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Dinosaurs were extinct long ago.

We, the humans in the 21st century, have never seen a real dinosaur.

We, the humans in the 21st century, never saw a real dinosaur.

Why is the second sentence correct and the first wrong? What's the logic behind it? Someone said when the last such opportunity has ended, we should use past tense. I can't figure out why.

past period, when dinosaurs lived >>>> 21st century, when we live

never: not at any time

Why does the past simple imply dinosaurs were extinct, and the present perfect imply they are still alive with us, which is impossible.

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    I would have said the opposite: the first sentence is correct and the second sentence is not.
    – randomhead
    Jan 16, 2022 at 11:30
  • Could you explain the reason please?
    – Stephen
    Jan 16, 2022 at 12:01
  • As a British English speaker I would use the first one. I suspect an American might use the second. (c.f. the Gelett Burgess verse I never saw a purple cow.) See also this Jan 16, 2022 at 15:22
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    @KateBunting Our usage is similar to the British AFAIK. Most U.S. grammar instructors would object to that Burgess sentence. Jan 17, 2022 at 1:48
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    The never [past tense verb] construct is used often in AmE to mean didn't [present tense verb]. So you have people saying never saw instead of didn't see. Usually this is just a vernacular usage and is frowned upon by the scholarly club. However, never [verbed] is also commonly used to negate an expectation. For example, you went to Dinosaur World Adventure Park (which promises real dinosaurs) but while there you saw no dinosaurs. This will very often be reported as, I went to Dinosaur World but never saw one.
    – EllieK
    Feb 21, 2022 at 16:03

3 Answers 3

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People in the 20th century didn't see a real dinosaur, because the 20th century is complete and not seeing a dinosaur is complete. People in the 21st century haven't seen a dinosaur because the 21st century is not complete. The fact that dinosaurs are extinct is irrelevant. Sometime later in the 21st century, someone might invent a time machine, go back millions of years and bring a real dinosaur back.

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I disagree with the answer by user Sydney. It is my view that both of:

  • (1) We, the humans in the 21st century, have never seen a live dinosaur.
  • (2) We, the humans in the 21st century, never saw a live dinosaur.

are perfectly valid English sentences.

(To be slightly pedantic, I and many other humans now alive, have seen a real dinosaur, albeit not a live one. Dinosaur skeletons are "real" dinosaurs, although long dead. But this is not relevant to the grammatical point.)

(2) could be taken as short for "... never (yet) saw ..."

If one considers

(2a) The humans in the 20th century never saw a live dinosaur.

it says that, the 20th century being over, no human during that period saw a live dinosaur.

Now for the distinctions:

(1) with its use of the present perfect, implies that the action of "not seeing a live dinosaur" started in thje past, and continues up to the present.

(2) with it use of the simple past, implies that the action of not seeing a live dinosaur took place in the past. That might be taken to mean that this is complete and can never occur. But in theory someone might somehow see a live dinosaur sometime after 2022 (although this is quite unlikely). This (2) will be taken as short for

(2B) We, the humans in the 21st century, never yet saw a live dinosaur.

that also implies that the act of not seeing a live dinosaur occurred in the past and continues through the present. In short the actual meaning is much the same, the difference is one of style and emphasis. I think (2) is a bit more likely to be said by a native speaker, although I personally might prefer (1). But either is acceptable and the meaning conveyed is much the same.

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    To be even more pedantic, modern birds are phylogenetically dinosaurs.
    – James K
    Oct 28, 2022 at 15:14
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One use of the perfect is to emphasize that something has (or has not) ever happened. This is called the existential perfect. For example:

  • Have you read Catch-22?
  • No, I've never read it. / I haven't ever read it. / I haven't read it before.

The simple past might be a bit odd in these situations because it suggests you are talking about a particular time in the past. The sentence

  • Did you read Catch-22?

is perfectly grammatical, but suggests a narrower slice of time under discussion. For example, if the addressee was given a choice of books to read, it would be a way to ask whether the one they chose was Catch-22.

If a particular time period in the past is specified, the perfect may be inappropriate:

  • ?Have you read Catch-22 as a child?

sounds odd. "Did you (ever) read Catch-22 as a child?" is better, because it is about a particular period of time.

In some dialects, "ever" and "never" can be used with the simple past even without implying a particular time period. Examples include the folk song "Did You Ever See a Lassie?" and the expression "I never met a ___ I didn't like" (explanation here). To me (AmE speaker) this sounds colloquial: in formal writing I would prefer the perfect for such sentences.

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