"was known to be" vs "was known to have been"

lindsgal

New Member
English
Hello all, I was teaching about passive structures today and my student asked me a question about this sentence:
1. He was known to be out of the country at the time of the incident.

... and if this one is also correct:
2. He was known to have been out of the country at the time of the incident.

I feel like 2 is incorrect, but I'm not sure how to explain why. The only thing I can think of is that 2 requires a specific time period, e.g.
"He was known to have been outside of the country for 4 days already at the time of the incident/ by the time of the incident."
so "have been" emphasizes that the action of being out of the country started 4 days before it was known that he was out of the country.

...Whereas in 1, he could have left the country at a time really close to/soon after the incident.

Is 2 grammatically incorrect and if so, how can I explain why?
I saw some other threads about this, but I still can't wrap my head around it in this particular example.
 
  • owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    Is 2 grammatically incorrect and if so, how can I explain why?
    Hello, lindsgal. It doesn't look incorrect to me. As far as I can tell, it is just a passive version of this sentence: Somebody knew that he had been out of the country at the time of the incident.

    I interpret the first example as a passive version of this sentence: Somebody knew that he was out of the country at the time of the incident.
     

    SevenDays

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    Hello all, I was teaching about passive structures today and my student asked me a question about this sentence:
    1. He was known to be out of the country at the time of the incident.

    ... and if this one is also correct:
    2. He was known to have been out of the country at the time of the incident.

    I feel like 2 is incorrect, but I'm not sure how to explain why. The only thing I can think of is that 2 requires a specific time period, e.g.
    "He was known to have been outside of the country for 4 days already at the time of the incident/ by the time of the incident."
    so "have been" emphasizes that the action of being out of the country started 4 days before it was known that he was out of the country.

    ...Whereas in 1, he could have left the country at a time really close to/soon after the incident.

    Is 2 grammatically incorrect and if so, how can I explain why?
    I saw some other threads about this, but I still can't wrap my head around it in this particular example.
    You've already figured out the answer.

    Let's focus on to be vs. to have been

    Infinitives are by definition tenseless, and therefore not anchored in "time." How do we anchor/place the infinitive "in time"? We turn to the perfect infinitive. In your example, the perfect infinitive extends the "time" of the infinitive from an undefined moment farther back, up to the relevant moment (when the incident happened).

    And so, when you reason that "2 requires a specific time period," you are thinking along the right lines. The perfect infinitive sort of forces the reader to figure out the "initial point" of the extension through time that's encoded in the perfect form. The simple infinitive doesn't worry about that; being tenseless, "to be" by definition covers any and all periods of time, including the period of time of his "being out," and the time when the incident happened.

    It's not that "to have been" is incorrect; it's just that it makes the narrative more complex than it needs to be. The relevant idea is that he was out at a particular point in time -- when the incident happened -- not that he was out during a period that extended through time, from some point farther back up to the moment of the incident. And so "to be" is simpler. It's the Principle of Simplicity at work; make things as simple as possible. And it's also the Economy Principle in language, which basically means "minimum effort to achieve maximum result." These are two important principles in language/communication, which can be reduced to "why use three words (to have been) when two words to the job just fine (to be)?

    But let's say something in favor of "to have been out," strictly in terms of Pragmatics (how context, including presuppositions, guide language usage). From the idea of "extension through time" in "to have been out" we get the notion of "continuity." And so it's not just that he was out of the country at the time of the incident; the presupposition is that he was out for a longer period of time (there is "continuity" in his absence).
    -----
    addition:

    We looked at things from the perspective of certain principles (simplicity, economy), and from the perspective of Pragmatics. Now, from the perspective of Syntax, it makes no difference which form is used, to be or to have been. When the predicate is non-verbal (not a verb), as is the case in "out of the country," in order to have a clause, syntax adds auxiliary be to function as verb:

    He is out of the country

    Here, with auxiliary be as a finite verb (showing conjugation), the subject takes the form of a subject pronoun ("he"). With an infinitive (simple or perfect), the subject takes the form of an object pronoun, introduced by "to:"

    for him to be out of the country
    for him to have been out of the country


    Strictly in terms of syntax, it makes no difference which form is used; either way, we have a clause. Now, since this sounds clunky,

    He was known for him to be/have been out of the country

    syntax removes the subject of the infinitive "for him," because the subject of the infinitive is co-referential (the same) as the subject of the passive clause "he." That's how we end with

    He was known to be/to have been out of the country

    Native speakers do all of the above intuitively.
     
    Last edited:

    lindsgal

    New Member
    English
    Thank you so much, owlman5 and SevenDays! Your explanations really help me understand this :thumbsup::thank you: Very interesting about the principles of language.
     
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