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I was confused with the past perfect tense, so I did a bit of research and things got much more clear now.

But, what if you want to convey the idea of "not being there -- not even once -- during the period of time starting from Jan 1, 2018 until Dec 31, 2018"?

"I had never been there last year" would be a bad sentence, I suppose.

Would "I was not there last year -- not even once" be the best alternative? How about "I was never there last year"? (This is AE, as far as I know.)

If the period of time were from Jan 1, 2019 until now, I would have said "I have never been there this year".

In the question, however, the period has ended in the past (which means you can't use the present perfect),

and you are also not contrasting the two different points in time of past events (which means you can't use the past perfect).

What would be the best way to say this?

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There are several ways of saying that you were not there at any time last year.

Of these, your suggestions correctly include:

I wasn't there last year - not even once.

and more strongly:

I was never there last year.

Other ways to express this forcefully are:

At no time/point last year was I there.
I was not present there at any time last year.
I was not anywhere in the vicinity at any time last year.
At no time last year did I visit X or go anywhere near.
At no point during the course of the year did I visit or was I present there.

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