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I'm trying to explain the grammar of

CJ Dennis had 2 edit suggestions approved

to other people, however, the more I try to explain it, the more confused I get about it myself.

The context is from our very own Stack Exchange network!:

Reviewer Stats

  • user123 has approved 12 edit suggestions and rejected 7 edit suggestions and improved 3 edit suggestions
  • user456 has approved 9 edit suggestions and rejected 3 edit suggestions and improved 2 edit suggestions

Editor Stats

  • CJ Dennis had 2 edit suggestions approved, and 0 edit suggestions rejected

In all following examples, I will use bold for all verb forms, and additionally italics for past participles and adjectives.

"had" by itself is usually simple past tense, however, "approved" is not an adjective but a past participle as the following changes show:

CJ Dennis had 2 edit suggestions green (adjective is ungrammatical here)

CJ Dennis had 2 edit suggestions eaten (past participle is grammatical here)

So, does that make it past perfect: "had approved"?

I don't think so, because the sentence appears to be a form of passive:

CJ Dennis had 2 edit suggestions approved [by other users]

I made the suggestions, but I didn't approve them myself; other people did. Also the appearance of a past participle doesn't necessarily imply past perfect:

The leaves eaten [by the caterpillar] were green.

This reduces to

The leaves were green.

which is clearly simple past. It can also be simple present:

The leaves (partially) eaten are brown around the edges now.

However, passive with "CJ Dennis" as the subject doesn't seem to fully make sense either, as the other users approved my edits, not me:

2 edit suggestions were approved [by other users]

The passive seems to be on the edit suggestions. "had" appears to be being used in a possessive sense, i.e. these are how many I had.

So, getting back to:

CJ Dennis had 2 edit suggestions approved

What is the tense, aspect, and mood of this sentence? Is it simple past or past perfect? Is it passive? Is "had" being used as an auxiliary verb or not?

  • Just a rewording of (the more ambiguous) "CJ Dennis had approved 2 edit suggestions". – Hot Licks Dec 7 '19 at 22:55
  • @HotLicks That means that I approved the suggestions, which is not the case. You could say "CJ Dennis had 2 approved edit suggestions". – CJ Dennis Dec 7 '19 at 22:57
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    No, you failed to note the word "ambiguous". This is why the original form is preferred. – Hot Licks Dec 7 '19 at 23:04
  • @HotLicks I can't see how to interpret that as "by other users". The meaning that I was the one who approved them is so strong I can't see how anyone would interpret it differently. – CJ Dennis Dec 7 '19 at 23:06
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    The original wording implied that your edit suggestions were approved by others. The reordered wording is ambiguous. – Hot Licks Dec 8 '19 at 2:04
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This construction with "have" in American English is most curious. It has the form of a causative construction with main verb "have" meaning "cause" followed by a clause describing the event or condition that is caused. The interpretation is quite. different (though there is often ambiguity with a causative interpretation). The construction is used to bring a person affected by an event or condition into subject position. Your example

CJ Dennis had 2 edit suggestions approved.

is actually ambiguous between a causative interpretation that Dennis caused the approval of the suggestions and another interpretation that Dennis was merely affected somehow by the approval.

The English construction is not totally unlike the Japanese adversative passive.

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  • I had not even thought about that possible interpretation before you answered! The sentence is trying to convey the information that of all the edits suggestions I have made so far, currently a total of 2 are in an approved state. Can you answer the question in that light please? Keep the causative interpretation because it is interesting and could result in the grammar being different. – CJ Dennis Dec 7 '19 at 23:56
  • No, I can't answer in that way. – Greg Lee Dec 8 '19 at 2:48
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    Familiarity with the process of Stack Exchange editing and approval removes the ambiguity. There's no way for someone to cause edit suggestions to be approved, so it must be the second interpretation. – Barmar Dec 10 '19 at 6:45
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Congratulations on doing a lot of research before posing your question. One further thing that would help even more would be the passage that precedes the quotation, to give a context.

The quoted sentence and the verb had itself are, in fact, ambiguous without such a context.

To have plus the past of a verb (call it a passive past participle) can be used in the sense of getting someone to do something. So we can say:

Queen Elizabeth I had Mary Queen of Scots beheaded.

This means she signed an order for the execution to be carried out. This usage is a possible meaning of the O.P.'s sentence. So on this interpretation,

  1. C.J. Dennis had <i.e. brought it about that> 2 edit suggestions <were> approved.

C.J. Dennis is in charge of editing and gets someone to approve two suggestions that some online punter has offered.

Then there is the more probable interpretation. The approval of suggestions (which C.J. Dennis had put forward) were caused/made by someone else. Had means here something like acquired, got, came to have. For example,

C.J. Dennis has just had his PhD thesis on recycling by micro-organisms accepted by the Oxford department of biochemistry.

This sentence is made unambiguous by the addition of the actual agent in the award. C.J. Dennis is the happy beneficiary. So the meaning of the O.P sentence (with my interpretative supplements in angled brackets) is:-

  1. C.J. Dennis <suggested some edits, of which he> had 2 <of his> edit suggestions approved.

The wider context, for future reference, would have shown for certain.

So what do online dictionaries say about the meaning of ‘have’? My Merriam Webster reveals an astonishing range of synonyms, depending on context. The verb seems to be able to mean almost anything, depending on context. The best word for this is to call it a (pardon the French loan word, but English needs it badly) portmanteau word.

Despite its wide coverage, though, even M-W does not , at least in its online version, get to the precise usage in question here.

You can have something happen to/for you, have something done, have done with something; you can be ‘had’ by a fraudster or by a class mate in a game of hee (US tag) on the playground. And when you've had enough of that, you can say you’ve ‘had it’ with hee. This uninflected language will never be fully accounted for by rules and recorded definitions, even in this age of electronic counting of occurrence. English is especially tricky in that way. In the case you raised, there are no obvious verbal or grammatical cues to provide a searchable pattern. At least, I should be interested and grateful if any ELU contributor can find a way of doing it.

Have I answered the question? Well, not quite. I should say ‘approved’ is a past passive ‘participle’, qualifying the noun ‘suggestions’, which is the object of ‘had’.

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  • I've added the context for you. – CJ Dennis Dec 9 '19 at 10:14
  • @CJDennis Many thanks. That makes it completely clear, and illustrates how heavily context-dependent English grammar can be! – Tuffy Dec 9 '19 at 10:20

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