Professional Teacher
Linguistics question - I didn't have an X vs. I hadn't an X

Here's a question for English teachers:

Do you have students who consistently use "I hadn't an X" instead of "I didn't have an X"?

I have noticed that almost all of my students from a certain South American country use the phrase "I hadn't an X" instead of "I didn't have an X." My copies of the North American and British editions of Grammar in Use by Murphy both use "I didn't have...."  (citation - English Grammar in Use 5th edition, p. 10)

However, I have stumbled across some information that "I hadn't" was current until recently in Great Britain. ;

For my students, I assume that they all learned from the same government issued textbook, possibly based on British English of a certain vintage.

Apr 29, 2019 3:08 PM
Comments · 18

Yes, that looks likely.

If the ngrams are to be believed, the main shift from 'hadn't a' to 'didn't have' occurred in American English in the mid-1930s:

In British English, the same trend took another generation. The shift seemed to have reached its tipping point in BrE in the mid-1960s:

That makes quite a difference. It means that there are probably very few Americans alive today who remember when 'hadn't a' was widespread, while there is still a whole generation of older British English speakers who grew up before 'didn't have' took over. 

Fascinating.  That's the great thing about linguistics, isn't it? There are few areas of study where you can watch the process of evolution in the making. Things would be happening more slowly if we were, say, palaeontologists. ..

April 30, 2019

Thanks Adam, MoiraWendy, and Richard.

I hope that some British teachers (of a certain age) will add some comments.  Perhaps they have seen this evolution personally.

April 29, 2019

I'm a British teacher, and I'm even of a 'certain' age, but I can't say that I've witnessed any evolution. What I have done on a number of occasions, though, is refute the assumption that "I hadn't a pencil" is in any way typical British English. This seems to be one of the common misconceptions about the supposed difference between BrE and AmE.

As far as I can tell, it is simply outdated English. For example, I recently read Patricia Highsmith's novel 'Carol', first published in New York in 1952, and I was struck by her use of 'hadn't + noun phrase' where modern English would use 'didn't have'. 

This auxiliary-style use of 'have' fell out of use a long time ago.  I was teaching English before most italki members were born, and I don't recall seeing any textbooks which still taught it.  What we're left with is a few idiomatic relics. MoiraWendy mentioned one of these: "I haven't a clue" . Other examples are mock old-fashioned phrases like "Have you no shame?". 

For some reason, the outdated auxiliary form sounds less strange with 'no' and 'any'. For example, 'I've no money' sounds acceptable to me, as does 'Have you any whisky? (at least to the British ear). I also have a feeling that such expressions are more natural in Scots and Irish English, but I could be wrong.  I'd be interested to hear what other native speakers make of the two examples I've put in bold here.

April 29, 2019

No answers, a few random synaptic firings for you.

This isn't definitive, because it is part of a piece of verse, and of course it is using "haven't" instead of "hadn't," but, I instantly thought of the nursery rhyme:

Simple Simon saw a pie man going to the fair.

Said Simple Simon to the pie man, "Let me taste your wares."

Said the pieman to Simple Simon, "Show me first your penny."

Said Simple Simon to the pieman, "Indeed, I haven't any."

A quick web search also turns up:

"I hadn’t a word to say, and poor Jake was white as paper and trembling all over."--Willa Cather, My Antonia, 1918, US

"I hadn't a very vivid recollection of old man Craye." --P. G. Wodehouse (British, of course) (1912)

"A year ago I hadn't a relative in the world except two or three that wouldn't speak to me."--George Bernard Shaw (British... "Irish?"), Pygmalion, 1912. The speaker is Alfred Doolittle, father of Eliza, a Cockney.

April 29, 2019


Personally, I would not use "I hadn't" unless I was using "had (and hadn't)" as the auxiliary verb in a response to a statement that had used a main verb in the past participle form, e.g. Had you thought about that? No, I hadn't.

Not using an auxiliary verb such as "do/did" may be the result of not understanding the use of auxiliary verbs such as "be, do, and have".

And there you have my best guess...


from grammarexchange:

As with other verbs in English, for the simple past negative we use the auxiliary didn't. That's why choice no. 2 is correct (I didn't have dinner yesterday.

Hadn't is normally the negative auxiliary of the past perfect in American English (When I got there, he still hadn't arrived.) 

It can get a little confusing, though, because unlike American English, in British English hadn't can be the simple past negative of the verb have (I hadn't the time to help them yesterday.) 

April 29, 2019
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English, French, Persian (Farsi), Spanish
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French, Persian (Farsi), Spanish