Can the word once in the sense of doing something at some time in the past with the present perfect? As this dictionary states once can be used to talk about something that happened at some point in the past. It, as other dictionaries, gives examples with it only in the past simple. For example:

I was once in New York.

Does it mean that it cannot be used with the present perfect? If so, then I find it strange as it is known that when are talking about past experiences without mentioning the time, the present perfect is used. Taking that in consideration shouldn't it be

I have once been to New York?

If both sentence are possible, then what is the difference in meaning?

  • 'Was' for 'have been' is a US English thing. Dec 24, 2019 at 23:47

3 Answers 3


Once has a number of different uses.

It can mean

at some indefinite time in the past : formerly

It can mean

one time and no more


The first meaning does not work with the present perfect tense, in the same way that other markers of a passed time period don't work with the present perfect.

I once ate [i.e. at some point in the past I ate] a two-pound steak is correct
I have once eaten a two-pound steak is incorrect

Just as
Last week I ate a two-pound steak is correct, while
Last week I have eaten a two-pound steak is incorrect.

The other meaning, "one time and no more" can be used in the past or present perfect tense (it's likely that it can be used in any tense or mood, but I'd have to think about that).

I was in New York once [i.e. only one time] is correct
I have been to New York once is also correct.

Those two sentences have almost identical meanings. The second slightly emphasizes the travel (I have been there; meaning I went there) while the first only states that I was present, but that distinction is really too fine to worry about.


I like the accepted answer, but I find it raises questions that I can't quite answer. The standard analysis of temporal adjuncts and the present perfect examines whether the specified time contradicts the present perfect's implied meaning of completed action affecting the present moment. For instance, the following is proper:

[1] Recently I have developed a habit of eating two-pound steaks.

"Recently" is compatible with the present perfect here because the adverb encompasses the time from some unspecified short while ago right up to the present moment.

This mechanism also explains why the accepted answer's example

[2]* Last week I have eaten a two-pound steak

is incorrect. The sentence excludes contemplation of the consumption of a large steak during the last few days nearest to the present moment. But that can't be why

[3a]* I have once eaten a two-pound steak.

is incorrect (and I agree it doesn't sound idiomatic). The meaning of once as "formerly, at some time or times in the indeterminate past" doesn't conflict with the consumption of the two-pound steak in the last few moments. I suspect that the meaning intended here isn't "formerly," but the one of "a past, unique occurrence." Consider the following, which is surely acceptable:

[3b] I have eaten a two-pound steak, but just the once.

If "[t]he other meaning [of once], 'one time and no more' can be used in the ... present perfect tense," the why is 3b acceptable but 3a isn't?

Moreover, consider the following from an article in the periodical (ironically named) Once a Week talking about the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus:

Yet still is pointed out the quay, the walls conjectured to have belonged to the Custom House, and even the remains of a huge stone staple to which ships may have once been fastened.

"Once" here surely means formerly, and although the citation appeared in 1873, I don't think there's any modern objection to it.


You use these in different situations. If you say: "I have been to New York once", it means that until now you have visited New York once (= one time).

"I was in New York once, when I saw Mick Jagger walking down the street." This happened to you when you were in New York, sometime in the past.

If you want to say you went to or were in New York at a specific time in the past, say: "I went to New York in 2015" or "I was in New York in 2015."

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