Sunday, 27 September 2009

"Been" as a past participle of "go"


I've been involved in quite a protracted thread in the newsgroup alt.usage.english about my contention that the form been can be used as an alternative past participle of go in certain contexts. There have been a few misunderstandings on the thread, so I thought I'd set down all my evidence here away from the cut-and-thrust of a newsgroup debate.

The verb go has numerous senses in English, many of which are set down here, alongside a number of phrasal verb constructions and other idioms of which it forms part. In most of those cases it is established that the past participle is the regular form gone, the most important being sense 2: "to move away from a place; depart". He has gone to London means that he has departed for London, and is still there. Gone is used as the past participle in many of the other senses listed, e.g. sense 10b, "to come to be in a certain condition": he has gone mad. It can also of course be used as an adjective: the food is all gone.

But an equally important use of go is the one illustrated in sense 1: "to move or travel; proceed". In this sense, the past participle gone is less commonly used, because of possible confusion with the use illustrated in sense 2. We can say he went to London yesterday, but if he is no longer in London, it is impossible to say he has gone to London, because that would imply that he was still there. Instead we are required to use the alternative form he has been to London. Note that this cannot be a regular use of the past participle of be, because of the impossibility of substituting any other form of be for been: *he is to London, *he was to London, *he will be to London, *being to London and *to be to London are all unacceptable in non-dialect modern usage.

My aim in this article is to establish that the best analysis of such constructions is to treat been as an alternative past participle of go; not interchangeable with gone, but generally used in complementary distribution depending on the sense in which go is used (although, as we shall see later, there appear to be constructions in which either is permissible). Although this is a non-standard analysis of the usage, it reflects the intuitions I have had about the word for at least thirty years. I should note that all the following examples reflect my own usage and are not intended as a scientific sample. I should add that I am a British English speaker from the south of England and regard my own usage as reasonably standard.

Alternative theories

Before proceeding with my evidence, I should address the claims made by various members of a.u.e that he has been to London can be analysed as a regular use of the participle been from be, either by assigning a non-standard meaning in to the preposition to which can only occur after been, or by analysing been to as a single lexical item with the meaning visited. The first analysis can be refuted straightforwardly: *he has been to London for two weeks cannot be used with the meaning "he has been in London for two weeks", and a speaker who has never left London cannot say *I have been to London all my life. The second analysis does not have this problem, but falls down on constructions like I have been to London and back (as indeed does the first). Similar examples include I have been halfway to London and I have been from Glasgow to London. From such usages it should be reasonably clear that the use of to London in such constructions is the regular one and that the anomaly is to be found in the use of been.

Further evidence for this can be found by substituting other prepositional phrases that cannot normally be used after be, e.g. into town, along the river, towards the coast. Normally these can only follow verbs conveying motion of some sort: so one can say I went/walked/travelled into town, but not *I was/lived/waited into town (and similarly for the other phrases). Been, however, behaves like the first type of verb in this context: I have been into town, I have been along the river, I have been towards the coast. It is even possible to substitute phrases with no preposition that suggest displacement: I have been a long way, I have been a hundred miles, I have been far and wide. Again it is possible to substitute verbs like go in these constructions, but not normally verbs like be (as can be checked).

Other uses of go

All the above suggests strongly that been has a secondary meaning conveying motion or displacement of some kind, distinct from its use as a participle of be. But why link it to go? Could it not be classed as a stand-alone form, unassociated with any other verb? This analysis may be appealing to those who balk at the idea that been may be connected with the etymologically unrelated go (though no one objects to analysing went similarly). But it does not take account of the wide range of constructions where the use of been in the perfect tense apparently corresponds to go in the present tense, not all connected with the literal sense of go.

Take, for instance, the construction where go is used with a prepositional phrase to indicate a mode of transport: go on foot, go by train. Here the past participle would normally be been, as in have you been by train before?. This cannot be a regular use of been from be because of the impossibility of *I am/was by train.

Or take the construction where go is followed by an infinitive to mean "for the purpose of...": I must go to visit my mother. If I have returned from the visit, then I cannot use the perfect tense form I have gone to visit my mother: it must be I have been to visit my mother. Note that I am/was to visit my mother is unacceptable except in the unrelated sense "I am/was required to visit my mother", so this cannot be a use of be.

Go can also be used in a coordinate construction with similar meaning, as in go and get the shopping. Again, the perfect tense would normally be expressed as I have been and got the shopping rather than I have gone and got the shopping, which suggests that I have not returned yet. Once again been cannot be a form of be in such constructions, because *I was and... is never acceptable in any context.

Related to this is the use where go is used as an intensifier when joined by and to a coordinate verb (sense 8 here), as in She went and complained to Personnel. In my usage either form would be acceptable here: she has been and complained is just as acceptable as she has gone and complained. Indeed there is a well-known humorous form where both are used (she's been and gone and...).

The same source also lists the senses "to resort to another, as for aid" (went directly to the voters of her district) and "to pass from one person to another; circulate" (wild rumors were going around the office). In my usage she has been directly to... and ...have been around the office would be just as acceptable as the alternatives with gone.

Go can also be followed by the verbal noun in -ing to mean "go away to participate in": I go bowling every Tuesday. Once again, I have gone bowling is only possible if I have not returned; otherwise the perfect is I have been bowling. In this case, of course, the form is identical with a regular compound tense, and it could be argued that this is simply the perfect corresponding to I am bowling. However, if you imagine it as the answer to the question where have you been? then the analysis from go seems the more intuitive one.

My favourite anecdotal example is the humorous use of go as a euphemism (mainly British, I think) for visiting the lavatory. When I was a child I was sometimes asked Have you been?, to which the response must be I went five minutes ago (not I was!). Our teacher once made the class laugh after returning to the classroom after a toilet break and launching into a discussion of the inevitability of death: We've all got to go some time - I've just been. The play was obviously on the sense of go meaning die (p.p. gone). Had the class not recognized the connection between go and been, the joke would have made no sense.

Phrasal verbs and idioms

Although gone serves as the past participle of go in most phrasal verbs and idiomatic constructions, there are a significant number where been appears to be acceptable as an alternative, if not preferred. Here are a few:

go into ("explore in depth"). We've been into this before.
go over ("scrutinize"). I've been over the evidence.
go through ("examine in detail"). I've been through all the papers.
go out ("socialize"). I haven't been out much.
go out of one's way ("inconvenience oneself"). I've been out of my way to get this done.
go to town ("perform successfully"). I've really been to town on this.
go on at ("talk volubly at"). You've been on at me for ages.
go out with ("have a romantic liaison with"). I've been out with her for two months.
go with (euphemism for sexual intercourse). Have you been with anyone recently?

While I wouldn't say that gone is incorrect in any of the above, been is certainly more natural to me in many of them. Again, note that none (except possibly the last) can be analysed as a regular use of be.


I have produced a considerable amount of evidence for the analysis of certain uses of been as a past participle of go in certain contexts, either where gone would convey a different meaning or in some cases as an alternative to gone. I have shown that analyses of these uses as the regular past participle of be are impossible in most cases given normal assumptions about the meaning of be. I contend that been should be considered a form of go in such contexts.


zzslye said...

I agree wholeheartedly.

DCDuring said...

I am wrestling with whether 'been' is lexically a past participle of 'go' in any sense.

'Been' and 'gone' can both occur in certain collocations that are identical, but I find that 'been' always conveys the idea of occupation of a continuing, repeating, or habitual state or presence in a location, whereas 'gone' does not have that implication and sometimes seems to exclude that interpretation.

I hypothesize that all occurrences of the collocations in which both 'been' and 'gone' can occur as past participles can also have other tenses of both 'be' and 'go' with the aspectual difference in meaning more apparent.

Paul Edwards said...

The Oxford Learners Dictionary seems to agree with you