Lesson #236: Three Ways To Use ‘Been’, The Past Participle Of ‘To Be’

📙 “My dear Miss Catherine,” I began, too vividly impressed by her recent kindness to break into a scold, “where have you been riding out at this hour? And why should you try to deceive me by telling a tale? Where have you been? Speak!”

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847)

You may remember from the last Lesson (#235) that we distinguish between ‘being’ and ‘been’ through the following principle:

✍️ While ‘being’ – the present participle of ‘to be’ – accompanies the verb ‘to be(e.g. ‘she is being difficult’), been’ – the past participle of ‘to be’ – accompanies the verb ‘to have’.

In today’s Lesson, which supports Lesson #235 and similarly draws on Emily Bronte’s famous Wuthering Heights (1847), we will focus on the 3 main functions of ‘been’ as the past participle of ‘to be’:

  • ☑️ How it is used in the present perfect and past perfect
  • ☑️ How it can show the passive voice, especially in formal language
  • ☑️ How you can use it to talk about your experiences of visiting places

We will also cover how to use ‘been’ correctly in questions and in negative statements – so stay tuned to the end!

To begin using ‘been’ correctly, we need to quickly review the verb ‘to have’.


✏️ I / You / We / They have

✏️ She / He / It / any Singular Noun has


✏️ All Subjects had



Now ‘have been’ and ‘has been’ are examples of the present perfect tense.

✍️ This tense describes situations and actions that began in the past and are still continuing in the present moment.

For example, let’s imagine that a woman called Laura started learning to drive in the year 2000. We might say that

✒️ ‘Laura has been driving since 2000’ or ‘Laura has been driving for 21 years’.

This means that she continues to drive ever since she first learned to drive in 2000.

You might be asking, why do we use ‘since 2000’ and ‘for 21 years’?

✍️ ‘Since’ mentions the starting point of the action or situation, while ‘for’ emphasises the duration (length of time) of the action or situation.


Notice in the example above that ‘has been’ was followed by an -ing participle (that is, ‘driving’). This is a very common structure.

📙 ‘“You know you have been doing wrong, or you wouldn’t be driven to uttering an untruth to me …”’

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (emphasis mine)

However, if we want to emphasise a continuing characteristic of a person or subject, we don’t need to use an -ing participle as we can simply mention the subject (or the state of the subject, e.g. ‘married’) at that point. Consider these examples:

✒️ ‘They have been friends since childhood.’

✒️ ‘She has been a teacher for over thirty years.’

✒️ ‘They have been married for just over a year.’

Here are some examples from Emily Bronte herself:

📙 ‘“And that minx, Catherine Linton, or Earnshaw, or however she was called— she must have been a changeling— wicked little soul!”’

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘“But I have been vexed, because you wouldn’t come …”’

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (emphasis mine)



The past perfect describes an action that was taking place long before another action or event (itself in the past) happened to interrupt it.

Let’s take our example of Laura from above and adapt it to include a past perfect tense.

✒️ ‘Laura had been taking public transport in the 1990s before she learned to drive in the year 2000.’

From this statement, we understand that ‘taking public transport’ was an ongoing experience for Laura in the 1990s that was interrupted, or even stopped, by her learning to drive in 2000.

Notice also how the other verb in our sample sentence (‘she learned to drive’) is in the past simple.

✍️ Remember: sentences using past perfect also include a past simple at some point.

📙 ‘“I could gather, however, that her guide had been [past perfect] a favourite till she hurt [past simple] his feelings by addressing him as a servant …”’

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (emphases mine)

📙 ‘“A woman whom I knew, and who formerly lived [past simple] at Gimmerton, answered: she had been [past perfect] servant there since the death of Mr. Earnshaw.”’

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (emphases mine)


One of the most common usages of ‘been’ is that of the passive voice.

If you read our Lesson on ‘being’ recently, you will recall (remember) that I mentioned how ‘being’ is often used in passive voice sentences, most often in formal or professional English language registers.

✍️ This is because the passive voice is less personal, so that attention is focused on the object receiving the action rather than the subject doing the action.

I gave the example there of ‘your application is being processed’. Let’s change that same line to use the present perfect tense.

Example: ✒️ ‘Your application has been processed.’

Here is the same line in the past perfect (compare the two sample sentences and notice how we need to introduce another clause when we use the past perfect, because otherwise we have nothing to compare against the ‘further-back-in-the-past’ aspect of the past perfect tense).

Example: ✒️ ‘Your application had been processed before the pandemic hit.’

👉 Remember: We need to introduce a time-descriptive word (here the adverb ‘before’) in sentences using the past perfect to show the time frame of events.

Here is an example of the present perfect being used as a passive voice statement, from Bronte herself:

📙 ‘“ …the intimacy with your cousin must not be revived.”

It has been revived,” muttered Cathy, sulkily.’

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (emphasis mine)


✒️ ‘I have been to the UK many times over the last few years.’

✒️ ‘I had been to the UK many times before the pandemic hit.’

This use of ‘been’ to describe our visits or travels to different places is one of its most common usages, so common that it has almost become idiomatic now.

📙 ‘“I’ve been to Wuthering Heights, Ellen, and I’ve never missed going a day since you fell ill; except thrice before, and twice after you left your room.”‘

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘“If they have been in the marsh, they are out now, Zillah.”’

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (emphasis mine)

✍️ While it is an easy construction to use, be careful not to mention a specific time in your sentence, because ‘have been’ and ‘has been’ describe an ongoing life experience. So it would be wrong to say this:

‘I have been to the UK last year / in 2015 / ten years ago.’

If you want to mention a specific time, you may need to change the tense to a past simple, like this:

✒️ ‘I went to / was in the UK last year / in 2015 / ten years ago.’

✍️ The same applies to the past perfect which, as you will remember, needs two events in the past (one of them an ongoing action or situation, the other event acting as an interruption).

✒️ ‘Elizabeth had been on holidays [ongoing past action or situation] when the volcano erupted [simple past] and forced [simple past] her to leave the island early.’

And as mentioned already, if we want to say that Elizabeth was on holidays at a specific time in history, we need to change the past perfect to a past simple:

✒️ ‘Elizabeth was on holidays in 2010 when the volcano erupted and forced her to leave the island early.’


In positive statements using ‘been’, we use the structure ‘Subject + Present or Past Perfect + Present or Past Participle / Object’.


✍️ But when asking a question using ‘been’, we need to divide the present or past perfect in half, sending the auxiliary (helping) verb ‘have’ or ‘has’ or ‘had’ to the beginning of the sentence, followed by the subject, followed by ‘been’, followed finally by the object and the sentence’s complement. It looks something like this:

✒️ ‘Had you been cycling before you learned to drive?’

Take these examples from Wuthering Heights:

📙 ‘“… Have you been to Wuthering Heights? I beg pardon for asking; but I should like to hear how she is!”’

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘“My dear Miss Catherine,” I began, too vividly impressed by her recent kindness to break into a scold, “where have you been riding out at this hour? And why should you try to deceive me by telling a tale? Where have you been? Speak!”’

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (emphases mine)



On the other hand, if we want to write a negative sentence, our structure includes the ‘not’ or other negatives such as ‘never’ right in the middle of the present or past perfect construction:

✍️ ‘Subject + ‘Have’/ ‘Has’ / ‘Had’ + Not/Never/No + ‘Been’ + Object/Sentence’s Complement, etc.’

✒️ ‘She had never been beyond her hometown before she learned to drive.’

And here are more examples from Emily Bronte:

📙 ‘“And besides, Edgar has not been kind, has he?”’

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (emphasis mine)

📙 ‘Heathcliff had never been heard of since the evening of the thunder-storm …’

– Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (emphasis mine)

This Lesson, together with last Monday’s one on ‘being’, are complementary lessons (supporting one another; combining in such a way as to enhance or emphasise the qualities of each other or another). 🤝

For this reason, I recommend studying them together and so that you can see for yourself the unique identities of ‘being’ and ‘been’ respectively.

If you fully understand what they stand for, you will certainly be able to use them correctly in the right context! 📝

And as always, if you have any question about anything mentioned here, I am ready to help you (please message me through the query form at the end of the home page). 👈

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)