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What's the difference?

He happened to be at that wedding.

He happens to have been at that wedding.

I know that different forms of the infinitive are used, but what's the difference in meaning?

2 Answers 2

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The difference here is the same difference as normal between simple past and present perfect.

(This structure isn't technically present perfect as "happen to" is never used in true present perfect: "He has happened to be at the wedding". But it is functionally equivalent to present perfect)

The simple past here, as usual, simply relates something that happened in the past.

The present perfect, as usual, relates something that happened or started in the past, and has some connection to the present -- hence present perfect.

So to this example, while both include the meaning that he was at the wedding by happenstance, the present perfect also includes the nuance that this fact has some connection to the present. For instance, if the speaker got a job offer from him because they happened to see him at that wedding, the speaker is focused on the present result of a past event, which is textbook present perfect.

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  • Thank you, but what you call the present perfect is not a tense it's an infinitive. It's the perfect infinitive.
    – user1425
    Nov 4, 2022 at 16:43
  • @user1425 You're right, it's not technically the standard present perfect structure, but in all other ways it is present perfect. I've improved the second paragraph to make it clear.
    – gotube
    Nov 4, 2022 at 16:49
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The idiomatic construction X happens [to verb] essentially means X [verbs] - with the implication that speaker is saying something relatively unlikely that the audience didn't expect (X might not [verb]).

The difference between OP's examples is simply a matter of when something "unexpected / unplanned" either took place OR became known....

1: John happened to be there
... implies that at the time of the wedding it was "unplanned" / relatively unexpected that he would be there.

2: John happens to have been there
... implies that at time of speaking it is "unknown" / relatively unexpected that people should learn that he was there.


Note that the second version should only be used with caution. The implication is often that speaker is disagreeing / arguing with someone. Specifically, someone who isn't aware that John was at the wedding, and who is basing false beliefs on the assumption that John wasn't there. For example...

A - "My brother John isn't much of a family man. As I expected, he didn't go to our cousin's wedding last week"
B - "He happens to have been there. You just didn't see him because you spent all your time outside the reception hall smoking cigarettes!"


This comment from @PRL75 explains better than me exactly why OP's second version in particular should be used with caution (where the "surprise" relates to speaker disabusing addressee's misconceptions rather than the event itself having been unexpected in the past.

It is (almost?) invariably used to inform someone of something they were unaware of, and would influence their opinion. e.g....
"Why on earth would you think he could repair your TV?"
"He happens to be a very competent electrician"

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  • I think you've explained it much better than I did. I was trying to get across the idea that you express more eloquently , starting "Note that the second ...".
    – PRL75
    Nov 4, 2022 at 13:57
  • ty - but because I have enough rep to see "deleted" answers, I should point out that you explained that "reason for exercising caution" better than me in a comment. I trust you won't mind me including part of your comment in my answer text (comments are potentially ephemeral, and it's a point well worth making). Nov 4, 2022 at 15:45

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