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Here is a excerpt from Le Petit Prince:

Et le petit prince, tout confus, ayant été chercher un arrosoir d’eau fraîche, avait servi la fleur.

"ayant été" seems most often used to express something similar to the passive voice in English, for example, ayant été sélectionnée, ayant été sous-estimés, ayant été déplacée, etc.

In this quote, as a French friend told me, it means "having gone somewhere to do something", this is a little confusing. Can someone give a more detailed explanation? And why not just use "ayant cherché" here?

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1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There are two things in the sentence that can be confusing.

1- The verb used by the author is aller chercher (to fetch) and not chercher (to look for).

Ayant cherché would mean "having looked for", and not "having fetched". The important thing here is that le Petit Prince went to fetch the watering can and whether he had to look for it or not is irrelevant to the author.

2- In compound past tenses être can be used instead of aller when one has gone somewhere and has already come back. Some consider this usage as incorrect but great authors have used it and not only Saint-Exupéry.

So the sentence could have been :
« le Petit Prince, tout confus, étant allé chercher un arrosoir d’eau fraîche, avait servi la fleur ».
But not :
« le Petit Prince, tout confus, ayant cherché un arrosoir d’eau fraîche, avait servi la fleur »
because the meaning would be different.

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And interestingly enough, we have the same to-be <=> to-go correspondence, and pretty much the same phrase, here, in English. We can say that he "has been to look for" or "he has gone to look for". There is not quite the sense of "fetch", but it is pretty close. "Has been to look for" can sound a bit old-fashioned, but it is quite understandable. And it is even common in a phrase such as "He has been to town to look for work." The main difference from "He has gone..." is that in the former case he went and came back; in the latter case we know only that he went. –  Drew Jan 25 at 8:06

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