infer this differently are relevant to mention in general, but they are not relevant to your specific scenario.

For your specific scenario, you can conclude that "have been" implies that it was once the case but it intentionally conveys that you cannot state for a fact that it is still the case right now.


Your specific scenario

So the key question here: are the keys still missing?

I opted for the present perfect since the keys were missing recently and are still missing.

The two bolded parts are opposites. "Perfect" in the grammatical sense means "completed", i.e. done and no longer ongoing. Because the keys are still missing, you could have immediately concluded that perfect tense was not correct to use.

Another way to phrase it is that presently, the keys are still missing, which could've clued you onto the fact that speaking in present tense would have been correct.


The proof is in the pudding!

And now I want to point something out that you probably didn't notice in this answer. I like proving things by example. Notice that I said "speaking in present tense would have been correct" in the last sentence of the previous section.

I used perfect tense here, because you already made your statement in the past. This statement is done, it is no longer ongoing because you've already finished that sentence. The statement is no more. It has ceased to be. It has gone to meet its maker.

However, I could also say that "speaking in present tense would be correct". When I phrase it this way, I'm not focusing on the specific instance of your past statement, I'm focusing on the ever-present (past, present and future) grammatical correctness of this phrasing. This grammar was considered correct at the time of your statement and it is still considered correct at the time of writing this answer. Therefore, I can justify the use of present tense, as this correctness is presently still ongoing; it has not ceased to be correct.

This is why I pointed out in the beginning that context really matters, and that you can infer things differently based on the context of the conversation.


Conclusion

If you're unsure of how many keys are currently missing, "have been" is perfectly allowable because you can't state for a fact that they are presently all still missing.
However, because you were aware that they were in fact both still missing, present tense was the correct way to convey that information.

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  • On the other hand, you may want to say "There seem to have have been some missing keys but I'm sure if we go and look after this meeting, they will have been returned", as an encouragement to people who have stolen the keys to return them. Sometimes you want to play down the seriousness of what has happened to encourage people to put it right, rather than accusing people of stealing keys. This is probably outside the scope of English usage though.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 28, 2023 at 14:04
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If the purpose is to convey that the keys are currently missing, and the fact that they were missing at an unknown point in the past is not relevant, then I would use the present tense (there seems to be missing keys). I would only use the present perfect tense if I'm making note that the fact that they were missing in the past, they are still missing, and I don't know when they went missing. For example, at a crime scene: "There seems to have been someone cooking".

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I would write "there seem to be some missing keys" if I'm asking the vendor to address, now, a problem that I have now. In this context, "seem to have been" muddies the waters as to whether I am requesting immediate help with a current issue.

I might write "there have been missing keys" if I'm describing a problem that has occurred several times in recent memory.

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