The Grammarphobia Blog

Going, going, gone

Q: I’m confused by this sentence: “We will have been gone for five days by the end of our trip.” Is “gone” the main verb or a predicate adjective?

A: Which of those two ways of looking at the sentence is right? These are the choices:

(1) The principal verb is “go” and the tense is the future perfect passive (“will have been gone”).

(2) The principal verb is “be” and the tense is the future perfect (“will have been”), plus the adjective “gone.”

Our answer: No. 2. Here’s why.

It’s tempting to choose #1, because “will have been” is a typical passive verbal construction.

You get the passive voice by combining a form of the verb “be” with a past participle, like “baked” (as in “the cookies were baked”).

And combining “will have been” with a past participle gives you the future perfect passive (“the cookies will have been baked”).

But “will have been gone” is not a passive form of the verb “go.” In fact, “go” has no passive form, because it’s an intransitive verb—it has no object.

Only verbs that can have an object—like “bake”—can be used in the passive voice. We can say “cookies were baked” only because someone baked them. You can “go,” but some outside force can’t “go” you.

So when we speak of a person as being “gone,” we’re using an adjective. We’re talking about a condition (the state of being absent), not an action (the act of going).

We’ve discussed the passive before on our blog, as well as transitive and intransitive verbs.

In explaining all this, we’ll use another verb that’s exclusively intransitive—“die”—as an illustration. Like “go,” “come,” and some other verbs, “die” has no object.

As with “go,” we can use “die” in the future perfect tense, but only in the active voice: “We will have died.” When we say, “We will have been dead,” we’re not using a passive form of “die.” The word “dead” is an adjective.

Similarly, we can use “go” in the future perfect tense, but only in the active voice: “We will have gone.” Here, “gone” is a past participle of the verb “go.” When we say, “We will have been gone,” we’re using “gone” as an adjective.

What this boils down to is that there’s a difference between having gone and being gone, between having died and being dead.

The grammarian Otto Jespersen discussed the difference in his Essentials of English Grammar: “While he has gone calls up the idea of movement, he is gone emphasizes the idea of a state (condition) and is the equivalent of ‘he is absent.’ ”

This is especially evident, he writes, when the length of the absence is indicated, as in “I shall be gone before you wake in the morning” … “He was gone but a little time” … “Don’t be gone too long!”

Our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2nd ed., unabridged), under its entry for the adjective “gone,” says in a note that “be” is often used with “gone” in perfect tenses.

When “gone” is used with “be,” the dictionary adds, it’s given “an adjectival force, as expressive of a condition, rather than the verbal force, emphasizing the action, which is normal with have.”

Clearly, “gone” looks like a form of the verb “go.” But when it’s used with “be,” it’s an adjective.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says the adjective “gone” means “being away from a place; absent or having departed.”

In its entry for the adjective “gone,” the online Macmillan Dictionary says, “Someone who is gone is no longer present in a place,” and gives the example “I’ll be gone for about half an hour.”

Macmillan also says, “Something that is gone no longer exists or has all been used,” and gives the example “Sadly, those days are gone now.”

Merriam-Webster.com  gives a similar example of “gone” used as an adjective: “She’s been gone for more than an hour.”

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