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If someone has smoked one cigarette in a room and I can smell it, can I say "someone has been smoking here" even though it was only one cigarette?

Another example is if my neighbour's cat has peed in my garden once, can I say "your cat has been peeing in my garden"?

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In general, yes both are correct. There is no implicit minimum amount of time or instances implied by using a perfect progressive verb form (‘has/have/had been Xing’).

However, context can have interesting implications here.

Depending on the context, a perfect progressive verb form implies either of:

  • A single continuous action.
  • A recurring series of individual instances of the action.

Your first example will for most people be the first case here, essentially equivalent to a past perfect form (which would be ‘Somebody has smoked [a cigarette/cigar] in here.’).

Your second example though will for most people be the second case, implying that the cat is habitually peeing in your garden, not that it has simply happened once.

Unfortunately, despite being a native English speaker, I can’t really explain conclusively why this differentiation exists. As far as I can tell it has to do with how people perceive the ‘basic duration’ of the activity being described. For stuff most people think of as taking a very short time, the second case (describing a recurring series of individual events) seems to be the common interpretation, while things that most people think of as taking a longer amount of time tend to get interpreted in this form as referring to a single longer instance of the action.

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    does "a recurring series of events" necessarily imply a habit? or could it be a number of times, without being a habit? – anouk Jan 16 at 19:32
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    @anouk Often it implies a habit, but in general it just means that something is happening frequently enough to form a pattern. – Austin Hemmelgarn Jan 16 at 21:48
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Yes. There's nothing about the activity of smoking that implies only one cigarette, or about the number at all. Just that there has been some.

Likewise, if you see crumbs, you could say "someone has been eating here" — there's no comment on the amount that was eaten.

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  • "There's nothing about the activity of smoking that implies only one cigarette" So does it imply several cigarettes? – anouk Jan 16 at 16:48
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    No. It implies 1 or more. – Toby Allen Jan 16 at 17:06
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    @TobyAllen: Or less, if you e.g. walk out halfway through your cigarette. I think it's safer to say that it doesn't specify anything about the amount being smoked - and any further considerations like "0 or negative wouldn't make sense" is unrelated to "has been smoking" not specifying a specific amount. – Flater Jan 16 at 19:33
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    Smoking can also include cigars and pipes as well as cigarettes, so there's not even a requirement for one cigarette. – barbecue Jan 16 at 20:09
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Yes, this is correct.

"Smoking" is an action that does not have a minimum number of cigarettes. Even if it was only part of one it would still be "smoking."

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  • The question is about the use of "been", not "smoking". – Barmar Jan 16 at 22:38
  • @Barmar No it isn't. – Asteroids With Wings Jan 17 at 23:32
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By saying "Someone has been smoking here", you are stressing the duration of the action. You noticed a cloud of smoke, and, apparently, it wasn't just one puff.

You can say "Some has smoked here" when the duration doesn't matter to you. "Smoking is strictly prohibited here, you shouldn't have done that!"

You can use the past continuous as well, as in "Someone was smoking (in) here", because the timespan is quite predictable and can be easily inferred.

The number of cigarettes smoked is irrelevant. What matters is the act itself and whether you want to emphasise the length of it. It could be one cigarette, a packet of cigarettes, a pipe.

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    Yes. What matters is that the smoking (and the peeing) lasted over a period of time, regardless of whether it only happened once. – Hello Goodbye Jan 16 at 5:36
  • @Hello Goodbye So "your cat has been peeing" is a valid sentence? – anouk Jan 16 at 9:45
  • @anouk Yes, though it would normally be used with a specific location like "Your cat has been peeing in the closet" or "Your cat has been peeing on my slippers." – barbecue Jan 16 at 20:08
  • @anouk if you have caught the cat red-handed (or shall I say "red-pawed"? :) ) once and you are just informing your neighbour about it, why would you need to say it using the continuous tense? – Andrew Tobilko Jan 16 at 20:24
  • @anouk unless you are extremely annoyed, then you might say "Your cat has been peeing around in my garden/ all over my ***ing garden!" regardless of the number of witnessed occurrences – Andrew Tobilko Jan 16 at 20:29
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The second example is a little different. "Your cat has been peeing in my garden" does suggest that you think the cat has been doing it as a habit. This is different from "someone has been smoking here," which I would just take to mean that someone has been in there with a lit cigarette.

I am not sure, but I think the difference is that urination is a discrete activity. It lasts about 20 seconds and then the animal is done. One can smoke a single cigarette (or whatever) over a somewhat longer period of time across more than one location.

I should add that, even in the "cat peeing" case, there is ambiguity. The owner of the cat might interpret it as an accusation of habitual use, and the accuser might just mean that it seems to have happened at least once.

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  • "over a long period of time across several locations" could you explain this? In my opinion one cigarette lasts about 5 minutes, what do you mean by different locations? – anouk Jan 16 at 16:32
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    I didn't really know just how long it takes to smoke a cigarette, but I meant measured in minutes rather than seconds, long enough to go from room to room or head outside or whatever. I edited it to hopefully make it not misleading. – Mark Foskey Jan 17 at 2:33
  • Yes but you don't know it is not habitual, all you know is you caught the cat in the act of doing it that one time, but it may have been more. Hence "has been peeing" is the most accurate way to present the situation. – Prime Mover Jan 18 at 6:07
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Another major difference between the sentences is the use of the pronoun "someone" in the first case vs the very definite (and somewhat accusatory) "your cat" in the second. You could also change the first to someone's name and get much the same effect.

Your kid has been smoking here.

or

Johnny has been smoking here

both hint towards habituality (as has been pointed out already), but by specifying an unknown cause "someone" it's hard for the listener to make a conclusion about habituality (as in who did it, and that it hasn't been the first time). Only the fact that it has been done can be reasonably concluded.

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  • @ Erich What if Johnny has smoked only one cigarette? Can I say "Johnny has been smoking in here? – anouk Jan 16 at 17:01
  • If you are only aware of the one time, I would say "Johnny was smoking in here" to avoid sounding accusatory. – Erich Jan 16 at 17:10
  • @Erich Why would you want to avoid sounding accusatory? You caught him doing it once, as far as you know he does it whenever he can get away with it. You have evidence that the nasty brat has been smoking, whether it was just one puff or whether it was sixteen packets a day. Point is: he has been smoking. – Prime Mover Jan 18 at 6:10

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