I had John return the video for me.

In this sentence, why do we use return and not returns or returned?


6 Answers 6


This sentence is an example of an indirect command or request. Such sentences are considered by some grammarians to be an example of the subjunctive, which in this case appears as the verb itself. (This is what I was taught in grade school.)

Others (see comments) argue that this need not be classified as subjunctive, but rather as a use of the infinitive:

... we would use him in the same construction: I had him return the video for me. This means there is no subordinate clause with omitted that (*I had [that] he return the video), but rather a simple object (him) + infinitive (return). The fact that you can't add that supports the same conclusion. — Cerberus.

Whatever the explanation, this usage is not dependent on the tense of the main verb of the sentence, which can be future, past or present.

Other examples of indirect commands:

His mother demanded he be home by 12. (Past)

The doctor has patients provide a detailed medical history. (Present)

Henry will insist we come early to the party. (Future)

  • 2
    For me, that link is an example of the egregious nonsense which people concoct when they insist on pretending that English grammar is a sort of poor relation of Latin grammar.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 7, 2011 at 9:35
  • Fair enough. That was in no way meant to be an endorsement of the website itself (which I must admit to not having read), but rather an easily accessible explanation of the subjunctive in this situation. Personally, I don't think my explanation requires any Latin or interest in Latin - I learned the above as a grammar rule in grade school. If you have an explanation that somehow gives the English language its proper due (?), I'd be happy to see it.
    – user13141
    Commented Oct 7, 2011 at 10:03
  • 2
    Also fair enough. I was so incensed at that site I didn't pay attention to your answer :) My argument here is that since the (present) subjunctive is indistinguishable from the infinitive for all verbs in Modern English (even 'be') I would prefer to treat this as the infinitive (without 'to'). I would regard "I had him build a house" as indistinguishable in structure from "I saw him build a house". I accept that this would not have been the case in earlier stages of the language.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 7, 2011 at 11:36
  • 4
    I think the link was absolutely fine. I do not understand why people must force their terminology on others. The crusade against the subjunctive makes links between past and present usage of English harder to follow, and also the links between English and other modern languages where the subjunctive is still used more extensively. I don't like prescriptivists to tell me that I may not use the term subjunctive, which has served us well for centuries. It is like demolishing a medieval church because you happen to have chosen a different religion which favours bungalows. Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 23:05
  • 1
    @Cerberus "subjunctive" is traditionally used to refer to forms that are descended from the Old English subjunctive. But this is not. This is a much more modern construction. It might descend from the Middle English causative with the infinitive, as in: > Jesus Christ, who makede to go þe halte > "Jesus Christ, who made the lame to walk"
    – morphail
    Commented Oct 13, 2011 at 16:27

It is because, Emie, this construction requires the non-finite form of the verb, return, and non-finite forms don't inflect for tense or number or person.


That is because return is an infinitive:

  • I had John return the video for me.
  • I had him return the video for me.

If you substitute him, it becomes clearer that this is a simple main clause with an object him. (The object functions as the thematic patient of the finite verb had and as the agent of the infinitive return.) There is no particular reason that I know of why the verb to have should use this construction when it means you are causing someone to do something. Perhaps one can be dug up from pre-modern usage.

The same construction is used with similar verbs:

  • I had him return the video for me.
  • I made him return the video for me.
  • I bade him return the video for me. — Old fasioned.
  • I told him to return the video for me.
  • I caused him to return the video for me.
  • I forced him to return the video for me.

With the verbs to tell, to cause, and to force, you can see that the infinitive with to is used instead of the bare infinitive. I don't see how this construction could be interpreted differently. If it had been a subjunctive, he would have been used instead of him, because there would be a subordinate clause with omitted that:

*I had [that] he return the video for me.

This is plainly ungrammatical.


Return is the command form of return. E.g. "Return that which you have taken from me!"

When you have someone return something, you are implicitly using a command. This is because I had him X is synonymous to I required him to fulfil the command that he X.

  • I think you mean the imperative, but I don't believe that's what it is here. You're almost giving the answer yourself: require is a different but similar construction, and it uses to fulfil, an infinitive. I had him fulfil my command is quite close to I required him to fulfil my command. Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 1:56

The verb had doesn't need to agree with the verb return. What you are saying is that at (some point in the past) you instructed John to return a video for you. John returning the video is still a present/future action at the time that you gave John the video to be returned.


You can stick another verb in there without subject inflection. "I had John cook a video for me".

To inflect it would result in something similar to the execrable (but cromulent) "needs painted."

  • 2
    I think you mean "the grammatical-in-some-dialects-but-not-standard-English 'needs painted'".
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 7, 2011 at 9:32
  • @ColinFine: For many people, that's exactly the same as "execrable (but cromulent)" that the OP used. :-) Don't try to force a linguist's non-subjectivity on others; "civilian" people are entitled to have their opinions and tastes. (I don't have any opinion on "needs painted", FWIW, but I feel entitled to have one.) Commented Oct 13, 2011 at 3:03
  • @ShreevatsaR: Yes, and I'm entitled to have my own opinions and express my disagreement with others'.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 13, 2011 at 10:30
  • @ColinFine: Glad we agree. :-) Commented Oct 13, 2011 at 13:08

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