The devil is indeed in the linguistic details: The story of “have”

Be warned! If you’re not interested in language – and I suppose that’s possible – then this article will strike you as something of a “train spotter” post. By that, I mean that like train spotting, it focuses on some incredibly fine details about just one thing, but if you’re not curious about that one thing, you’ll feel like you’re talking to a train spotter, complete with notebook and anorak [1].



Anorak: Inuit

This all came about with a seemingly simple question regarding how to represent simple phrases in an augmentative and alternative communication device [2]. More specifically, it was about phrases using  pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they) and the verb to have. And the specific example was about whether the question form of “you have” is “have you?” or “do you have?” It seems a simple enough question but there’s a grammatical demon lurking in the wings, waiting to stab someone with a pitchfork!


Suppose you’re out without a watch or a smart phone and you want to know the time. What would you say to someone?

(a) Excuse me, do you have the time?
(b) Excuse me, have you the time?

Pragmatically, either would work, and one suggestion I heard was that the former is more typical of American English and the latter of British English. Well, intuition is a marvelous thing but a poor substitute for empirical data! This sounded like a job for corpus linguistics – the science of huge language samples.

Using my favorite free online resource, the BYU Corpora site, I checked the incidence of the phrase “do you have the time?” against “have you the time?” in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Here’s what I found:

“Do you have the time?”: 10 occurrences
“Have you the time?” : 0 occurrences

So in American English, the “do you have” construction seems to be the clear winner. But then I needed to look at the same phrases using the British National Corpus, and here’s how that looked:

“Do you have the time?”: 1 example
“Have you the time?”: 3 examples

Well, hardly conclusive, but you could probably make a case that the “have you” construction is three times more likely to be used than the “do you have” and so the hypothesis that it’s a US versus UK difference isn’t necessarily wrong. So maybe it would be OK to have the question form “do you have” stored on American English communication aids but “have you” on British English – a sort of “separated by a common language” sort of thing.

So the general rule here would be as follows:

A. Statement form = PRONOUN + <to have>
B. Question form = <to have> + PRONOUN

There’s a beautiful symmetry and simplicity to this. “You have” becomes “have you,” “he has” becomes “has he,” “we have” becomes “have we” and so on.

But wait, wait… there’s more!

Have a cupcakeThe verb to have has two roles it can play in language. The first is demonstrated by the example just given where it is used as a lexical verb synonymously with to own or to possess. The sentences”Do you have a pen I could borrow?” or “Have you a pen I could borrow?” are both OK, and that inserted do is a standard feature of both American and British English. In fact, it’s pretty much obligatory for all lexical verbs [2]. I can say, “You like monkeys” but have to ask “Do you like monkeys?” because “*Like you monkeys” just sounds so wrong.

The second, and more common, use of to have is as an auxiliary or helping verb. That means it is found alongside another verb and “helps” it in some way. For example, I can say “You have finished” where the have “helps” the verb to finish, but if I want to use the question form, I have to say “Have you finished?” Notice that “*Do you have finished?” makes no sense, and when used as an auxiliary, you don’t use the do. So you would find things like “Have you finished your soup?” and not “*Do you have finished your soup?” or “Have you washed the car?” and not “*Do you have washed the car?”

The difference in use between the lexical and auxiliary aspects of to have is why if you are going to store the question form of the [PRONOUN + <to have>] phrase as a single unit, you are better to have [<to have> + PRONOUN] with [<do>] as a separate lexical item. You then don’t have to have TWO question forms that depend on which aspect of the verb you are using [3].

Now you can take you anorak off.

[1] The word anorak is noted in the Oxford English Dictionary as one of the few words to come into English from Inuit. The Inuit language has a number of variations, from which we get other words such as igloo, kayak, and inukshuk (a stack of stones designed to look like a human figure, more familiar to our Canadian readers and Rush fans who have copies of the 1996 album “Test for Echo”).

[2] It’s called “do-insertion” or “do-support” and bizarrely makes absolutely no contribution to the sentence! If you miss it out, it might sound weird but it doesn’t change the meaning of the utterance. German manages to get along quite well without it and “Magst du Affen?” translates as “Like you monkeys?” and in French “Vous aimez les singes” becomes the questions “Aimez-vous les singes?” with ne’er a do or a faire in sight! There are a number of theories out there about why (and when) this funky do appeared but that’s best left for another time.

[3] For those of you familiar with Prentke Romich devices and the Unity® language software, we pre-store phrases using sequences of picture, such as PICTURE A + PICTURE B = “you have” and then PICTURE B + PICTURE A = “have you.” Because we have the same pictures used in two directions, it’s actually easy to teach that if you want to make a statement, use A + B, but if you want the question form, just reverse it for B + A. That regular rule then works all through the system and it automatically handles that tricky little do-insertion for lexical verbs. If you’re not familiar, click on the link below to see a short video:



2 responses to “The devil is indeed in the linguistic details: The story of “have”

  1. interesting article this time! I never realized I didn’t know that much about “have”!
    Also, yes we Canadian readers, especially those in Central and Northern Canada will know “inukshuk” quite well. Awesome Rush reference too!

    • It’s comforting to see someone know the Rush reference. Many “under-30s” – which includes my grown-up kids – might ask “Rush? Who?” And heaven forbid I might mention Yes, Genesis, or even Pink Floyd!

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