“What have you there in your pocket?”

I got confused when first saw this sentence. I thought “have” is a auxiliary verb but there is not other verb in the sentence. So it must be a verb meaning “own something” and I am curious about why the word “have” can be put forward. Does it to make an emphasis for the speaker?

1 Answer 1


The verb 'to have' is used as an auxiliary verb but it us also a verb in its own right. On its own it means 'to possess', 'to have access to' or 'to have control over'. For instance I can say "I have a car" and mean that I own, lease or otherwise control the use of a car.

'To have' can also mean 'to consume' as in "I have a glass of wine with my dinner"

In the case of the sentence you quote it is used in the sense of 'to possess' or 'to control' and is inverted so that it forms a question.

The use of 'have' on its own like this is a little old fashioned but still current, particularly in formal speech. In informal speech you are more likely to hear "What have you got there in your pocket" where 'have' happens to be an auxiliary but the standalone meaning is still correct, current and valid.

  • Can I understand in the way that ‘have’ in this sentence is a auxiliary and also a verb meaning ‘to possess’. It can be rewritten like “ What have you had there in your pocket” but it will be too awkward to a speech.
    – Rhett
    Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 9:12
  • 1
    @Rhett It could be argued that "What have you there in your pocket?" and especially "What have you to say for yourself?" look suspiciously like they're auxiliary constructions with the 'got' elided. But the transitive usage of 'have' (arguably a different word from the auxiliary) is very broad in range. Jon has a car / sugar in his tea / the odd glass of wine / measles / a limp / red hair / a hole in his sock / a winning smile / time for his tea / a look at the paper / an interview tomorrow / two sons / some news / mercy on the rebels .... But 'got', not '[have you] had', if you insist. Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 12:21
  • That sound more better in “What have you got..” than “What have you had”! Thank you!
    – Rhett
    Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 12:55
  • Treating 'possess' have like auxiliary have in questions is a trait of UK English, not American. In American English have would be treated as a main verb and require Do-support: What do you have there in your pocket?, or more likely, What have you got there in your pocket? where have is an actual auxiliary, part of the have got idiom. Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 15:29

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