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What is the difference between “I've been to China” and “I've gone to China”?

I know the difference between saying "he's gone to the shop" (he's away) and "he's been to the shop" (he's back). The use is clear.

What is not clear is why it's like that. I mean is there some grammar, historical or cultural background behind the fact we can say "he went to the shop yesterday" but it's impossible to use the form of the verb "to go" with the same meaning in the present perfect, but "been to" has to be used instead?

Thanks.

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"He's gone to the shop" isn't that different from any other use of the present perfect. Consider possible answers to the question: "where was John last week?" Here "he flew to France" means he's probably come back, while "he's flown to France" means he probably hasn't come back. What might require explanation is the idiom "he's been to ...". After all, we don't say "he was to the shop" or "he is being to the shop". –  Peter Shor Jan 23 '12 at 17:04
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marked as duplicate by aedia λ, Robusto, Jim, Matt Эллен, Marthaª Jan 23 '12 at 22:45

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3 Answers

The OED’s earliest citation for been to in the sense ‘to have gone to the appropriate place in order to do something (with the implication that one has returned, or begun to do so)’ is dated 1482. The earliest citation for gone to in the sense ‘[having moved, taken one's way, passed, or proceeded] to or towards a place, into the presence of a person, or in a specified direction’ is dated a little over a hundred years later.

I don’t think there’s anything mysterious about the use of the two different verbs to mean two different things. Gone to does not entail come back, but been to does. Go suggests movement, while be suggests stasis.

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A small point if I may. The combination been to by all means necessitates having left the place that was visited, and it's nice to reflect on its historical roots, but it doesn't necessarily require a return to the place from which embarcation originated ...just some manner of an end to the visit.

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"He's been to" emphasizes that he was there. While it's conceivable that this could be applied to someone who is still there, the emphasis suggests contrast with the current state of affairs (i.e. now he's here).

"He's gone to" emphasizes that he departed for there. It would make little sense to emphasize the act of departing when describing someone who has since arrived.

That might seem contradictory, but note that in one case we are talking about a contrast in position and in the other case we are talking about a contrast in direction of motion.

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