In Britain we'd say

He had a black hat on.

Speakers of American English are more likely to say*

He had on a black hat.

The latter just seems wrong to me. Is my intuition correct or are both equally valid usages?

* - according to Google NGram

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    The premise of the question is invalid. Americans are just as likely to use either sentence as British people are.
    – slim
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 11:34
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    +1: @slim: do you have any evidence for this? 5arx: do you have any evidence for this? Ngrams actually shows that the use of "he had on a" has declined quite a bit in Britain recently but has not in the U.S. to the point where it's currently four times more common in the U.S. (although this wasn't true 50 years ago). So here the O.P. is right. Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 11:51
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    @Peter Shor: I'm not sure what your NGram is designed to show. The difference between "he had on a" and "He had on a" is not a difference in word order, or the placement of a preposition, but whether the first word of the phrase is capitalized or not. Pardon me, but I don't get the connection.
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 13:00
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    @Peter Shor: In the first place, your sample only includes data from print sources (one of my big problems with Google NGrams, btw), and does not include all such sources. In the second, the difference between .000003 and .000012, while admittedly different by a factor of four, is still vanishingly small. Is the difference between 3 occurrences in 10 million really that different from 12 in 10 million? Surely that lies well within some margin of error, statistically speaking.
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 13:22
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    @Robusto: if you turn the smoothing to 0, you can see a lot of the year-to-year statistical variation in Ngrams. If you look at this Ngram for British "he had on a", it looks to me like the level .000012 is well beyond the statistical margin of error. Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 15:08

1 Answer 1


You did notice that something is different between American and British usage of "have on a hat". Let me show two Google Ngrams that illustrate the situation.

British: enter image description here

American: enter image description here

In British English, pre-1960, "had on a coat" is the most frequent of these expressions, followed by "had his coat on". However, "had on a coat" drops in frequency by a factor of nearly 30 by the 2000s.

In American English, these same two phrases are also the most common, but remain so for the entire period.

(Don't ask me why the most likely order of the preposition and the object depends on whether you use "a" or "his"; this is a piece of grammar that I obey, but I have no idea why. But either order is grammatical with either "a" or "his" in the U.S.)

To answer some of your questions:

(1) I think Americans are roughly equally likely to say "had a black hat on" and "had on a black hat". However, you are only noticing the second one, because this is a usage not found much in England anymore.

(2) If something was grammatical 50 years ago, I think it's a stretch to say that it is actually incorrect today. But you are right in that "had on a black hat" seems to be falling out of use in England.

What is going on here? To have on meaning to wear is a phrasal verb (Wikipedia link) made up of a verb combined with a preposition1. For many phrasal verbs, the object can go either before or after the preposition. For some, like to tell apart, the object can only go before the preposition. For others, like to take after, the object must go after the preposition. What I suspect is happening is that, in England, to have on has changed (at least among the younger people) from the first kind of phrasal verb to the second.

1 This preposition is sometimes called a particle because it does not behave grammatically like a preposition when it is part of a phrasal verb.

  • I believe you will find it called an adverb in that position.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 16:12
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    @tchrist: some people do call it an adverb (see the wikipedia link above), but it doesn't behave grammatically like an adverb, either. Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 16:22
  • @PeterShor, on reflection what I perceive as the American usage does sound a little quaint/old fashioned and so is more correct in a sense. Your take on this makes sense to me. Great answer, many thanks!
    – immutabl
    Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 10:01
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    It's worth noting that the rules governing the placement of the particle depend on whether the object is a pronoun. For example, "He put on the hat"; "He put the hat on"; and "He put it on"; but not *"He put on it".
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 0:12

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