Transporting the stone when it was once broken was comparatively simple.

This sentence is by the English author George Orwell from the world-famous book Animal Farm. I am wondering the reason why the adverb once has been used as well as the word when there? It doesn't seem to make sense to me.

I do know the adverb once at this context means after.

Here is the paragraph that the sentence comes from:

The windmill presented unexpected difficulties. There was a good quarry of limestone on the farm, and plenty of sand and cement had been found in one of the outhouses, so that all the materials for building were at hand. But the problem the animals could not at first solve was how to break up the stone into pieces of suitable size. There seemed no way of doing this except with picks and crowbars, which no animal could use, because no animal could stand on his hind legs. Only after weeks of vain effort did the right idea occur to somebody–namely, to utilise the force of gravity. Huge boulders, far too big to be used as they were, were lying all over the bed of the quarry. The animals lashed ropes round these, and then all together, cows, horses, sheep, any animal that could lay hold of the rope–even the pigs sometimes joined in at critical moments–they dragged them with desperate slowness up the slope to the top of the quarry, where they were toppled over the edge, to shatter to pieces below. Transporting the stone when it was once broken was comparatively simple. The horses carried it off in cart-loads, the sheep dragged single blocks, even Muriel and Benjamin yoked themselves into an old governess-cart and did their share. By late summer a sufficient store of stone had accumulated, and then the building began, under the superintendence of the pigs.

One of the answers here thinks that this sentence is ungrammatical - but the poster isn't sure why. I wonder if it is because it comes from such a famous book. Can anyone give a definitive answer?

You could see the resource in the following site:

Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell.

  • Looks odd to me. "Once it was broken" makes much more sense.
    – M.A.R.
    Jan 20, 2015 at 17:43
  • Did you check the definitions of "once" before writing "I know the adverb once at this context means after."?
    – user3169
    Jan 20, 2015 at 18:47
  • 3
    Thanks for providing the source for the quote. I checked some other online versions of Animal Farm, and they contain the same sentence - so it looks like George Orwell did indeed write it like that. I stand by my assertion below that the construct is incorrect - at least in modern usage. It could be that a) an older form of "once" is being used, b) Orwell is playing with language for artistic reasons (as he does in other books) or c) an error on his part, or the part of the printer.
    – brendan
    Jan 30, 2015 at 1:07
  • 2
    Another example from literature: “Like all Holmes' reasoning, the thing seemed simplicity itself when it was once explained. Dr. Watson, speaking of Sherlock Holmes.” - Arthur Conan Doyle
    – ColleenV
    Dec 20, 2018 at 15:31
  • Indeed interesting - see books.google.com/ngrams/… Dec 20, 2018 at 17:57

7 Answers 7


Note: I am editing this answer since the question has been updated since I answered it 7 years ago, and my answer now doesn't seem correct. Unfortunately since this is the "accepted answer" I cannot delete it.

That sentence's use of the word "once" is not consistent with modern English, and that is what makes it confusing. However, others in this thread have found that it may have been a more common usage before the 20th century.

A modern re-wording could be:

Transporting the stone once it was broken was comparatively simple


Transporting the stone when it was already broken was comparatively simple

or, with a slightly different meaning:

Transporting the stone when it was broken once was comparatively simple

  • 1
    What does your last sentence mean? And how it is different from OP's quoted sentence? Jan 29, 2015 at 13:31
  • The last sentence means that the stone has only been broken one time - i.e. not smashed up into a lot of pieces, but only in half.
    – brendan
    Jan 30, 2015 at 1:03
  • OP's sentence is also the same. Only difference is that in OP's sentence once comes before broken. How does that change the meaning, moreover how does it make the sentence incorrect? :O Please explain that! Jan 30, 2015 at 3:42

The use of when and once in the sentence are as a conjunction and an adverb respectively. Such a use, though correct grammatically, is not common today.

According to The Free Dictionary, once as an adverb also means already, formerly, previously and before.

I think the already as the meaning of the once fits well in the sentence.


To add a potentially interesting point - a perusal of google books seems to show that 'once' appears to have gained its meaning of 'after' or 'as soon as' only relatively recently, e.g.:

He left for work once his breakfast was ready.

Prior to 1900's or so though, 'once' only shows up with the literal meaning of "one time", e.g.:

Once he had to sleep under a bridge, and twice in a dumpster, before he took to the road for better prospects elsewhere.

(edited to clarify statement, in response to comments)

Note the examples in the Google books for the particular phrase "when it was once".

While prior to the later 1800's 'once' appears to always have specifically been used to mean " a single time", there are examples of the phrase "when it was once" appearing as an idiom meaning "after it is", like here.

Orwell appears to simply have been using an archaic phrase.

  • "once" in "Once he was lean" does not mean "a single time". It means, "(for a period of time) in the past"... Dec 24, 2018 at 21:51
  • I've changed it for clarity since this is ell, but I think it could be valid, if the speaker views it as a single chunk of time. Dec 27, 2018 at 15:40
  • Also in your new example, "once" means "in the past". To mean "one (single) time" the sentence must be proncounced with a very strange intonation, stressing "once". It also makes very little sense to mean "one (single) time" here. It makes sense in the folowing: "Once he slept under a bridge, and twice in a dumpster, in the first three deays of being homeless". Are you a native speaker? Dec 27, 2018 at 16:05
  • Or maybe a better example: Q: "How often did you sleep under that bridge?" A: "Just once." Dec 27, 2018 at 16:17

Transporting the stone when it was once broken was comparatively simple.

Here once means only. The introduction of once emphasis the clause when it was broken.

Reference -

From OED

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It means that the stone was broken, and when it was broken it was easy to move, but it's not broken anymore.

Here's another example:

When I was once a young boy I played in the fields behind my father's house.

I was a young boy, but I'm not anymore.

  • 1
    I disagree with that: the sentence doesn't scan correctly for me.
    – brendan
    Jan 20, 2015 at 22:27
  • 1
    @brendan I agree with this answer. This interpretation is not impossible. I am upvoting it. But once the context is available, this sentence means something else. Jan 29, 2015 at 14:35
  • i disagree. once is used similar to "after" in this sentence. Dec 25, 2018 at 23:39

In this sentence once implies that the boulders were only broken a single time,which means that the animals divided every boulder into two smaller stone blocks that were easier to carry.

  • 1
    What is the downvote for?
    – Alexdanut
    Dec 20, 2018 at 20:41
  • It's for an incorrect answer. Dec 24, 2018 at 21:37
  • I don't think so.
    – Alexdanut
    Dec 24, 2018 at 22:02
  • Your answer is incorrect, sorry. See my answer for the correct answer. Dec 24, 2018 at 22:04
  • 1
    I don't see why mine is incorrect and yours is correct,so please elaborate
    – Alexdanut
    Dec 24, 2018 at 22:06

I'd like to chime in for this answer.

Transporting the stone when it was once broken was comparatively simple.

Firstly, let's see what meaning will fit in the context:

Once functions as adverb or conjunction.

1.As a conjunction, once means ‘as soon as’ or ‘after’. However, the position of once here is more to adverb. Anyway, how about if we force it open into the sentence:

Transporting the stone when it was as soon as broken was comparatively simple. Let's cross this one. It doesn't fit the bill.

Transporting the stone when it was after broken was comparatively simple. This one is also incorrect, although logically it makes sense. This will make sense if we reposition 'after' and eliminate 'when'.

Transporting the stone after it was broken was comparatively simple. So, let's cross this one as well. Both meanings are incorrect and the position is awkward (not a conjunction - which is used to connect clauses or sentences or words in the same clause).

Secondly, let's try once as an adverb:

1.We use once as an adverb to mean ‘one single time’

Example: I’ve only met Jane’s husband once. (one time)

Transporting the stone when it was once broken was comparatively simple.

This meaning doesn't fit the bill. Let's cross this one (x)

2.We say once a + singular time expression and once every + plural time expression to talk about how often something happens:

They go for dinner together once a month. (one time per month)

I see him once every two or three weeks.

~ This usage doesn't fit the bill as well.

  1. We also use once to mean ‘at a time in the past but not now’. In

    this meaning, we often use it in mid position (between the subject and the main verb, or after the modal verb or first auxiliary verb, or after be as a main verb):


The Millers once owned a dairy farm. (They no longer own a dairy farm.)

She was once a schoolteacher but she hated it. (She is no longer a schoolteacher)

Let's get back to our sentence:

Transporting the stone when it was once broken was comparatively simple.

Breaking it down:

Transporting + the stone

Transporting what kind of stone?

A stone that was once broken. = A stone that firstly, at some time broken in the past.

The meaning fits the bill.

Let's move on to context.

What do we say about the context? The paragraph is about unexpected difficulties faced by a running windmill. And next:

But the problem the animals could not at first solve was how to break up the stone into pieces of suitable size. Meaning that it needs to be broken into bits.

Let's get back into the sentence:

Transporting the stone when it was once broken was comparatively simple.

You can combine the above meanings for more clarity. The sentence wants to convey that by transporting smaller bitsize of stone, they can solve the problem by using the animal.

So it becomes:

Transporting the stone after it was once broken was comparatively simple.

The confusion stems from the usage of 'when', where it's not used in an appropriate way, though it is grammatical. It is more like a logical error

You can't both at the same time transport the stone and break it in the past.

So, in conclusion, this is more to logical error rather than grammatical error.

Main Source: Cambridge Grammar

Second source: Oxford

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