Why is the particle "to" sometimes used in sentences with been?

For example, the following sentences are grammatically correct

  • Dad is in the garden.
    A: “Where's Dad?”
    B: ”He's in the garden”
    A: “How long has he been there?”
    B: “He's been in the garden for about an hour.”

If the location is a foreign country and we use the past participle of the verb go, the preposition changes. Note that the preposition reverts back to in when it is clear that "dad" is not back from Australia.

  • Dad is visiting Australia
    C: “Where is your dad?”
    D: “He's gone to Australia”
    C: “How long has he been there?”
    D: “He's been in Australia since December 20”

But if someone asks whether he has ever visited Australia,
the preposition used with been must be to.

  1. Has your dad ever been to Australia? (= Has he ever visited Australia?)
  2. Yes, he's been to Australia twice. (= He's visited Australia twice)
  3. Is he in Australia now?
  4. Yes, he's been away for about a week.


  • 5: Where has he been?
    6: He's been to Australia for Christmas.

Question: Why is the preposition "to", instead of "in", for sentences 1, 2 and 6 above?


3 Answers 3


Short answer

Sentences 1, 2 and 6 use the preposition to because, in those examples, the verb been represents the verb GO. The verb GO often takes to-Complements. We (usually) say go to a place because a to-preposition phrase represents a destination or goal.

In the other sentences the verb been represents the verb BE. The verb BE often takes in-phrases. In-phrases most often represent a location, not a destination (in standard Englishes).

Full answer

The word been can be one of two verbs in English. It can be a past participle of GO or it can be a past participle of BE.

When we use GO in present perfect constructions, we use the participle gone to indicate just going, and the participle been to indicate going and coming back.

  1. Bob's gone to Paris.
  2. Bob's been to Paris.

Sentence (7) implies that Bob is still in Paris but sentence (8) implies that he is back again.

The verb GO normally, but by no means always, takes a to-preposition phrase as a Complement. Here the to-preposition phrase indicates a GOAL of the original journey.

The verb BE often takes in-preposition phrases. In such cases, the in-preposition phrase indicates a (usually stationary) LOCATION but does not necessarily invoke any idea of movement, goal or end-point.

Let's take two past simple sentences using the verbs GO and BE:

  1. My friend went to Sardinia.
  2. My friend was in Sardinia.

If we change these sentences so that we have present perfect verb forms we get:

  1. My friend has been to Sardinia.
  2. My friend has been in Sardinia.

The Original Poster's examples

  1. Has your dad ever been to Australia?
  2. Yes, he's been to Australia twice.
  3. He's been to Australia for Christmas.

The three examples above all illustrate the use of been as the past participle of the verb GO. The past simple of these sentences would be:

  • Did your Dad ever go to Australia?
  • Yes, he went to Australia twice.
  • He went to Australia for Christmas.

Examples (1-3), like the past simple sentences above, use the preposition to to indicate the goal of the movement. These to-preposition phrases are selected specifically because of the verb GO here.

We can contrast these sentences with the other examples from the Original Post:

  1. Is he in Australia now?
  2. Yes, he's been away for about a week.
  3. Where has he been?

The past simple versions of these sentences would be:

  • Was he in Australia (then)?
  • Yes, he was away for about a week.
  • Where was he?

We can see that these sentence all use the verb BE. They take a range of preposition phrase Complements, headed by the prepositions in, away and where respectively. These preposition phrases, as is common with the verb BE, all indicate a location as opposed to a goal.

Interestingly, the Original Poster's last two examples, (5) and (6) use different beens, arguably different verbs:

5: Where has he been?
6: He's been to Australia for Christmas.

The past simple version of this conversation would be:

  • Where was he?
  • He went to Australia for Christmas.

Notice that the speaker of (6) could have said:

  • He's been in Australia.

The past simple version of this would be:

  • He was in Australia.

Hope this has been interesting!


I am not sure how to answer your question as you have put it.

The usage goes back a fair way. For example, we have the traditional nursery rhyme: “Pussy cat, Pussy cat, where have you been?/I’ve been up to London to visit the Queen.”. So the usage is well established.

It is worth saying that in the Somerset dialect (county in the U.K.) you say not “where is he?”, but “where’s he to?”

So a starting point might be to say that, if it makes sense to say that someone is in a place, then it can make sense to say that someone is to a place. It just so happens that as a matter of general usage, people just don’t. Except in Somerset, and there only in questions. And everyone else in the past tense.

In fact, when we consider further, we all do something similar in the present tense. “I’m off to the City.”. Perhaps this is a kind of ellipse for “I am starting/setting off for the city.”

What is certainly the case is that the wide and varied use of prepositions to create and modify meaning is a marked feature of the English language as compared with many other languages.

So is the use of the verb to be. There is a joke that illustrates this. A meeting of three people has been arranged in a pub for noon. One arrives early at 11:30. A second arrives late at twenty past twelve. He says to the first: “Where’s Tommy?”. The first replies: “I think he’s been and gone and hasn’t come.”.

The joke arises from the two conflicting possible meanings. The first uses ‘has been’ in the sense of ‘has been and ‘gone . So, on this interpretation, the speaker contradicts himself - talks nonsense. But in fact his is a special usage of ‘been and’ and ‘gone and’ with a main verb.

Here you see special colloquial usages of the past tenses of both to be and to go. In both cases the addition of and in some way modifies the main action, indicating that it is a dreadful faut pas. So a child scribbles on the new wallpaper. Her brother might say: “You’ve gone and done it now.”, or “You’ve been and done it now.”. This indicates the recognition that they are in trouble, or, as her brother could just as well have said: “Umm: you’re really for it now.”. When you put been and together with done and, the misdeed or faut pas. is even worse.

I am not sure to what extent systematic grammatical analysis of so wide and free a range of usage of prepositions and the ‘blank’ verbs /be, go and do is either possible or even desirable. I am sure that it is an example (one among many) of the amazing flexibility of the English language.

Back with (see, there we go again!) your original question, the usage is a function not just of the preposition to or in but of its combination with the verb to be in the past tense.


The reason for the various prepositions is the various meanings of "to be", as the OED explains:

Etymology: The paradigm of the verb ‘to be’ in West Germanic languages in general shows forms derived from three unrelated Indo-European bases, in English itself perhaps [the] forms derived from four Indo-European bases.

The four Old English verbs each have a complex history based on the regional version of English; the indicative and subjunctive; the stress or lack of it, and other factors.

The full history of the verb to be is far too complex to describe here (and describing it any less than "fully" would not help your understanding.) You should do your own research if you are really interested. However, all the senses have been retained:

It is red - lexically empty copula.

Wait until it is ripe = becomes, (related to "The king is to London" = goes)

I was in Paris = to stay, remain, spend time.

There are lions in Africa = exist

The meaning that is used will determine which preposition is used.

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