Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

To Have and to Receive: Two Usages of "Have"

Noel Anenberg, a regular reader of this column and author of the forthcoming book The Dog Boy, asked me about a usage of have that implies, Anenberg writes, "the speaker's active role in the events." Compare:

I had my house cleaned.

I had my car stolen.

The first sentence is easy enough: the speaker hired someone to clean their house. But what about the second sentence? Did the speaker have someone steal their car? If not, why say I had my car stolen instead of My car was stolen? Is this just laziness?

To Have: Causing an Action to Happen

Though the two sentences have the same construction — Subject + Verb + Object +Past Participle — they aren't creating the same meaning because have does not have the same meaning.

As a main verb, have is one of the most common lexical verbs in English. (A lexical verb is used for its meaning rather than as an auxiliary to show things like tense and mood.) Merriam-Webster Unabridged lists 17 definitions for have, most of which have subdefinitions. And those don't include auxiliary verb usage (I have finished dinner) or idiomatic usage (Tom had a hand in Stan winning the election).

In general, though, have shows some sort of relationship. When a sentence is taken out of context, we need to determine what the relationship have is showing to decide whether the usage is legitimate.

In the first sentence, had tells us the relationship between the subject (I) and the object (my house cleaned): I caused my house to be cleaned. The speaker didn't clean the house themselves but had someone else do it. We get the same results with similar sentences, even when the subject is an inanimate object:

Laurie had her book edited.

Sam will have his taxes done.

All the gifts had their gift tags torn off.

To Receive: Emphasizing the Recipient

In "I had my car stolen," had is again connecting the subject (I) with the object (my car stolen), but it's showing a different relationship. Here, the subject experienced the action buried in the object. The object tells us that a car was stolen. I had shows that the speaker experienced the theft.

In other words, the emphasis is on the subject of the sentence and how the object relates to it.

The object doesn't always contain a past participle verb, either. It may have the bare infinitive (the infinitive form of the verb without the to):

I had my house burn down.

When the infinitive form of the verb is used, we can see more clearly that the subject of the sentence is the ultimate recipient of the action: the speaker experienced their house burning down.

If the speaker is the one to cause the action to happen, the object will contain a past participle verb:

The insurance company will never suspect a thing: I had my house burned down by an expert arsonist.

Choose Your Emphasis

All of these sentences are grammatical. The difference between I had my car stolen and My car was stolen isn't laziness, it's emphasis. In the first sentence, the emphasis is on the victim, the ultimate receiver of the action (I); in the second, it's on the direct receiver of the action (my car).

The modern writing style trends toward shorter, more direct sentences and, as a result, more immediate action. Both of these sentence structures put the action at a distance. They soften it, sometimes smothering it.

However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't use such sentence structures. They can be particularly useful when you want to emphasize the relationship between a subject (I, Laurie, Sam, etc.) and an action the subject didn't take. Consider what the main point of your sentence is and use sentence structure to make that point clear.


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Friday November 15th 2013, 3:46 PM
Comment by: Jonathon O. (UT)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Good article, Erin. Recently I was having a conversation with someone online, and I wrote something like "They [the managers] had employees who weren't there come and talk to them." I meant that they required these employees to come and talk to them, but someone misunderstood and thought I meant that the employees were choosing to come and talk to the managers, who were simply passive recipients of the action. I hadn't realized how ambiguous the sentence was when I wrote it, nor how nearly opposite the different readings were.
Friday November 15th 2013, 4:05 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Jonathon. It's an argument for editing our work to be more active and direct.
Saturday November 16th 2013, 7:23 AM
Comment by: Haydeen
This needs editing! Others must have pointed this out, also.
It have the bare infinitive (the infinitive form of the verb without the to):
Haydeen

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Saturday November 16th 2013, 8:45 AM
Comment by: Michael S. (New Milford, CT)
Interesting article and good points to remember. However, twice you used "their" (plural) to modify single nouns. I've always considered that wrong and, to use your term, "lazy."
Saturday November 16th 2013, 11:18 AM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
Michael S., this use of the word "their" is neither wrong nor lazy. It's not even new. Its use is prescribed in exactly the way this author uses it: i.e., when the gender of its subject is not specified (the uses in this article) or when its subject may be either singular or plural. It's been used this way by great writers for centuries. Here are couple of links:

http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/they.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they
http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html#X1ai (a pretty long page, but I enjoyed it)
Sunday November 17th 2013, 12:38 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
Thank you for your interesting article; I, understand the difference between the sentence I had my car stolen , obvious you can ask an another question because you don't get without any infirmation.
It is good to read the article, I am a French studiant and I learn to much new words!
In French grammatical rule we have two auxiliaries verbs ; To Have & To Be. The same rule in English.
Sometimes it is not easy to conjugate in the subjunctive present or past in French language.
Sunday November 17th 2013, 9:59 PM
Comment by: Jan Freeman (MA)
A little more editing: The period in the first parens is superfluous "(I have finished dinner.)"; in the second, it should go outside the close parens "(Stan winning the election.)" Nice piece, though.

[Duly adjusted! —Ed.]
Monday November 18th 2013, 8:56 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Haydeen and Jan, for pointing out errors; even editors need editors.

Thanks all for the comments. Sue is correct: "their" can be used with a singular noun and is neither lazy nor new. I wrote about it briefly here on VT: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wc/killing-the-zombies-split-infinitives-hopefully-and-singular-they/.

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