The Grammarphobia Blog

Gone fishing

Q: In a recent posting, you note that we still use “be” as an auxiliary with some verbs of motion, like “go” and “grown.” Then you add: “So today we can say either ‘he is gone’ or ‘he has gone,’ ‘they are grown’ or ‘they have grown.’ To me, there’s a subtle distinction in emphasis, if not meaning, between “he is gone” and “he has gone.” Am I off base?

A: No, you’re right on base. There’s a difference between “he is gone” and “he has gone,” and between “they are grown” and “they have grown.” That’s why both forms—with “be” and “have”—are still in the language. They’re both useful.

To explain, we have to back up a bit. As we said in our earlier posting, many verbs originally had some form of “be” (like “is,” “am,” or “are”) as their auxiliary.

This was true of verbs of motion including “come,” “go,” “rise,” “fall,” “grow,” “depart,” “return,” and others. These verbs once had “be” as their auxiliary, not “have.”

This accounts for old usages like “he is come” (for “he has come”), “Troy is fallen” (for “Troy has fallen”), and “we are lately returned” (for “we have lately returned”).

With most of those verbs, the old “be” forms have long since been dropped and the modern auxiliary is “have.” But the “be” forms have been retained in some poetic and religious usages (“He is risen,” “the Lord is come,” “miracles are not ceased”).

In the case of “go” and “grow,” they too have adopted “have” as their auxiliary verb. But they’ve kept the old “be” too—with a difference.

In modern usage, “is gone” and “are grown” are no longer construed as perfect tenses. Instead, “gone” and “grown” are interpreted as adjectives.

So the old forms are still here, but with new meanings.

In a previous blog item about the difference between “he is gone” and “he has gone,” we quoted the grammarian Otto Jespersen:

“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.’ ”

In summary, “gone” and “grown” are past participles of “go” and “grow.” But in modern English, when they’re used with “be” they’re adjectives. If you want to get technical about it, they’re past participles, used predicatively as adjectives.

We hope this sheds some light. And as for “gone fishing” (the title of this blog item), we discuss the expression briefly in a posting about the lyrics of the Pink Floyd song “The Trial.”

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