Proper use and overuse of “had” in writing

From Rick:

Recently, a member of my local writers group mentioned having seen several articles that “had” was one of those words writers should avoid using.

That got my attention. In my thirty-some years of writing experience, I have never run into that comment before. I questioned the comment and asked if the writer could provide me some supporting links because it did not make sense to me why this common verb (to have)—that has standalone meanings (to have=to possess), is the auxiliary verb in all of the perfect verb tenses, and occurs in many verb phrases—should be restricted in one’s writing:

15 ENGLISH EXPRESSIONS WITH “HAVE”

During my researches, I wasn’t overly surprised that I initially turned up NO articles indicating “had” was in any way a problem word. However, being pretty sure this writer was not delusional, I dug deeper.

I looked up those “weed lists” of words that writers need to watch out for (words like “really” and “just” and a whole slew of others). I have one such extensive list of nearly 150 entries in my files—and “had” did not appear on it.

At that point the best I could find were a couple of articles that cautioned against using “had had” unless absolutely necessary (“I had had enough of his constant complaining”) and advised using a contraction instead when possible (“I’d had enough…”) to avoid the doubled word..

Finally, I ran across an article that mentioned excising “had” from one’s writing. But I found it particularly unhelpful since the author of the article gave no useful examples and no references as to where this pronouncement had come from.

If you’re a writer giving advice to other writers, then you had better support your position. This blog writer did neither that nor gave credible examples to indicate “have” and “had” were problems. The few examples given showed no reason to remove the “have” or “had” from them. Here’s the link so you can judge for yourself.

OVERUSE OF THE WORD “HAD”

I did find one article that mentioned how “had” can become annoying, but that use dealt with flashbacks, where the use of “had” as part of the past perfect tense is necessary, but its overuse can also be readily avoided there (see below).

NOTE: If you don’t know what the past perfect tense is and how it’s used, you might want to look at the CATEGORIES box on the right side of my blog. Scroll down to the topic “Verb Tenses” and click it. I did a whole series on mastering verb tenses, so I don’t feel the need to repeat myself here. Part Five covers the past perfect and how to use it properly in flashbacks so that you avoid overusing “had” there.

Here’s an article that asks whether the past perfect tense should be avoided in general, and I think the clear answer is given in the beginning: “The past perfect serves a purpose.”

I agree because it’s a legitimate verb tense not only in English but in many other languages as well. To say we should avoid this verb tense entirely is to strip the language of a tool that helps writers be more precise in their writing.

SHOULD THE PAST PERFECT BE ESCHEWED?

But this still doesn’t address the comment initially made about avoiding “had” in your writing, particularly when the comment was so general, as was the admonishment in the first article I cited by Robin Coyle.

I found one more article that seemed to offer some hope. Here’s the link, but I had some difficulty bringing up the site and had to try several times before being able to access it. It’s actually a discussion thread that dates back ten years, and you have to dig into the thread to see the points being made.

Therefore, I will summarize it, but here’s the link if you wish to dig in.

OVERUSE OF “HAD”?

Here’s how the discussion thread began (quoted from it):

“I’m critiquing a story in which the author frequently uses “had,” and I’m trying to figure out how to best explain to him exactly what the problem with this is. Is it because it’s “passive voice?” Or, “passive writing?” Something else? Maybe someone can explain it a bit better. I find myself unable to articulate why this is not a good thing.”

This right away should raise a red flag. If the person critiquing the piece can’t figure out why he (or she) thinks “had” is a problem, then maybe it isn’t.

The person goes on to say: “Here are some examples from the story. I pulled almost every ‘had’ used in the first 1,300 words.” Then he or she gives examples:

He forgot about blah and blah and the blah and all the things he had done.

…always after there was the terrible feeling that he had lost something…

He could never figure out what it was, and because he was a man who had so many things he wanted to forget, he never tried too hard.

a worn old boathouse he (had) purchased four years ago.

He had not worn the four years since the explosion very well.

the wide red veins in his nose had swollen from drinking too much.

He himself had not taken the years any better.

He had watched it turn gray too, as it grew longer, until the last of his original brown had vanished.

He had grown very old in the four years since he (had) walked away from…

He had tipped the chair back and swung his feet up…

The pens and papers, credit card slips, and receipt books he had kept neatly ordered inside lay in heaps…

He had set aside one corner for the mattress he used as a bed.

The critiquer then added, “In some of the above cases, it looks like the “had” can just be eliminated. In others, the problem is on a grander level than that.”

I’m unclear what he meant by the latter comment.

One responder succinctly said, “None of the ‘hads’ should be thrown out.”

And I agree except for the two I put parentheses around in the examples, which the person had also mentioned were okay to remove. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with any of the “hads” in these sentences. Although those couple are not necessary, the rest indicate a time frame in the story, and their removal would change the meaning.

However, the discussion goes on to mention the possible overuse of certain sentence structures.

What you want to look out for is the overuse of one particular sentence structure, such as a block of text where the sentences all begin: “he had, she had, she then had.” But that applies to any repetitive sentence structure in writing and has nothing to do with “had” in general.

Another respondent in the discussion thread asked, “Is it correct to say that overusing had with past perfect tense is ‘passive writing?’ I read one article that suggested that, but only one.”

The simple answer is that using the past perfect tense is NOT the same as passive writing, not at all. I’ll talk about passive writing vs. passive voice in the next post.

In this post, I believe I have responded satisfactorily to the original comment: “Had” is most definitely NOT one of those words you should avoid in your writing.

What you should avoid is using it where it’s not needed, something you’ll only know by learning when it should be used. I run into writers all the time who don’t know what the past perfect tense is and when it’s necessary to use it instead of simple past tense. Make sure you’re not one of them. Go read those earlier posts I did on verb tenses.

–Rick

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