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Please have a look at this sentence and help me understand.

Celine Dion, with whom Bocelli once _____ a duet, said that "If God had a singing voice, he would sound like him".

It was in the multiple-choice test. One of the answers was "has sung". Is it also correct to choose "has sung"? If yes, give me, please, an explanation of the difference between these two choices.

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    Purists would write If God had a singing voice, He would sound like him. The highlighted pronoun stands in for monotheistic "God", so it should be capitalized - which also helps us to "parse" the text and easily recognize that the second pronoun (him) refers to the contextually-relevant person, not God. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 12 at 11:30
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The present perfect is not possible in this case because it is referred to a single past time. Compare these two sentences:

  1. "Celine Dion has sung with Bocelli."
  2. "Celine Dion once sang with Bocelli."

In sentence 1, we know the action was in the past, but we do not know how many times it happened.

In sentence 2, "once" tells us the number of times it happened, so we must use the simple past. It would, however, be possible to use the past perfect and say "Celine Dion,with whom Bocelli had once sung a duet,said ..."

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  • Dear Simon, thanks for your answer. Won't it be better to use here Past Perfect instead of past Simple? – helen v Jul 14 at 15:35
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There's nothing intrinsically wrong with including the word once in a Present Perfect construction. It's just that idiomatically the usage has massively fallen out of favour over the past century. Unlike Past Perfect, which continues to be used as often as ever...

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(I multiplied the hits for has once been by 4 to better highlight the relative change over time.) Present Perfect was always less common than Past Perfect had once been, but it certainly wasn't so rare as to be thought "unusual" back in the 1800s.

Note that once can mean either or both of in the past and on [only] one occasion (that second sense almost certainly applies to OP's example, but obviously doesn't in something like She was once a great beauty). For the avoidance of doubt, we tend to include additional adverbs such as just, only to clarify that "single time" sense. But note these examples...

1: I once loved her
2: I loved her once
3: I once went to church
4: I went to church once
5: I went to church just once
6: I went to church only once
7: I only went to church once

...where pragmatically, we can take it for granted #1 & #2 both mean in the past, but not on a single occasion. But with examples #3 & #4, Some native speakers will say they're equivalent, but others will say each version is more likely to only carry one of those meanings.

In my understanding, those who think #3 & #4 are inherently different will always have a preference for the "natural" position of only - that's the version they'll say just means "in the past". And they'll assign the "single occasion" sense to whichever version they see as less common, which might not be the same for everyone. In practice though, we normally use clarifying adverbs as per #5, #6, #7 to force that interpretation.


TL;DR: Using once with Present Perfect is syntactically valid, and was perfectly normal a century or two ago. But idiomatically, most native speakers tend to avoid it today.

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  • Am I right? I can't say"...with whom she once has sung....." – helen v Jul 12 at 13:14
  • Not quite! You can say that (it's syntactically valid, as per the first sentence in my answer). But you probably shouldn't say it, since most native speakers today avoid the form. But for learners, the best advice is to "avoid" Perfect forms in all contexts - in my experience, non-native speakers always over-use the Perfect (sometimes there's no choice, but you certainly shouldn't go looking for chances to use it). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 12 at 13:24

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