Trouble with “Did” and “Had”

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I’ve begun to notice the use of “did” in contexts that call for “had.”

In an episode of CSI New York, the Sinese character remarks:

If I didn’t do it, he would have killed me.

He’s referring to something bad he did earlier in the episode. He wasn’t killed, so the act he’s referring to is both contrary to fact and in the past.

The statement is an example of the contrary-to-fact past conditional. Because the “if” clause refers to a contrary-to-fact past event, it requires the past perfect form of the verb.

If I hadn’t done it, he would have killed me.

Here’s another example of using “did” when “had” was called for:

Did you bring any beer? I wish I did.

The speaker has arrived at a gathering of friends. It’s clear from the context that he’s wishing he’d thought to bring some beer.

The main verb in the first sentence is “bring.” The second sentence conveys a regret that the speaker did not carry out an act in the past. Since the bringing of the beer remained undone in the past, the past tense of “bring” is called for in the second sentence:

Did you bring any beer? I wish I had (“brought some” is understood).

What do you think? Do errors like these portend a further erosion of the past perfect?

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31 thoughts on “Trouble with “Did” and “Had””

  1. And take a look at “may” and “might”

    As in, “If I hadn’t hit the bnrakes, I may have died.”

    The misuse of may in that context has become habitual on local new casts. I haven’t seen it infect nationaol news yet.

  2. “If I hadn’t done it, he would have killed me”

    I thought the correction should have been:

    “If I hadn’t have done it, he would have killed me”

    Is that “have” after the “hadn’t” merely superfluous or incorrect?

  3. I find that often people add “would” where they oughtn’t.
    E.g. “Did you bring any beer? I wish I would have.”
    or “If I would have known you were coming, I might have called.”

  4. All that grammar stuff got pounded into my brain at a young age; my mom was an English major and a teacher. She was constantly correcting my grammar (and everything else) until I got it right. So altho unfortunately I can’t parse a sentence, can’t tell the difference between past perfect and present company, I can definitely do the right thing (without knowing why). Your explanation didn’t help, but that’s OK…I didn’t need it. I wish there were some way someone could explain it to me in a way that would make sense to me. I have several grammar books at home; none really explains it in a way that I can understand, by which I mean, if I had to explain it to someone else, forget it! I would say, “Get your mother to hammer it into your head!”

  5. It seems to be the evolution of one dialect into another (20th Century into 21st Century, or something else). From my UK perspective the ‘I wish I did’ formation has always been a US phenomenon, only recently insinuating itself into British English as well.

    Just as my sons say, ‘Did someone walk the dog yet?’ whereas i would ALWAYS say, ‘Has anyone walked the dog yet?’ – but the former is becoming more ‘natural’ to my ear, and that’s down to tv etc.

    Come to that, they say ‘sidewalk’ and i’m sure i’ve only ever called it a ‘pavement’ in their presence…

    But yes, it’s a simplification/regularisation process which happens to every language from one generation to the next. Much as my grammar-geek instincts love the ‘correct’ forms, i do recognise it’s normal and natural for things to change. From being lazy it has become stylistically correct to say ‘After eating the pudding’ instead of ‘After having eaten the pudding.’ Probably most of the world is glad it has!

  6. Thanks. I like these short and sweet, simple-take-home-message blog posts.

    There is only one blog feed that goes directly to my email box – Daily Writing Tips.

    – Ryan

  7. I have alluded to this change in comments before. It bothers me mostly because changing past perfect to simple past makes the message/communication less precise and, perhaps, more subject to misunderstanding or misinterpretation than if the past perfect is retained.

    In fact, Maeve, I would even have said (under the first quote in your blog): “He’s referring to something bad he HAD DONE earlier in the episode.” Is that being too sensitive?

  8. Grace S.,
    The practice of using simple past in place of past perfect is quite common now. Sometimes a writer can get away with it. Sometimes, as you say, it leads to imprecision. I’ll probably come back to it.

  9. I think the last example – about the beer – should also have the question in the present or past perfect. “Had or have you brought any beer?” depending on the context.

    As to thebluebird11’s comment, I try to explain that perfect means complete. The time at which the “completeness” matters determines the tense. Further, the perfect tenses imply something. They are never solely about the thing itself.

    He had already sold the car implies I couldn’t buy it.

    If you have seen the movie implies that you can tell me about it or I don’t believe what your parents let you do, etc.

    If you have studied enough, you are ready.

    If you had thought to bring beer, your wisdom and prescience go up in my estimation.

    If you have brought beer, then either you could share one with me, or you are having a better time than I.

  10. Mayooresan: ‘Can we write “I Did had a good dinner”?’
    Definitely not.

    ‘I had a good dinner’ is correct…

    … and ‘I did have a good dinner’ is correct IF wanting emphasis (eg: ‘The whole day was horrible, but at least i did have a good dinner.’)

    – but ‘did’ and ‘had’ never go together.

    Making a question, we would say, ‘Did you have a good dinner?’ – which reminds you that ‘did’ (used as an auxiliary) goes with ‘have’.

    Hope this helps. 80)

  11. While I find the ins-and-outs of grammar relatively amusing, most of the had/did examples here (notably the first one) come from script or some other kind of fictional dialogue. In this case isn’t it acceptable, or indeed required, for writers to create characters who talk like real people, inaccurate grammar and all?

  12. @bluebird111
    Likewise….I really don’t know any english grammar rules, just come to me naturally when I talk…

    Anyways, when do we use If I didn’t?

  13. FWIW, the (ancient) Greek equivalent (e.g, εἴ αὔτον μὴ ἔπραξα, μὲ ἀπέκτειναι ἄν) has aorist tense in both halves of the sentence, which roughly corresponds to the English preterite – i.e., this usage is far from new 🙂

  14. Mand:

    Mayooresan: ‘Can we write “I Did had a good dinner”?’

    Definitely not.

    Because only one verb in a clause may be finite.

    … and ‘I did have a good dinner’ is correct IF wanting emphasis (eg: ‘The whole day was horrible, but at least i did have a good dinner.’)

    “Do” can indeed be used in positive declarative sentences merely to add emphasis. But your example illustrates a subtly different use – to contradict a negative. Another example: “we do believe in fairies!”


    Thank you very much. I had this question for a long time.

    I have had this question…

    Use the present perfect tense for conditions that occur in the past extending to the present.

  15. But Peter, we can never draw conclusions about one language from studying the grammar of another. French would say ‘When you will get here, do X,’ whereas in English only ‘When you get here, do X’ (present tense after ‘when’) is correct.

    I may be misremembering the deteail of my very distant French, but the point remains true that we can never draw conclusions about one language from what is correct in another.

  16. But all we know about proto-Indo-European is drawn from analysis of other related languages…the fact that it’s done that way in other IE languages surely indicates something about the nature of the grammar?!

  17. Just a minor point, but I don’t think it’s the past perfect in those examples. Although it has the same elements as the past perfect, it’s technically a subjuntive tense, isn’t it?

  18. Yes – the end of properly constructed past tenses is surely at hand. I continue to squirm when I hear “I should of” instead of “I should have”but it is getting so common that it will soon become accepted, I fear.

  19. sam: I’d say yes, but that’s a stylistic question (or a question of representing fictional characters’ speech realistically) rather than a grammatical point, and so doesn’t invalidate the discussion here of correct/incorrect usage.

    Daran: Thanx for adding the technical reason to my explanation. And yep, you’re right about the nuance between emphasis and contradiction. (It was the end of a long day!)

    Mark: Yep!

    Peter: Analysis of related languages only really gives us estimates of Proto-IE vocabulary/semantic shift and morphology, rather than its grammar. We really cannot infer the grammar of English or another language from that of French, or Latin (which is the mistake that led to the myth of the split infinitive being incorrect… (can of worms, anyone?)) or any other language.

    Loving this batting-around of grammar! I have greatly missed the company of people who know what words like ‘semantic’ mean. Good ol’ world-shrinking internet. 80)

  20. Suzie (#23), that is an example of a mispronunciation/misspelling cycle that is difficult to break. What speakers really are saying is “should’ve” (when they’re being more conversational than precise), which is completely acceptable; however, hearers assume they’re saying “should of” and don’t know it’s a contraction, so they write it “should of” and that perpetuates the problem. I would guess that “should’ve” is hardly ever written, even by those who know better, because they most often write it out completely, “should have.”

    RUGRLn (#17), you could say “If I didn’t know better . . .,” for example, because you’d be speaking about a current situation in the negative.

  21. I agree with Peter–

    Check out original Germanic (Proto-German) word order and subsequently the shift in English grammar. You may not want to use Greek, but certainly English word order was once very, very close to German.

    Besides what does ‘correct’ mean? You people who tout “correct” grammar are really forgetting that you don’t speak “original” grammar… just what you believe is acceptable (which is a construct).

    As long as people exist, there will be no such thing as ‘correct’ in any language. All that matters is that people understand. Embrace change.

    Remember that there are a lot of people in this world who do not speak a “proper language” and have suffered for it. Please don’t spread these kinds of feelings. Language is very personal as I’m sure you all attest to.

    Also, I find that many people who are well-trained in “English” are not well-trained in “Language.” If no one ever made a mistake we would all speak the same language, and there would be eight cases, no past perfect conditional subjunctive indicative aortist (jk) But really, English is a creole of sorts. To say what is “proper” is just plain silly.

    English hasn’t been “proper” since the Norman invasion (1066 AD) or even before that (Vikings/Celts). Also, this war between English and American, EX CETERA is just ridiculous. We speak different languages, just leave it at that. Be amused by all means, but being annoyed over differences is pointless.

    There’s a difference between something that may not meet your standards and is just down-right wrong. (i.e. did/had vs cavalry/calvary)

    When it creeps into the media (BBC or American) consider the standards of English to be changing. (not that they determine it, but I’d say that’s pretty heavily changed at that point…) Heaven forbid!

  22. I agree with you, Ashley, though i would put it more gently. My own fascination with ‘correct’ usage is because i enjoy it, but i am descriptivist, not proscriptivist.

    Stephen Fry said the same in this week’s QI; he claimed to hate people being sticklers for ‘correct English’ while ignoring that natural language changes over time, but the fact he admitted to correcting ‘less’ to ‘fewer’ in the past tells us he notices and cares about these details!

  23. Sorry, i seem to have given you the wrong episode of QI. Never mind, it’s worth a watch anyway, especially if you don’t get it where you live.

  24. Dinesh, only two years late. No, the construction “I didn’t had glance of it.” is incorrect. I’m not sure what is meant. “I didn’t have a glance of it”?
    “I didn’t glance at it”? You may find this post about the words “glance” and “glimpse” of interest:

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