English as a Second Language/Present and past tenses


QUESTION: Dear Brian,

Please look at the following sentences:

Damascus is located in the south-west of Syria, near the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. The city has a long history and was occupied by many peoples before becoming the Syrian capital.

Can I use "has been occupied" instead of 'was occupied'? You noted before that we use the simple past with a specific point in time which is not mentioned here.

Best regards,
Antoine Ghannoum

ANSWER: Hi Antoine!

Good question.  In this particular instance, the point in time is implied (in its history) but not stated clearly and not very specific, so it is an unusual usage, but again it is colloquially correct.

"Has been occupied" is also correct, but may be misleading.  Since it is in the present tense, it sounds as though Damascus may be occupied RIGHT NOW as well. If that is the case, the present perfect tense is the best form to use.  If it is not, then it is a matter of what you'd like to make clear (the point in time is not specific OR it is not true now).

The clearest verb tense, if Damascus is not currently occupied, is "had been occupied".

Hope that helps!

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thanks for your helpful guideline.
The point I am concerned about is the sequence of tenses in this sentence -- the city has (present active)... and was occupied (past passive). For this reason, I ask about the possibility of using "has been occupied" (present perfect passive). What is your comment?

Hi Antoine!

While that sequence of verb tenses is, again, unusual, it is, again, a matter of what the focus is on.  It is probably better to use an unusual sequence as long as it is accurate, than to use a more common sequence that doesn't quite express the ideas clearly.

But to answer your question, there is no problem with using an active tense (has) and following it up immediately by a passive tense (was occupied/has been occupied).  There is also no problem with changing the temporal aspect (present to past) suddenly, as long as it makes sense within the context.

Hope that answers your question!  Take care.  :)

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Brian Connelly


I can answer pretty much any question a student might have about English; about grammar, vocabulary, meanings of words, phrases, expressions or idioms, pronunciation, etc. I can answer questions about how to learn or study English better, how to improve certain aspects of communication (listening, writing, speaking, etc), about why we have certain rules.


I've been teaching English in Japan, mainly as a private (one-to-one) teacher, but also at companies such as Universal Studios or international airports. I have taught professional interpreters and translators and I have also taught students who dropped out of high school and never learned any English. Several years ago I acquired the CELTA and I have been running my own classroom for the past year.

None in particular, but I work with a number of companies who regularly introduce me to new students and occasionally to other companies that are looking for English teachers.


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I currently have approximately 40 individual students with whom I work one on one. I have also worked with local manufacturing companies, colleges, local retailers, as well as Sharp, Universal Studios, Itami International Airport, Kobe International Airport

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