Once again, a problem encountered while marking German pupils' exams. We teach them the following rules:

A present participle can be used to shorten an active relative clause:

  • The boy who was driving the car didn't stop = The boy driving the red car didn't stop

A past participle can be used to shorten a passive relative clause:

  • Strawberries which are grown in California are delicious = Strawberries grown in California are delicious.

While marking, I encountered several problems. For example, why does this not work:

The girl who has black hair is in the corner
The girl having black hair is in the corner


That's the man who is happy to be here
That's the man being happy to be here

Does this all have to do with:

  1. the verbs have and be? (But "The girl, being happy, phoned her friend")
  2. the continuous and simple forms? (But "We help people who live in ghettos = we help people living in ghettos")
  3. the tenses?

Or what? I'm totally stumped by this problem and do not know how to explain the pupils' mistakes to them. The problem seems to occur mostly with the use of the present participle. Who can help with some explanations or even better, specific rules!


The problem with be is that the simple present and present progressive forms have different meanings: the simple present is an ordinary copula, but the present progressive means behave:

The man is funny.
The man is being funny.

The girl, being happy, phoned ... is different: here the clause is equivalent to because she was happy, not who was happy; it modifies the entire main clause, not the girl.

The problem with have is a little more complex. First, it's not strictly wrong, it's just stuffy:

Those having US passports should stand in Line A, all others in Line B.

Perhaps to avoid confusion between the many senses of have, we generally

  • restrict participial having in clauses of the sort you're working with to non-possessive/-attributive senses (for example causative The man having his hair cut and experiential people having a good time ); in possessive/attributive senses we use with instead (The girl with black hair, people with U.S. passports)
  • restrict participial having as an auxiliary in perfect constructions to temporal clauses (Having finished his dinner, he ...)
  • I think the with possibility is a big factor in why it seems stuffy; the with alternative just being so much more common. – Jon Hanna Feb 22 '13 at 12:29
  • Patients having an outpatient procedure, drivers having difficulty negotiating traffic circles, roads having no center line marking, people having a bad day, people having a conversation — according to your suggestion, these would be uncommon constructions. – KarlG Aug 26 '18 at 20:43
  • @KarlG Yes, I cast that net too broadly with 'causative', and I'll fix that; but I didn't say it was "uncommon" (it's not, particularly in bureaucratic/legal/corporate use), I said it was "stuffy". – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 26 '18 at 20:55

The problem is not with the verbs have and be. To see this, consider:

  • That's the man being an idiot.
  • That's the man being funny.
  • The girl having a good time is in the corner.
  • The girl having a party is in the corner.

These sentences are perfectly fine despite involving the same lexical verbs.

The problem is also not directly related to the shortening of relative clauses:

  • ??The girl who is having black hair is in the corner.
  • ??The man who is being happy to be here is in the corner.

These sentences are just as unnatural as the shortened versions.

The problem is the combination of the progressive with a predicate that describes a permanent property (an "individual-level predicate"). Basically, because the progressive describes temporary situations, it's not compatible with predicates that describe permanent situations. Hence:

??The girl who is knowing French is in the corner.

(There's an article here that gives a fuller version of the story, with references, on pp5-6, but it's heavily theoretical.)

  • the explanation given here,does not really tackle the right part of the problem. Does that mean, only relative clauses in the progressive can be shortened with a present participle - if so, what about..."The man who drove down the hill let go of the steering wheel" can quite naturally become "The man driving down the hill let go of the steering wheel".My problem is how to explain to my pupils why they cannot shorten the relative clause "THe girl who has black hair" with The girl having black hair, which is in accordance with the rules in grammar books but not with idiomatic language use! – Naomi Feb 22 '13 at 13:40
  • When you change "The boy who was driving the car" to "The boy driving the car", you're doing only one thing: getting rid of the words "who was". However, when you change "The girl who has black hair" to "The girl having black hair", you are doing two things: a) getting rid of the words "who has", and b) adding in a present participle. Since the present participle is progressive, and the progressive is incompatible with certain kinds of predicate, it's step b) that's the problem. Step a), shortening, is always fine. – George Walkden Feb 22 '13 at 15:31
  • no, changing "the man who drove the car down the hill let go of the steering wheel" into "The man driving down the hill..." includes step a) and step b)... that is what I do not know how to explain, since drove is not progressive and driving is a present participle... – Naomi Feb 22 '13 at 18:48
  • What I was getting at was that step b) sometimes works, but not always. It works with predicates that are temporary (such as driving), but not with predicates that are permanent (like having black hair or knowing French). – George Walkden Feb 23 '13 at 10:52

I don't think any analysis so far has touched on the fact that the following gradation seems applicable:

*The girl having black hair is wearing red. (identifying one particular girl)

*The girl having black hair is more likely to wear red. (again identifying one particular girl)

?The girl having black hair is more likely to wear red. (identifying one particular subset of girls) (obviously, this and the previous sentence involve deixis)

The girls having black hair are more likely to wear red. (again identifying one particular subset of girls)

Substitution of with works in each case, as does substitution of who has / who have.

Perhaps it is a matter of formality, as StoneyB indicates. We'd be happy with 'People possessing a US passport' or 'People (who are) in possession of a US passport' but not 'People possessing fair hair' or or 'People (who are) in possession of fair hair'.

There are about 13 000 Google hits for "people having fair skin", one (relevant) for "they are having fair skin" and 3 for "people who are having fair skin". This perhaps supports StoneyB's claim that we 'restrict participial having in clauses of the sort (you're) working with to the causative sense (The man having his hair cut)' - 13 000 is not a vast number.

  • 'Having' implies a temporary possession, which is peculiar for some complements, and there is some confusion going on with [non]-restriction; the examples all sound fine if the subject is indefinite (change 'the girl' to 'a girl', etc.). – AmI Oct 8 '18 at 18:03

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