The Haves and the Have-Gots

This is a post on language and linguistics, one of my other passions. This is also largely an educated riff; there has been a lot written on this subject, and I do not profess to higher mastery than what comes before.

While reading Milne’s Elements of Arithmetic (1893), I noticed questions like these: “How many boys do you see in the picture? … How many books has the largest boy?” (p. 12) The latter question struck me as an odd phrasing; I would write, “How many books does the largest boy have?” This got me wondering and thinking and researching.

A Brief History of Subject-Verb Inversion in English

First, a note on the grammar.

Once upon a time, in Old English, our forebears asked questions by flipping the subject and the first word of the verb: “Slept you well?” was perfectly fine (taking other changes into consideration, of course). They also negated sentences by inserting “not” after the first word of the verb: “No, I slept not well.”

Then sometime during the 13th and 14th centuries, we decided that we only wanted to allow the first word to move if it was an auxiliary. Simple predicate verbs had to stay put. Nonetheless, we still wanted to move the tense, even if there was no auxiliary. We could hardly have a tense morpheme wandering around by itself, so we decided to insert a semantically meaningless verb to hold it, and we chose “do”. “Do” is a simple predicate in its own right, but it made sense in a computer programmer sense. Apparently, in that era, the computer programmers were extremely bored, having no computers to program, and exerted themselves in the realm of grammar.

Thus, “Slept you well?” fell out in favor of “Did you sleep well?”, but “Have you been sleeping well?” and “Will you sleep well tomorrow?” and “Might you sleep better with some medication?” and “Could you sleep elsewhere? Your snoring is annoying me.” are all fine. If the predicate of a declarative sentence starts with an auxiliary verb (be, do, have, will, would, shall, should, can, could, may, might, must, ought), invert. If the predicate starts with any other verb, move just the tense information, affixed to “do”.

There are some exceptions. “Need” and “dare” are sortakinda auxiliaries, so moving them is a matter of taste: “Need I remind you?” and “Do I need to remind you?”

Out of the list of auxiliary verbs in parentheses above, the first three can stand alone in standard English. In the case of “be”, it’s either the copula (“I am the Walrus”) or an auxiliary (“I am not kidding”). But the copula is as semantically meaningless as a verb can get: It expresses a relationship between two names for the same object. “Are you a God?” is fine even though “are” is the only verb here. Here are the Middle English Computer Programmers at work again. DO: You sleep well. BE: (You, A God).

The simple predicate version of “do”, on the other hand, is the most generic of the action verbs. In OOP parlance, simple predicates inherit verbiness from “do”. So when “do” is acting in its original generic-verb way, it can’t move. “Did you your homework?” is no more allowed than “Do you be a God?” is. “Be” has to move, non-aux “do” cannot move.

That leaves “have”.

What is “Have”, anyway?

“Have” serves three major purposes in English:

  • A simple predicate: I have some money.
  • Perfect auxiliary: I have seen the glory.
  • Necessity: I have to leave now.

As a simple predicate, it doesn’t denote any particular action; like “be”, it expresses a simple declarative relationship between two names for things. “Be” makes a statement about whether two names refer to the same thing; “have” makes a statement about whether an object is owned by a person. It’s important to note that English retains just three cases: Subject, object, and possessive. “Be” relates subject and object (although your English teacher may well have insisted that the object be in subject form, e.g., “I am he”). “Have” relates subject and possessive.

As an auxiliary, “have” indicates that the action of the predicate has been completed, and by its nature puts the focus on this completion. “I have eaten dinner” puts the fact that dinner has been eaten in modern relevance (now we can go to the movie, now I don’t want anything else, etc.); “I ate dinner” is a simple statement of fact.

The necessity sense semantically straddles these two. Insert “yet” and it’s easier to see: “I have yet to leave”. What do I possess? An obligation. What is the obligation? I must depart. While the auxiliary states a current relevance of a completed action, the necessity sense states a current relevance of an incomplete action. I have to leave because I haven’t yet left.

Indeed, all three senses possess the same basic sense of “have”: I possess something. In the first case, I possess an object; in the second case, I possess a completed activity to contribute to the current context; in the third case, I possess an obligation to complete an incomplete action.

So What’s the Problem?

In the case of the auxiliary, there isn’t one. Move the auxiliary when called upon to do so. No problem. “Have you seen this movie?” “No, I have not seen it, and if you ask me again tomorrow, I will not have seen it then, either.”

While English speakers clearly separated almost all other verbs (including the two versions of “do”) into “verbs that must move” and “verbs that may not move”, the non-auxiliary versions of “have” are in free variation. Moving them or not moving them is a matter largely of personal taste.

But…

Apparently a significant portion of speakers who wanted to move “have” weren’t comfortable with leaving a subject next to its possessed object. While “have you the time?” is still current in some dialects, “have you got the time?” is far more common.

According to the Brits (on sites such as WordReference.com), “have got” is simply the use of the present perfect; “got” is the past participle of “get”. “I have got some news for you” says, “I possess some news. I received it at an earlier time. You will find it useful.”

There are a few problems with this. First is that “have got” is common enough in North America, where the past participle of “get” is typically “gotten”. Even my teen students are vaguely aware of AOL Online’s old tagline, “You’ve Got Mail” (which is also the title of a very American romantic comedy from that era). There is a distinct difference in North America between “have you got…?” and “have you gotten…?”: The former is a question about current possession, the latter a question about formerly obtaining something.

More troubling is that it doesn’t really hold pragmatic water. If I ask, “Have you got the time?”, I’m not asking if someone has previously obtained the time, making that action relevant to the here-and-now. I’m asking someone if they can easily get the time now (perhaps I’ve noticed that they’re wearing a watch). If I asked someone, “Excuse me, have you got the time?”, and they answered, “No, I haven’t, but let me look at the clock on that bank now and … yes, there it is, it’s 11:30″… that would be an odd conversation.

Another problem is that “have got” is a lot more comfortable for most speakers when “have” is contracted or moved in some way. “Have you got those reports for me?” is fine. “No, I haven’t got them. I didn’t get them done last night. I haven’t gotten them done at all yet.” is fine. “I’ve got to do them this afternoon.” Yep. “I have got a meeting at 2, though.” sounds a little awkward, though (not completely ungrammatical, mind you, just not quite as smooth as the others).

It seems very plausible that “have got” started life centuries ago as the present perfect of “get”, but modern usage suggests that it’s idiomatic now; “got” is being used in this construction to allow “have” to function as an auxiliary or to be contracted without the discomfort of having a sentence without a “strong” verb.

That said, it’s not technically redundant: “Have” and “got” are not both verbs of possession when they’re sitting next to each other. When it’s there, “got” becomes the verb of possession and “have” the auxiliary. In some dialects and registers, “have” can be dropped, but “got” cannot be moved.

Indeed, if you want to know what time it is, these are all acceptable in some part of the English speaking world:

The other two possibilities are grammatically possible, but strike me as requiring a context where the questioner is surprised:

  • You’ve got the time? (Predicate “get”, contraction, no inversion)
  • You have got the time? (Predicate “get”, no contraction, no inversion)

Now, I gotta go, so I’ll leave you with this.

Addendum

Google books offers a tool that reports on phrase frequencies over time. While this is hardly perfect, it does give a decent view of the historical development of phrases. Here are the frequencies of “have you the”, “do you have the”, and “have you got the” in total, American, and British English:

Based on this, “Do you have…?” is consistently favored on both sides of the pond in print these days, but “Have you…?” (without “got”) was favored up until the 1960s in the US and the 1980s in the UK. The key words here are “in print”, since we tend to talk more casually than we write. I would expect a spoken corpus to have more “have you got” than a written one would. Even so, when restricted to English-language fiction, the relative pattern is roughly the same (albeit with “have you got” having a peak in the middle 1800s that doesn’t appear in the other charts):

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