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I'm proofreading a novel and the author keeps overusing the word 'had' where he could use a more descriptive word and then adding '-ing' to the verb. It's not grammatically incorrect, but it's a digression from his usual style which is otherwise pretty good and it sticks out whenever he does it.

What I want to ask is how can I properly explain to him WHY he should find another form for these instances? At present all I can say is that it's jarring to read and that he could find better variations.

I'm versed in essential grammar, but I'm unsure how to properly describe the form of verb he's using and why it doesn't work that well.

Some more examples:

  • "The connection had the clamps outside retracting." (IMO should be "The connection caused the clamps outside to retract")
  • "A quick turn on the spot had him avoiding the impact." (IMO should be "A quick turn on the spot enabled him to avoid the impact")
  • "His comment had alarm bells ringing in her head." (IMO should be "Alarm bells rang in her head at his comment.")

Is the verb a gerund in these examples? Gerunds have always eluded me and I'm patchy in that area. If this is what I'm dealing with here, I'd like to understand them properly so I can explain things to him. If it's something else, I appreciate any/all advice.

Thanks in advance.

  • Individually the sentences don't sound so bad to me at all -- perhaps more idiomatic than your suggestions -- but like all constructions it could of course be overused. I'm curious to know where the author is from. – S Conroy Sep 14 '18 at 23:33
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    @SConroy Both he and I are from the UK. I'm a southerner (London), he's a northerner (Manchester). You may be right about it being overuse, as most of his prose is structured more traditionally but then he litters it with this one type of construction, always in exactly the same format, that doesn't seem to fit with the rest of it. I'm really just searching for a kind way to explain to him why it seems not to fit with the rest of his writing and gently suggest he vary that repetitious and disparate sentence construction from time to time. Thanks for your comment. – Jemka Sep 15 '18 at 13:18
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Jarring to read is a straightforward and perfectly sensible thing to say, though perhaps not in those exact words.

By the time a novel reaches the proofreading stage, the writer will have seen the words so many times that they no longer really read them. The words flow by on paper while the mind tells the story its own way. Even reading aloud doesn’t always help, since the writer reading his or her own work will automatically supply the pauses and intonation.

However, the writer is using expressions with had because he or she imagined the story in a certain way, e.g. active versus passive actors, cause and effect, etc. The problem is that their choice of words does not convey this to the first-time reader.

It’s possible to write a good story with simple sentences. Ernest Hemingway was famous for this, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Writers connect thoughts in sentences with multiple clauses because they want to convey some additional information, even if it’s just an unconscious desire to show their facility with the language, or to impose their presence as storytellers.

It sounds from your question that you want to help the writer convey their story more effectively, so my suggestion is this: tell the writer that their choice of words came upon you unexpectedly, and ask them what they were hoping the reader might think or feel at that point. There may be a way to express this with more direct words. In many cases, their own rephrasing will supply the words you are looking for.

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The examples you criticize all sound okay, to me. The subject of "have" is a focus and is physically connected somehow to the referent of some nominal that comes later in the sentence. "I have a hole in my pocket" can mean simply "There is a hole in my pocket" with the focus on "I". It's not a causative. On the other hand, "I have a hole in Tom's pocket", where there is no physical connection between me and the pocket, has a causative interpretation.

The connection between the focused nominal, subject of "have", and the later nominal can be implicit, as in "I have a hole in the pocket", and tends to be left implicit in the case of body parts: "I have a slight cast in my/the right eye."

There are dialect differences among American English speakers in the acceptable range of such constructions with non-causative "have". It's not surprising that you don't accept exactly the same examples as the author you're working with.

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