To Have or Have Not

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.


Over the past few years I’ve noticed the many uses of the verb have. It’s a useful word, but often overused in prose. During editing mode, I’ve been substituting verbs that are more accurate or lend variety. For instance, “have” is often used to mean “need”:

He had to go.

could be more precisely stated:

He needed to go.

Using “needed” points up internal necessity and rules out the possible meaning of the character externally being forced to go against his will.

The following table suggests a number of alternatives to “have” or “had” that could make your writing clearer and livelier. An execption to these substitutions is dialogue. For example, “have” can mean to associate oneself with, to participate in. Someone who would say:

“I won’t have no part in that scam.”

might not say:

“I won’t participate in that scam.”

So trade only as narrative voice permits.

Alternative Words for “Have”

Here are some meanings of “have” with examples and possible substitutes. (I’ve provided relatively few; when I printed the definition of “have” from the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary [software, 2003], the printer spit out five pages.)

I’m sure you can come up with more creative rewrites, but these instances will help make you aware of the many uses of “have” that native English speakers often process without noticing—and why you might want to use a more descriptive or active verb.

Meaning Example Alternative to “Have”
Own: to possess as property She has a car. She owned a Honda Civic coupe.
Contain, include: to consist of The pond had some large bluegills. The pond contained some large bluegills.
Carry, bear, support The windows had awnings. Canvas awnings hooded the windows.
To feel compelled, obligated, or required She had an email to write. She needed to write that email.
Must Drake had to do it now. Drake must do it now.
Obtain: to acquire, to get possession of Mother Hubbard found there was nothing to be had in her cupboards. The cupboards all empty, Mother Hubbard found nothing to give to her dog.
Gain He had a lot from the trip. He gained much from the trip.
Receive She asked the clerk if he had any information. She asked the clerk if he’d received any information.
Achieve They believe a settlement can be had between the two factions. They believe the two factions can achieve a settlement.
Exhibit, show, manifest Gertie had the courtesy to fetch him a glass of water. Gertie showed the courtesy to fetch him a glass of water.
To experience by sumitting to, undergoing, being affected by, enjoying, or suffering She had a painful mammogram. She suffered a mammogram.
Cherish: to entertain in the mind or feelings She had much affection for the kittens. She expressed much affection for the kittens.
To permit or suffer Mikey would not have his brother treat the dog so cruelly. Mikey would not let his brother treat the dog so cruelly.
Know, understand: to be marked by an intellectual grasp of Having no German, he could not communicate with the Bavarians. Knowing no German, he could not communicate with them.
To be able to handle adequately The work was so easy that, by the end of the day, he had it. The work was so easy that, by the end of the day, he mastered it.
Outwit, outplay, outmaneuver Evgeniy had his chess opponent in three moves. Evgeniy beat his chess opponents in three moves.
Trick, cheat, fool, bamboozle His new “friends” had him and abandoned him, penniless. His new “friends” cheated him, leaving him penniless.
To be in control of, be responsible for Amartha has overall command of the starfleet. Amartha holds overall command of the starfleet.
Eat, drink: to partake of I have coffee every morning. I drink… I enjoy coffee every morning.
Smoke He had a cigarette. He smoked a cigarette.
To associate oneself with, participate in Wellington refused to have any part of the chicanery. Wellington refused to take any part in the chicanery.
Control, dominate: to cause to do one’s bidding Naturally, any man with a gun would have him. Naturally, any man with a gun could control him.
Buy, bribe They could be had for a price. They could be bought for a price.
To engage and hold The carnival huckster had the interest of the onlookers. The carnival huckster held their interest. Better: The carnival huckster enthralled them.

To have or have not? You don’t always need to substitute, but when you notice that your narrative contains too many forms of this verb meaning a number of different things, feel free to swap a few for something stronger.

Until my next snit fit, write on, my friends, write on…

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