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While riding my bike this morning, my mind was wandering. All of a sudden I realized that the phrase "I've been to (place)" is very strange because if you change the aspect of the verb, it is no longer grammatically valid. You can say "I've been to Chicago" but not "I am to Chicago" or "I will be to Chicago." But other tenses work as long as it's perfect aspect: "I will have been to Chicago," "I hadn't been to Chicago."

There is at least one question about this already. But I was wondering why is this the case? Is there any historical or etymological explanation for why this idiom has such strange behavior? Relatedly, are there any other phrases in English that work this way, or parallel idioms in other languages?

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  • If you conjugate the verbs 'have', 'be' and 'go' where is there room for doubt? How is 'I've been…' comparable to 'I will be…' let alone to 'I am…'? Sep 10, 2023 at 20:22
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    While riding my bike this morning, my mind was wandering. Technically, my mind was not riding the bike, so ... maybe: While riding my bike this morning, I noticed my mind was wandering. Sep 10, 2023 at 20:28
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    "I am to Chicago" is good Shakespearean English. KING: "Thus set it down: he shall with speed to England." Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1.
    – Tevildo
    Sep 10, 2023 at 21:13
  • And for me it does have a future (with will) and a simple past as well. See my answer for examples.
    – TimR
    Sep 17, 2023 at 17:05
  • For pete's sake: I am in Chicago. Don't confuse go to and be in. I don't get why the honchos don't point out this simple fact. {Forget Shakespeare for a minute)
    – Lambie
    Oct 29, 2023 at 18:47

4 Answers 4

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The reason is that there's two meanings of the verb go in English. There's the go and come back meaning (I go to school every day), and there's the leave/go to meaning (She just upped and went or She went to Australia for good).

English has two past participles for the verb go, both of them are suppletive, and they mean slightly different things. One of them is the word gone which means "travelled away from here" or "travelled to", the other is been which means something like "travelled to and returned from."

So if you go to your friend's house and their mum answers the door and says: "Oh, she's gone to France", it means she's still there. But if the mum answers and says "Oh, she's been to France", she's probably upstairs sleeping or something. She's back at any rate.

The past participle of the verb be and this particular past participle of the verb go are identical, of course. That also happens in other languages too. But the reason that been takes a to-preposition phrase sometimes is basically that, in such cases, it's the verb go and not the verb be.

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The Present Perfect construction, as you have seen, has a number of uses. These were cataloged in a famous article by James D. McCawley.

Here they are. The example sentence falls under category (b):

  • (a) The Universal sense of the Perfect, used to indicate that a state of affairs prevailed throughout some interval stretching from the past into the present
    I've known Max since 1960.

  • (b) The Existential sense of the Perfect, used to indicate the existence of past events,
    I have read Principia Mathematica five times.

  • (c) The Stative/Resultative sense of the Perfect,
    used to indicate that the direct effect of a past event still continues
    I can't come to your party tonight - I've caught the flu.

  • (d) The Hot News sense of the Perfect, used to report hot news
    Malcolm X has just been assassinated.

As to why it requires the present perfect construction ("present" is a tense, btw -- the only other tense in English is "past" -- while "perfect" is a construction, not a suffix on a verb.) Be to placename is an idiom meaning 'travel to (and leave again)'. So I've been to Portland 5 times means I'm reporting the existence of least one punctual event in the past. That's the point of the Existential sense. It's just like the Universal sense, but it's not a permanent state like the Universal; rather, it's an event, or a series of them.

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    Curiously, the exceptions to the present perfect rules (more common in AmE) don't seem to apply here: "I already went to the store" is fine, but *"I already was to the store" isn't.
    – alphabet
    Sep 11, 2023 at 22:46
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    I think that's evidence that be to Placename is an idiom, with its own meaning and provenance. And rules. That's pretty much true of anything starting with be, since it's always an auxiliary, even if it isn't obvious what it's auxing -- in this case, the idiom construction. Sep 11, 2023 at 23:39
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    I still don't quite see from this answer why, if "be to (placename)" is an idiom, it requires the perfect construction, whether past perfect, present perfect, or future perfect.
    – qdread
    Sep 12, 2023 at 12:39
  • Because that is one of the idiomatic constraints that make it an idiom. There isn't any why? any more than there's a why? to using to to mark infinitives; that's just the arbitrary rule. But this is not a general rule; this is an idiomatic rule. Sep 12, 2023 at 14:25
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I would say that there's a phrasal verb be to (a place) and that it lost its present-with-future-meaning usage somewhere along the way:

*I am to London.

but it does retain a future usage:

I'll be t' Chicago this spring. We can meet then.

and it does retain its past tense usage:

I was to London on business. Don't you remember?

When were you to Ireland? I've got family there.

and its perfect usages:

I have been to London.

Before moving to London permanently, I had been to London only once.

All of those retained usages are idiomatic for me, American English, mid-Atlantic dialect.

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Modern grammar would say that the been in I have been to Chicago is a motional be i.e., a motional sense in construction with the perfect (as opposed to other uses such as copula be, progressive be...) Since its motional, it takes a to (place). We know it is restricted to the perfect as shown in the ungrammaticality of I was to Chicago.

I acknowledged that other grammar sources would say that the been is another form of go verb but I prefer the motional be analysis since it nicely accounts for the difference in meaning between has been and has gone( We are dealing with two different verbs). And we don't have a problem when we convert has gone to its past form in the sentence I went to Chicago since go is unquestionably a verb of motion.

Lastly, another user already noted that morphologically speaking, gone is related to go as is been to be. I think that counts for the motional be analysis.

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  • This is one of the standard views of the status of the word been in I've been to Paris etc. However, it's got tonnes of problems. Not least that it cannot answer the question here! (Your answer doesn't begin to answer the OP's question here - or try to). Why does this meaning of the verb be only apply in the present perfect? Why does the verb be suddenly appear in idioms with the verb go, but only in the present perfect? Why does the verb be not have the go and return meaning in any other construction? etc, etc, etc Oct 30, 2023 at 1:05
  • @Araucaria-Him. You are right. I forgot to note in my answer that it didn't address the specific question of the OP. My answer is only reporting that "been" is the motional be in other analysis.
    – user424874
    Oct 30, 2023 at 1:40

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