I see. You came in here knowing what you had to do,

This is a caption taken from an episode from a tv series. To set the scene, a lady comes into Frank's place seeking his help in making a decision. After conversing with her, Frank realizes she might already have decided how to make the decision.

I am confused by the word had.

The quotation is,

  • "You came in here knowing what you had to do,"

but I think it should be,

  • "You came in here knowing what you are going to do,"


  • "You came in here knowing what you have to do,"


  • "You came in here knowing what you would do."
  • It would make sense if it applies not to her carrying out her decision, but making it. I presume you mean 'Frank realizes that she might have already decided how to do it'? Feb 14, 2014 at 18:35
  • Related: Pronunciation of “have” in “I don't have to” {do something}. I think OP's is one of those relatively rare cases where it would be extremely difficult for the speaker to stress what you hat to do, but there's no doubt in my mind that's the intended sense. Feb 14, 2014 at 20:02
  • You can use ""You came in here knowing what you have/had to do", with either "have to" or "had to" (backshifted), for a meaning similar to what a use of "must" could convey here.
    – F.E.
    Feb 15, 2014 at 1:12

1 Answer 1


So first, we cover the intended meaning. The meaning of the initial sentence is that she arrived at the place already knowing the actions which were required of her.

In this case it should be evident that 'had to do' here is not 'had' in the auxiliary capacity, but 'had' as in 'required'. "You came in here knowing what you were required to do."

So your first alternative is off just a little, since there is a mismatch of tense. Since she "...came in..." the matching tense of the clause should read "...what you were going to do." Given that, it is a perfectly acceptable alternative.

The second alternative is o.k. since the context brackets possible interpretations, but linguistically is a bit confusing. I've forgotten the name of the device, but one may switch the tense of clauses to place the listener/reader into the present time of the story. ("So I walked into the store and the clerk says to me....". The tense switch is allowed, so long as its intent is understood. Does anyone know what that is called?). So my vote would be for a thumbs-sideways on that alternative.

Your third alternative is also fine linguistically, but conveys a somewhat different pragmatic message. "...knowing what you would do" implies the woman had already made up her mind; that she was prognosticating as to her future actions despite whether or not she realized what was required of her. Good English, different meaning.


  • 1
    Nice summary of the drawbacks to all OP's alternatives. But it's worth pointing out that You came in here knowing what you must do is a precise paraphrasing that's unaffected by any quibbles over tense (must has the same form in past and present). Feb 14, 2014 at 20:08
  • +1 Largely agree, but the first alternative suggests something will happen. Not necessarily the case. What if the fully dialog were, You came in here knowing what you had to do. Why are you balking? Knowing the obligation does not mean it will inevitably be implemented.
    – bib
    Feb 14, 2014 at 20:16
  • @bib: You're being a bit loose there, suggesting that "must" simply implies obligation (and thus allows for the possibility of that obligation not being duly carried through). I would say that in fact, "must" implies necessity (what must happen will happen, without exception). (EDIT - unless your comment was directed at Questor, of course! :) Feb 14, 2014 at 23:58
  • "The tense switch is allowed," you might be thinking of historical present, which is often a writing (or speaking) technique where the narrative tense is shifted into present tense. But that is not what is happening here -- the OP's example is using a backshifted preterite ("had" to) for the original "have" to. (The scriptwriters probably did that backshift so that the actor Frank could foreground something else in that sentence, perhaps the info of the lady "already knowing" her decision.)
    – F.E.
    Feb 15, 2014 at 1:29
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers It was directed at Questor. S/he sees it regardless. If I meant you, I would have directed my vituperativeness [at] FumbleFingers, as I have in the past.
    – bib
    Feb 15, 2014 at 1:43

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