Have been to/have been in a place



Usually (though any grammar book will focus your attention on the exceptional form of "to" instead of "in"), it is "I have been to + a place name". Fine.

But H. Gethin's Grammar in Context (Longman 1992, p. 17) has the sentence: "I have been in Stockholm since I last saw you."

It seems to me that the difference is that the person is still in Stockholm, but is just staying temporarily in another place. Am I correct, or is it just a mistake?

To make things worse, L. Sterne in his A Sentimental Journey, writes: "You have been in France?" Now, this can't be a mistake, but is this an older form, now obsolete?

Posted 20 February 2003

"Been to" a place does indicate that a person has gone to the place or has visited the place, according to the Collins COBUILD English Dictionary. It is used when the person is no longer in that place.

On the other hand, "been in" can mean that the person has been in the place and has left or, it can mean that he/she is still in that place. According to L.G. Alexander, in Longman English Grammar:

"Have been" (generally + "to" or "in") has the sense of "visit a place and come back."

The context is important in determining whether to use to or in. In your sentence"I have been in Stockholm since I last saw you," it may be that the speaker is answering the question "Where have you been? Have you been away?" The speaker could be speaking from London or Johannesburg or New York, and this sentence could be part of an explanation of the speaker's activities:

(Conversation 1)


Where have you been? Have you been away?


Yes, I have. I've been in Stockholm since I last saw you. I've also been in Copenhagen, Milan, and Barcelona. I just got back yesterday.

In this case, "since I last saw you" marks a point of time - say, August 24, 2001 - and the speaker could have been in Stockholm for a week in October, for example, or for two days in November, or for the month of December. The speaker could also say that he had been to Stockholm, and been to Copenhagen, Milan, and Barcelona.

Or the speaker could be speaking from Stockholm, as in this conversation:

(Conversation 2)


Where have you been? I've been trying to get you for a week!


I've been in Stockholm since I last saw you. I saw you in Berlin on August 24th, and I've been staying here with my sister ever since.

In this case, "since I last saw you" marks the point of time that the speaker began staying in Stockholm, and is still there. In this case, the speaker would not use "been to."

An additional factor to consider is the place itself, and which preposition - to or in - would normally precede the noun or noun phrase. For example, "I've been to the hospital" clearly indicates that the speaker has visited the hospital; "I've been in the hospital" means that the person has been a patient in the hospital.

Your sentence from L. Sterne, spoken without a time reference, must be uttered in another place, unless the questioner doesn't know what country he/she is in at the moment of speaking. The context might show the responder to be in France now, or, to have recently been in France. The sentence could also be, if it is known that the responder is elsewhere right now: "You have been to France?" If, however, the sentence is "You have been in France for a long time?" it seems probable that both the questioner and the responder are in France at the moment of speaking. It could also be that the questioner is elsewhere, though, and that only the one who is going to respond is actually in France at the moment.

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