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:
- Simple Present: They cook.
- Present Perfect: They have cooked.
- Simple Past: They cooked.
- Past Perfect: They had cooked.
- Future: They will walk.
- Future Perfect: They will have walked.
I’ll limit my remarks to Present Perfect and Past 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.
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.
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.”