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  • There used to be four cinemas in the town. Now there is only one.
  • There have been four cinemas in the town. Now there is only one.

What's the difference between these two sentences?

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  • 4
    The first suggests that at one time there were four cinemas at the same time; the second does not. Feb 25 at 21:03
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    Even when both tenses describe the same situation, the tone is different. "I used to be famous"—I'm describing the past; it is cut off from the present. "I have been famous"—I'm connecting the past to my present. Even if I'm not famous right now, I am (in the present) a person-who-has-been-famous. Feb 25 at 22:35

1 Answer 1

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These have different meanings. I expect you intend the meaning of "used to".

You can use "used to" to talk about past states, and habits, usually it is used to refer to "long ago". The meaning is "At some point in the past there were four cinemas". All four cinemas were open at the same time. It is possible that other cinemas were open at different eras. So if in 1950, the Empire, The Odeon, The Hippodrome and the Multiplex cinemas were all in operation you could say "There used to be four cinemas"

The present perfect can also talk about past events. But the subtle difference is that each cinema could have been open at different times. So if you mean "The Empire cinema was open from 1900-1910, The Odeon from 1920-1940, The Hippodrome from 1930-1980, and The Multiplex from 1990 to the present" Then you could say that "There have been four cinemas." Moreover you would know that no other cinemas had ever been in the town.

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    "Can the second sentence also mean that there have been 4 cinemas?" The second sentence explicitly asserts that There have been four (count 'em!) cinemas in the town. Feb 25 at 21:16
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    The second sentence doesn't say when each cinema opened and or closed They could all have been open until now. The first sentence says that at some point in time four were open (but others might have open and shut at various times)
    – James K
    Feb 25 at 21:30
  • @JamesK I agree
    – hwkal
    Feb 25 at 21:32
  • "Moreover you would know that no other cinemas had ever been in the town." pragmatically this is the case, but formally the statement wouldn't be rendered incorrect if there had been additional cinemas in the town
    – Tristan
    Feb 26 at 10:09
  • Is it true that the first sentence also implies that 4 cinemas was kind of a standard situation, that there were 4 cinemas for a long period of time (as a "habit")? As opposed to a short period when four cinemas were open, e.g. during some event or festival?
    – Petr
    Feb 26 at 10:26

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