“Have” vs “Having” in Certain Expressions

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Paul Russell poses an interesting question about the use of have and having. He points out the common ESL error of saying “I am having a headache” and asks:

Why can I say “I’m having my lunch” but not “I’m having a headache”? Some explanations I’ve read indicate it’s all to do with possession. ┬áBut every time I think I have it figured, I have to wonder why I must say “I have a cold” when I can’t say “I have a heart attack.” I’m sure you’ll be having a good explanation for me:-)

Here’s the usual rule given to ESL students concerning the use of “have” to show possession or to describe medical conditions:

Have should always be in the simple present tense for the meaning “to own,” or to describe medical problems. For example: They have a new car. I have a bad cold. It is incorrect to say “I am having a cold” or “I am having a new car.”

“I’m having a heart attack” does seem to contradict this rule.

I think that the difference between “I have a headache” and “I’m having a heart attack” may have more to do with duration than with either a medical condition or possession.

One can “have a heart condition,” but a heart attack is a singular event, usually over in a few seconds or minutes. One may say “I hope I won’t have a heart attack,” but in the event that one has one–and is capable of telling someone–“am having” is the only possibility.

A headache is generally of longer duration than a heart attack. It may last an hour, several hours, or days. The same applies to a cold. Both are events of indeterminate duration. You have them for a while.

If you’re seated at a table having your lunch, you’re engaged in an activity with a predictable end. You’ll stop “having lunch” when you’ve finished eating.

That’s my theory, anyway.

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20 thoughts on ““Have” vs “Having” in Certain Expressions”

  1. Comparing with “having lunch” is a tricky one in this situation.

    In this context, “having” relates more to the act of eating than possession. Technically, it’s valid for me to say “I have my lunch” for the entire morning. “I have my lunch in the fridge”, but “I am having my lunch at my desk”… one is possession, the other is the act of eating.

    (Wasn’t there an article here recently in similar territory – the use of “take” with a broadly equivalent meaning to “ride”)

    Other than a stroke, I can’t think of many other medical conditions (unrelated to heart attacks, at least) in which you’d say “I’m having a…” even for transitory events.

    Having a heart attack.
    Having a migraine.
    Having a stroke.

    (Then again, it works for repeating conditions… “I’m having a series of [headaches/stomach-aches/episodes of flatulence/heart attacks]…”)

    Personally, in the event of either a stroke or a heart attack, I’d rather someone get me medical attention before they correct my grammar.

  2. ESL students usually learn that stative verbs like love, hate, agree or
    understand are not use in progressive sentences such as
    “I’m hating it” And I think that a heart condition is a state of being “He is having a heart attack” should be used only at the moment this is happening he’s having a heart condition is wrong.

    anyway nowadays I can say I’m loving it so it’s only another theory to be unveiled and refuted.

  3. Nice theory Maeve, but I’m not sure it works. For medical conditions, I don’t think duration determines whether we use “have” or “having.” For instance, I can say “I have a pain in my finger because I just bashed it with a hammer, but it’ll be okay in a minute.”

    This thread has reminded me of the time I first became aware of the different usage. My son, who speaks far more Malaysian-English than I’d like, arrived home one day and announced “Eric is having a fit.”

    When he didn’t share my concern, I realized I’d misunderstood. It turned out Eric had just bought a new car. A Honda Fit!

    I’m wondering now whether “having” is used more to indicate severity than condition, to convey to the listener that some action is required. I may be “having” this condition now, but the situation will get much worse if someone doesn’t do something. As in, I am having a stroke, a seizure, a heart attack, a fit, labor pains, et al.

    But then again, “migraine” breaks this rule.


  4. Having thought some more, I don’t think I’d ever say “having a migraine.” It sounds as wrong to me as “having a cold.”


  5. Here’s my theory:

    (In the present tense)
    Having: describes a behavior or action, e.g., having lunch, having a heart attack.
    Have: describes a state of being or generality, e.g., have a headache, have a car, have a cold

    Then, for fun, we can examine “will have,” which seems to work for both purposes. Tomorrow, I will have a headache, and I will have lunch at home. (Hmmm. Now that I think about this a bit more, perhaps “will have lunch” should be “will be having lunch,” which is consistent with the ideas above.)

    I am having fun with this topic (action). I always have fun when discussing language (generality).

  6. @Paul Russell During the early phase of a migraine, where I start having symptoms such as visual aura, speech difficulties and so on, I would say that I am “having a migraine”, because something is actively going on. Once these symptoms pass, however, and I’m left with a migraine headache (and other such fun things), I’d say that I “have a migraine” instead.

    PreciseEdit’s theory matches my own thoughts fairly closely on this.

    I am having = I am actively engaged in doing something.
    I have = I am in a state of being related to the possession of something.

    Some examples that seem to fit:

    I am having trouble = I am actively attempting to do something but encountering difficulties.

    I am having fun = I am probably actively behaving like an idiot and my wife is looking at me strangely.

    We are having a production meeting = I am stuck in a room with a bunch of very dull people. I’m almost certainly doodling aimlessly on a notepad and hoping nobody notices. Actively.

  7. How about this sentence: “Having thereby encouraged those who are not only “the best and the brightest”…we just might be able to breathe a bit more easily about the future of industry and society.”

    Sorry, i know its rather long. But I was clueless when my student asked me what the function of ‘having’ is in this sentence.

  8. Which one of the following is correct?

    Many psychologists, having observed that resilient people are naturally better at containing their anxiety, are able to see the seeds of opportunity in hardship and consider resilience a key component of emotional health.


    Many psychologists, have observed that resilient people are naturally better at containing their anxiety, are able to see the seeds of opportunity in hardship and consider resilience a key component of emotional health.

    After reading the above explanations i feel second one should be correct, as the above sentence doesn’t talks about any action which ongoing.

    Kindly clarify.

  9. Actually Sahil,

    the 1st one would be ok. “Having” in this sentence is qualified as a gerund.

    The 2nd sentence would be ok as well if there were no comma after “psychologists”. This said, both sentences could be good, but with a slight nuance in meaning.

  10. Have vs Having;

    Our Head Mistress always says, “You are having an exam this afternoon.”

    But I think, the following sentence is correct; “You have an exam this afternoon.”

    H.M: “You are having Science period after an hour”

    Me: “You have a Science period after an hour.”

    H.M: “Children! you are having essay writing competition in the 3rd Period.:

    Me: “Children! you have an essay writing competition in the 3rd period.:

    I would appreciate if somebody could correct the above sentences.

  11. To talk about something that would happen in a definite time we could use ‘have’ in Simple present tense, Eg, we have a train to Delhi at 1pm
    (it has a time table and happens as a routine)

    and there is no mistook when you use ‘having’ in present continuous to talk about something that is an arranged future action, Eg, I’m having lunch with my uncle at 1pm.
    (I have already got his call/arranged, it is not my routine)

  12. Thank you Mr.Subin for your comments.
    Just one more clarification;

    I have a pen or I am having a pen.

    I have two sons or I am having two sons

    I have a book or I am having a book.

    Which of the above sentences are correct?

    Thank you….

  13. The present tense is used for habitual action or statement of fact. I have a headache. The present progressive (continuous) tense is used for an action that is taking place while we speak. I am eating lunch. I have a chronic illness. I am having an acute attack. Sometimes both present or continuous are correct. I live in the US (statement of fact) or I am living in the US (living is an action). There is a meeting at 3 (statement of fact) or we are having a meeting at 3 (the current plan is to have a meeting at 3). Never use having to express a statement of fact. I am having a Honda Fit. Note that the use of having + past participle is its own construction and is a correct usage to express that one action finished before another started. It is similar to the past perfect with a complement in the simple past.

  14. I think a simple way to think about it is in terms of an earlier example, I am having two sons as apposed to I have two sons. The former statement would imply you are in the process of giving birth to two twin boys, the latter is just stating the fact that you have two sons. In English we regard having a heart attack, stroke, or giving birth as undergoing a process, and critically these are not thought of as possessive.

  15. Also in general whether we are talking about having lunch, giving birth, or having a heart attack, these are classified as events, and as such, we use having instead of the possessive have.

  16. Hi,
    Can I say/write : “I’m happy for having met you” or “I’m happy to have met you” is the only way to say it?

  17. served,
    “I’m happy for having met you” would be understood, but it is not idiomatic. “I’m happy to meet you” would work. In the old days, people might say, “I’m happy to make your acquaintance.”

  18. Aristotle explains “to have” at the end of his “Categories” and “having” in his “Nicomachaen Ethics”.
    “Having” is what is said when a possessor is properly making use of the possession.
    If I were to “have” (own) a Honda Fit, it would be incorrect to say, “I am ‘having A fit’.”
    But if I am using this vehicle to drive to the store, it is perfectly possible (for a philosopher?) to assert, “I am ‘having MY Fit’.”

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