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I just came across this question:

This tree (be) _____ planted by the settlers who (found) _____ our city over four hundred years ago.

I think "over four hundred years ago" is an unspecified time. My answer was that the two gaps require present perfect. So I was a little surprised with the answer that both of them require simple past. Why is this the case?

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    Simple present or simple past? And you're asking two questions which definitely should be split into separate questions. – Em1 Aug 6 '13 at 13:56
  • Hi user49231, I've edited to remove the second question from this post. If you'd like you may post that as a separate question, but each question you ask should have its own post. Thanks! – WendiKidd Aug 6 '13 at 14:11
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  1. A specified past time means that you may not use the present perfect, but that does not imply that an unspecified past time requires that you must use the present perfect.

  2. The present perfect is only used when the past event it describes is in some sense still 'present'. This is a very hard matter to define abstractly -linguists have been struggling with it for generations, and there is still no consensus- but in any given case it's pretty easy for a native speaker to identify. The tree is still here, and the city is still here, but the planting and the founding were "over and done with" long ago.

  3. In any case, over four hundred years ago is "specific" enough to prohibit using the present perfect. "Four hundred years ago" means "a specific point located somewhere around there" - that is, a specific point which definitely does not lie in a timeframe which includes the present.

Consequently, you must use the simple past:

This tree was planted by the settlers who founded our city over four hundred years ago.

  • I myself would prefer the simple past for both verbs here, but I would not consider the present perfect wrong for the verb in the main clause (assuming the tree is still there). The phrase over four hundred years ago, while specific, modifies the verb in the relative clause founded and not the one in the main clause. These are just my first thoughts. Can you tell me if I'm being utterly stupid again? – Sherlock Aug 6 '13 at 21:27
  • @Sherlock You're right that the temporal clause modifies founded only; but the tree was certainly planted in the same generation! :) And the settlers who planted the tree are certainly dead, so it cannot be said of them that they have done anything - the so-called "lifetime effect" which prohibits such canonical sentences as *Gutenberg has invented printing. – StoneyB Aug 6 '13 at 21:50
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    I see. I also overlooked the fact that the main clause is in passive, that if I recast it to active, everything will be very clear. The settlers have planted this tree is clearly wrong, because dead people are incapable of sustaining the state of having planted the tree. Thanks! – Sherlock Aug 6 '13 at 22:21
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Over four hundred years ago is an unspecified time, but the actions are completed, so they use simple past.

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The planting of the tree is completed. It was planted at some time in the past, and that planting is now done. So a present perfect is inappropriate.

If the tree is still there, you could use a present perfect to describe its presence. Like, "This tree has been in our city for over four hundred years."

Or if there was an on-going process of planting trees, you could use a present perfect to describe it. "We have been planting trees in this city for over four hundred years."

Update

It occurs to me that the issue here is that apparently at some point you read or were told that you cannot use a simple past tense with an "unspecified time", which you are taking to mean a time that is not precisely identified. There is no such rule in English. Perhaps there is some valid rule that you are misunderstanding and I'm not seeing what you're referring to, but the rule as you are stating it does not exist. It is perfectly valid to use a simple past tense with a very vague time.

On June 13, 1968, I visited Boston.

I forget when, but it was a long time ago, maybe when I was around ten years old, I visited Boston.

In both cases we use the simple past. The fact that in the second example I am very vague about the exact date has nothing to do with it. The action occurred in the past and it was completed in the past, so it's a simple past tense.

  • I think the rule OP is looking at is that you may not use the Present Perfect with a specific past time, e.g. ✲I have done this last year, but only with durations embracing the present, e.g. I have done this since last year. – StoneyB Aug 7 '13 at 13:43
  • Ah, that makes sense. So he read a rule that said "if you have a specific time, you must use the simple past and not the past perfect" and made the incorrect assumption that that meant, "if you use the simple past you must have a specific time". – Jay Aug 14 '13 at 15:09

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