You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

We've been had

The Baltimore Sun

Dave Tepps of The Washington Post has raised a point online about a construction that has irritated me for years:

“NYT makes the common ‘error of volition’ here by writing: ‘Ms. Watkins, a Washington-based reporter for The New York Times, had her email and phone records seized by federal prosecutors.’ Unless she asked the feds to seize her records, this is worded improperly. It should be: Federal prosecutors seized the email and phone records, etc. AmIright, journalism friends?”

Right. When you say, “I had the grass cut because my leg was in a cast,” had means that you took the action. But if you say, “I had my leg broken in the accident,” had means that the action happened to you, but it sounds as if you initiated it.

Or is it right? I think readers understand both senses without difficulty. Could it be that I have merely been nursing a crotchet all these years?

Ominously, Garner’s, Fowler’s, and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage are all silent on the subject. Cranky John Bremner, I thought, would surely have views on the matter, but he doesn’t.

Then I turned to Wilson Follett, the Great Harrumpher on usage of the early 1960s, and found a full double-column page in Modern American Usage under “have, noncausative.” He says that the proper use is a causative expression in which “the actions, each volitional, are correctly reported as coming from a human will.” Then he deplores at some length the “plausible counterfeit … whose subjects have no will and perform no action, but are acted upon.” The usage is active in form but passive in meaning, and is thus a solecism. There.

But Theodore Bernstein, himself capable of the harrumph direct, says in The Careful Writer about “a peculiar use of had”: “Webster tells us, however, that one meaning of have is ‘to suffer or experience from an exterior source; as, he had his leg broken.’ Thus, the use is legitimate. But all that is permissible is not necessarily advisable.”

So I have been nursing a crotchet, but I can dress it up as a stylistic preference. And so may you.

One last point: A couple of people commenting on Mr. Tepps’s post wagged their heads over the Wicked Passive Voice. But the sentence he quotes, though passive in sense, is written in active voice. You can in fact have a sentence in the active voice in which the subject lacks agency. You just have to decide whether you want to.

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