Has vs. Had

By Maeve Maddox

I received this note from a reader:

My friends and I consider ourselves to be pretty good English speakers. But, when and where to use has and had has us beat. Can you assist?

The verb to have ranks right up there with be and do as far as the variety of ways in which it is used. I’m guessing that the reader is referring to the use of has and had in their role as auxiliary or helping verbs.

Has and had are forms of the verb to have. Their use as helping verbs is to form perfect tenses.

First of all, let’s clarify the grammatical meaning of perfect. It does not mean “In a state of complete excellence; free from any imperfection or defect of quality; that cannot be improved upon; flawless, faultless.” Perfect to describe a verb tense has to do with the completion of an action.

Linguists argue over how many verb tenses English has, but for our purposes, we’ll say that English has six basic tenses:

  1. Simple Present: They cook.
  2. Present Perfect: They have cooked.
  3. Simple Past: They cooked.
  4. Past Perfect: They had cooked.
  5. Future: They will walk.
  6. Future Perfect: They will have walked.

I’ll limit my remarks to Present Perfect and Past Perfect.

Present Perfect
Have or has is used with a past participle to form the present perfect tense. This tense designates action which began in the past but continues into the present, or the effect of the action continues into the present.

Compare these sentences:
My father drove a school bus. (simple past)
My father has driven a school bus for three years. (present perfect)

The first sentence implies that the father no longer drives a school bus; the second sentence indicates that he is still driving a school bus.

Past Perfect
This past perfect (also called the pluperfect) is formed with had and a past participle. The past perfect indicates an action that was completed in the past before another action took place.

Compare:
Arnold painted the garage when his friends arrived. (simple past)
Arnold had painted the garage when his friends arrived. (past perfect before simple past)

In the first sentence, Arnold started painting the garage at the time his friends arrived. He was probably hoping they would help him.

In the second sentence, Arnold had completed the action of painting the garage by the time his friends arrived.

In sentences that express condition and result, the past perfect belongs in the part of the sentence that states the condition:

“If I had made better choices in my youth, I would be better off today.”

I often hear television characters use the simple past instead of the past perfect in the condition clause: “If I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake.” They also create such convoluted constructions as “If I would have known you were coming, I would have baked a cake” instead of: “If I had known you were coming, I would have baked a cake.”

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8 Responses to “Has vs. Had”

  • opsimath

    A well-explained piece, as always, and thank you for your clarity of thought and your understanding of our language; you have helped me enormously and continue to bring me new things all the time.

    In your final example, would, ‘Had I known you were coming, I would have baked a cake.’ be considered too old-fashioned or awkward? The reason I ask this is that it is the form I usually use.

    Best regards,

    opsimath

  • Dale A. Wood

    I recently wrote a comment, and when I clicked on “submit”, it did not work. Testing now.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hi, Opsimath,
    The sentence “Had I known you were coming, I would have baked a cake,” is an elliptical one in that some words have been left out by idiomatic reasons.
    We need to write it out completely to analyze it:
    “If I had known that you were coming, then I would have baked a cake.”
    Now, the “had known” is in the past perfect tense,
    the “have baked” is in the present perfect tense, and
    the “If”, the “then”, and the “would” put the sentence into the subjunctive mood.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Quoting: Linguists argue over how many verb tenses English has, but for our purposes, we’ll say that English has six basic tenses:
    1.Simple Present: They cook.
    2.Present Perfect: They have cooked.

    This is very interesting about tenses of verbs in English because I had spotted recently “the progress tense”. I pointed out that most English teachers I have know, including my mother, had called this the “progressive mood”.

    In my previous list of moods in English, I omitted at least two: the Exclamatory Mood and the Emphatic Mood. The latter is used with the auxiliary verb “do” or “does” in the present tense.
    An emphatic sentence is “Do complete your homework or die trying!”
    Also, “If you can’t complete your homework, do come to your professor for help. He does love to help students outside of class.”
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hi, Opsimath,
    The sentence “Had I known you were coming, I would have baked a cake,” is an elliptical one in that some words have been left out by idiomatic reasons. We need to write it out completely to analyze it:

    “If I had known that you were coming, then I would have baked a cake.” Now we can see the following:
    “had known” is in the past perfect tense.
    “have baked” is in the present perfect tense.
    “If”, “then”, and “would” put the sentence in the subjunctive mood.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Sorry, but sometimes today the e-mail system of this Web site is acting up on me. I regret that some sentences have ended up typed twice. but it was not on purpose by me. It was a malfunction.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    I’m curious about the initial question:

    when and where to use has and had has us beat.

    I take that to mean that there are times when they are not clear when to use *has* as opposed to *had*? Am I inferring correctly? If so, can you give an example of when that might not be clear?

    If I has known you were coming?

    Or does he just mean to use either one or the other?

    My father has/had driven…? Could the differences in meaning between those 2 not be obvious?

    (Of course, If I knew you were comin’ Ida baked a cake doesn’t really make sense, either.)

  • Victor

    So, in other words, the most explicit answer to the original question of when to use has vs. had is:

    has = present perfect = started verb in past and still going

    had = past perfect = started verb in past and had finished in past

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