Consider the sentence:

She is believed to be the best female golfer alive.

From this the listener infers: Some people believe that she is the best female golfer alive.

Now, take a look at another sentence:

She is believed to have been born in the 3rd century BC.

By blindly following the scheme associated with the first sentence, it follows that the listener infers: Some people believe that she has been born in the 3rd century BC.

Which is absolutely absurd.

In reality, of course, the listener infers: Some people believe that she was born in the 3rd century BC.

Why is there such a mysterious anomalous correspondance between the infinitival perfect and the simple past? Are they deeply connected?

  • 2
    In all other forms besides the present perfect, the perfect can convey a simple meaning of (relative) past tense or anterior tense, with no aspectual meaning at all. An example of this is the use of the pluperfect to express an anterior past tense. Apr 22, 2015 at 16:19
  • @sumelic doesn't come close to answering the question.
    – user132181
    Apr 22, 2015 at 16:20
  • 2
    Example: "The volcano had erupted 300 years earlier" is a valid sentence. "The volcano has erupted 300 years ago" is not. You can't always shift a non-present perfect to the present and expect it to make sense, because the semantics of the present perfect are specially restricted. Apr 22, 2015 at 16:22
  • It's the present perfect that is odd, not the infinitival perfect. Apr 22, 2015 at 16:22
  • 2
    Shouldn't this be on English Language and Usage SE? Apr 22, 2015 at 23:53

2 Answers 2


Simple past is the original past tense of the Germanic languages. It was once used in almost all cases in which we now use either simple past or present perfect. Composites with have (or originally also be, according to the verb) and the past participle are a relatively recent alternative that has been cropping up in most European languages. Originally this new style of expressing the past arose in situations in which it made literal sense: "I have eaten" means that I have something eaten in my stomach because at some point in the recent past I ate. It is still quite restricted in when you can use it. But it is very popular: Whenever you can use it, you must. This is the reason for the semantic distinction between simple past and present perfect.

It is likely that the situations in which the present perfect can (and therefore must) be used will continue to extend. This is an aspect of language change in which German is a bit faster, for a change: In colloquial German you can use the equivalent of the present perfect almost without any restrictions, at least in the south.

As far as I know, there used to be no past perfect and no past infinitive in the Germanic languages. But the present perfect provides an obvious way to construct these: If shifting "He has an apple" into the past yields "He had an apple", then obviously it should be possible to shift "He has been there" into the past in the same way: "He had been there". And if the infinitive in the first case is "to have an apple", then obviously in the second case we should be able to form the (past) infinitive as "to have been there".

At some point someone started doing this; then over the centuries it became standard. Once people became used to shifting present perfect back into the past, or to form past infinitives from it, they felt a pressing need to do the same with simple past constructions such as "He was there" or "He cooked". The most regular way of doing this would be to add the regular simple past ending -ed, yielding "He wased there" and "He cookeded". I think we can all feel that this would be much less acceptable than pretending we were starting with the present perfect instead of the simple past. When some people first did this, others probably cringed. Nowadays it's perfectly standard.


Yes, they are. The idea of perfect is the action that happened before something else. When it is present perfect, the action happened before now, when it is past perfect, the action happened before another moment in the past. As for infinitives, they don't have any time signature, like past, present, or future, their meaning is relative as for the meaning of the predicate verb tense - non-perfect infinitives denote actions simultaneous with the predicate (your 1st example), the perfect infinitives denote the action that precedes the action of the predicate (your 2nd example).

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