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.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Derren Brown's lottery illusion

I never thought I'd get sucked into all the hype about Derren Brown's "predicting the lottery" stunt last Wednesday. For one thing, I don't have a TV! However, I take part in quite an entertaining discussion group about archive TV and radio called The Mausoleum Club Forum, and there was quite a buzz about the programme there so I thought I'd have a look at some of the online clips to see what all the fuss was about. I've ended up spending the past few days looking at numerous blogs and forums to find out what was being said about the trick, and it's turned into quite an obsession.

Needless to say, I don't believe any of the misinformation put out in Brown's supposed "explanation" of the trick last Friday. The consensus amongst those who seem reasonably clued-in is that the whole thing was a split-screen illusion. There are various sites purporting to explain it, one of the most popular being here. Essentially, the idea is that the left-hand side of the screen was frozen during the period between the draw being announced and Brown walking over to reveal his "prediction", allowing the numbered balls to be put in place.

The main clue that supposedly gives this away is that the left-hand ball rises slightly as Brown reads out the numbers in numerical order, an exercise that allows him to buy time as the payoff is reached. The other important point is that, by general agreement, the bulk of the programme was shot with a fixed camera, with added digital "jitter" to give the illusion of a handheld camera.

I pretty much went along with the split-screen idea until I saw the slowed-down video clip at the bottom of the page. First of all, it shows all the balls appearing to rise slightly, with the left-hand one moving further than the others. That, of course, could be down to poor execution of the trick. But secondly, and more importantly, the balls rise gradually to their new positions. If there were a cut from a frozen shot to a real-time one at this point, one would expect them to jump from one position to the other (as they do when the video loops back to the original point).

[EDIT: It's been pointed out here and elsewhere that the above effect could have been caused by mixing techniques. I have no expertise in this area so am willing to accept the idea. However, it in no way invalidates what follows.]

So, could it be that the whole thing was shot in real-time, and the split-screen theory is wrong? What could have caused the balls to magically rise to their new positions at the crucial moment?

There's one theory here which hasn't gained much attention. Although I don't think it's right, I think it may contain the crucial observation that could reveal the actual secret:

"However, if the camera had been moving, one would have seen the balls and the wall move relative to each other – however, it is clearly the case that despite the scene jittering about, the balls and the wall never move relative to each other – thus this effect must have been created by processing of the 2D image collected by the camera, to digitally create an effect of jitter (effectively moving around the window being shown within a larger 2D space).
This leads us on to the question of why Derren would want to create the illusion that the camera was moving when in fact it was not. "

The author then goes on to suggest that a long pole was protruded through a hole in the wall through the "blind-space" behind the balls. I think this is far too clumsy and probably wouldn't have been practical for several reasons. Instead, I believe that Brown used one of the oldest tricks in the conjuror's book: a false backdrop!

Here's a picture of Studio 1 at Riverside, where the show was filmed. The wall at the back of the studio is brickwork, making it easy to camouflage. Just to the left of the ball stand there is a vertical pillar, and there is another one some way to the right. A photo could have been placed masking the space between these two pillars, with its top edge appearing to run along the line of brickwork immediately beneath the row of balls. There only needs to be enough space between the stand and the backdrop for Brown to walk behind the stand, leaving plenty of room at the back of the stage for an assistant with a set of balls and a device for pushing them onto the stand. The "balls" you see for most of the programme may not be balls at all, but simply shells enabling the actual balls to be pushed into them.

But where's the bottom of the photo? I'm not sure, but there does happen to be a cable conveniently stretched across the floor for much of that distance. This could mark the bottom of the picture, although what happens to the left of that behind the stand isn't clear. Note, though, that where the cable seems to disappear behind the stand, the two sections don't quite match up. Could this be because they were added on to the picture afterwards?

The false backdrop theory helps to answer a question raised by "yellowtriumph" on the Mausoleum Club Forum, which doesn't seem to have been picked up anywhere else:

"One thing I can't fathom, and its minor, when he walks to his balls he walks behind them, when he walks back to the tv screen he walks in front of them? There must be a reason?"

If there's only enough space between the stand and the backdrop for Brown to stand there, he wouldn't have been able to turn round to walk back to the TV set.

I'm by no means convinced that this theory's right. But if it is, then I think it provides a more satisfying explanation than straightforward camera trickery. Of course, the camera position is still crucial to the illusion, as a fixed angle has to be maintained throughout. But at least Brown can claim that no electronic manipulation of the image was used to create the desired effect.

I initially thought I was alone in suggesting this but it turns out that the Daily Mail suggests it as an option. I haven't seen the idea mooted anywhere else. Could it be that the split screen provides too convenient an explanation?

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Oh well, doesn't look there's much hope of a response from Jocelyn any time soon. According to her latest blog post:

"Yet again I seem to be months behind with my email, which is a bit ridiculous considering I've also been unemployed for months and therefore at home most of the time! I do intend to try to clear the backlog soon, though, so if I owe you an email, sorry for the delay and I hope to get to you soon."

It doesn't look as though we've got much in common anyway, beyond having been unemployed for months - the main subject of the blog is choral singing, which I gave up years ago (though I've recently thought of starting again), and her other preoccupation is football which I avoid like the plague!

But I think it'd still be interesting to swap notes with someone else who's had that childhood experience. I've met very few other people in my life who've had it, and it's not something I tend to talk about openly. I've tried looking round to see if there are support groups on the web but found very little. There was a mailing-list called "GT-Adults" ("GT" meaning "gifted and talented") which looked promising at the outset but seemed to be dominated by pushy American mothers whose children had been identified as "gifted" and had come to think of themselves in the same way. I posted there for a while but didn't really get on with them.

The other interesting thing I found recently was a lengthy thread on the left-wing American "Democratic Underground" site in 2006 proposing a sub-group for former gifted children. Although there was a great deal of support for it, the proposal was declined by the administrators firstly because they didn't think there was any way for them "to fairly determine who would qualify to participate in the group", and secondly because "some have argued rather persuasively that this could be divisive". I've sometimes found that people are opposed to the formation of such groups because of accusations of elitism, although in many cases former gifted children are anything but an elite.

I did raise the issue a couple of years ago on this thread on the Usenet group, which provoked quite an interesting discussion. While it's a part of my life I don't tend to dwell on most of the time, it's at times like this when I find myself unemployed and aimless once again that I start thinking about the influence that those experiences may have had on me. I know I'm not alone in my experiences and I sometimes wonder whether there's anything useful I could have learned from those days that I'm not applying now.

I may see if I can use this blog to gather together a few ideas on the subject, because I'm not sure if enough is understood about the subjective experience of being a gifted child. For me, it wasn't so much about performing well academically (which is what the adult world tends to concentrate on) as about the emotional experiences that went with thinking a lot and being creative. I've lost a lot of that in my adult life, for reasons that I'll hopefully go into later.

Anyway, enough for now. If I'm going to start keeping this site up then I suppose I really ought to get other people to start reading it!

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The reluctant blogger returns

I'd almost forgotten this blog site existed. I'm not generally a great lover of blogs, as I find you can't really hold a sensible discussion on them, and I always resisted setting up my own on the grounds that no one was likely to read it anyway.

However, a couple of years ago I was involved in a Usenet discussion about the value of blogs, and as a joke more than anything else I decided to set this one up. As you see, it lasted for one post - I was surprised to get a response from one of my fellow Usenet posters! Since then I've pretty much stayed away from blog sites.

Until the other day, that is, when I heard a repeat of a Radio 4 series called "I Was A Child Prodigy", and in particular the programme about Jocelyn Lavin, whose history seems similar to mine in a lot of ways - very bright as a child and good at practically every subject, then struggled when she reached university, and since then hasn't reached the levels of achievement that were once expected of her. When the programme was recorded last year she was struggling to find a job, although I'm not sure if she's still in the same position. I can certainly sympathize since I'm once again out of work, having left my last job (answering phones for a taxi company) at the end of April.

So I decided to Google her. I'm always a bit wary about doing this sort of thing because of accusations of "cyber-stalking", but I figure that if someone is going to set up a public site and invite emails then it's akin to publishing one's number in the phone book (and who does that these days?). Sent her an email last Tuesday, the day of the broadcast, but there's been no reply. Left a message on her blog today and Blogger inserted a link back to this site!

Anyway, we'll see what happens. I may make a few posts here just for my own amusement - life's pretty dull at the moment and there's only so much time I can spend on message-boards. I still don't expect anyone to read them though!