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What You Can Say Instead of Had

When it comes to versatile words, “had” is probably one of the first to come to mind. Unfortunately, useful words can get repetitive, and repetition often looks clumsy in English, so how do you avoid using “had”?

When “had’ is a transitive verb, you can easily replace it with a synonym for ownership. However, when using “had’ as an auxiliary verb with a main verb, you can try restating the sentence in the active instead of the passive voice or in the past simple tense instead of the past perfect.

Below we’ve compiled a guide looking at the grammar and meaning of “had” in most contexts and what words you can use to replace it. Keep reading to learn more. 

How Do You Avoid Overusing “Had” in a Sentence? 

If you want to avoid using “had” at all in a sentence and you wish to keep the sentence in the past perfect or the past perfect continuous tense, the truth is you can’t. However, you can rewrite a sentence so that it is no longer in the past perfect while getting the same essential point across.

Avoiding the use of “had” as a transitive verb is generally much easier since there are several synonyms for the possessive “had.”

Using “Had” in Your Writing

Image by Ava Sol via Unsplash

“Had” is a verb that is the past tense form or past participle of “have” (source). “Have” is a regular verb as well as an auxiliary verb that you can use in both the present and future tense. In contrast, you will generally use “had” when writing in the past tense.

“Had” as a Transitive Verb Indicating Ownership

You will probably use “had” mostly to show past possession or ownership. In cases like this, it can be self-evident because the sentence refers to a literal object.

  • I had a cat.
  • Jessica had a Gucci bag.

However, at times, something intangible will follow the word “had,” in which case, it may be less noticeable.

  • The couple had everyone’s blessings.
  • I begged to be let off the rollercoaster; I had enough.

Bear in mind these sentences are in the past simple tense because a past participle does not follow “had.” Instead, it’s functioning as a “simple past” verb.

Other Ways to Show Ownership than “Had”

Let’s start this section with a basic example sentence:

  • James had a car.

Here, “had” may be too basic, and we probably want to use a different word. In this sentence, “had” functions as the past simple form of the verb.

Many words show ownership, such as “own,” “possess,” “keep,” or “hold.” 

So, you could write sentences using these verbs in the past simple form without using “had”:

  • James owned a car.
  • James possessed a car.
  • James kept a car.

If you’re writing and don’t want to use “had” to show ownership: try “owned,” “possessed,” “kept,” or even “held,” depending on what you feel might work best. 

Here, we wouldn’t say “James held a car” since, in most contexts, that does not make sense. You can say, “James held his keys,” rather than saying, “James had his keys.”

Had as an Auxiliary Verb

Often, “had” precedes an action verb and functions as a helping verb/auxiliary verb. Auxiliary verbs are types of verbs that exhibit mood, tense, or tone (source). 

The past tense helping verb indicates that the person did something in the past, and we frequently use it for the past perfect tense when we combine “had” with a past participle (source).

  • She had slept in.
  • Demi had sung a song for us.

When you use “had” as an auxiliary verb, it will often stand in place of “if” at the start of a clause.

  • Had he called that day, my life would have been entirely different.
  • I would’ve done better had I known then what I know now.

How to Avoid Using the Auxiliary Verb Had

Often, you can simply remove “had,” and the sentence will have essentially the same meaning; it will just be in the past simple instead of the past perfect, and you will often require no further modifications.

However, sometimes you’ll need to consciously switch the verb from a past participle to its simple past form. This is because, for some words, the past participle and the simple past form are different:

  • I had forgiven her⟶I forgave her.

You may prefer not to change the tense for consistency’s sake. In that case, you can’t do anything about “had.” But you can pull attention away from “had” by using it as part of a contraction.

You can combine most pronouns with “had” to create a contraction. 

PronounContraction (Pronoun+had)
II’d
YouYou’d
TheyThey’d
He/SheHe’d/She’d
ItIt’d
WeWe’d

Here’s an example: 

  • I had stained my red dress ⟶ I’d stained my red dress.

Keep in mind this only applies to pronouns, not to names or descriptions.

If you’re using “had” as an auxiliary verb at the beginning of a clause, “if” is probably the best substitute. However, there are exceptions, such as in sentences that have a negative connotation:

  • Had I not been smarter, I would have been in danger.

Replacing “had” with “if” makes a confusing, incorrect sentence.

  • If I not been smarter, I would have been in danger.

In these cases, you can use “if” instead of “had,” but you’ll also have to use “had” after the subject.

  • If I had not been smarter, I would have been in danger.

Using “Had Had”

In writing, occasionally, you’ll find the word “had” twice. This is correct because you’re combining the auxiliary verb “had” with the transitive verb “had,” but it can sound a bit clumsy. Take, for example, the sentences below:

  • I had had breakfast.
  • Sara had had the worst week of her life.

You can only use “had had” in past perfect tense sentences because the past perfect tense consists of the subject + had + past participle (typically verb+ed/en).

When you use “had had,” the first “had” is the past tense of “have,” while the second is a past participle. So that’s why it’s correct.

How Do You Avoid “Had Had” in a Sentence?

When using the past perfect tense, you should know that you can’t change the first “had” with another word. But you have the freedom to make the second “had” whatever you wish. Just bear in mind the context of your sentence.

One generally helpful solution is to make use of contractions. For example, you can get rid of the first “had” by putting -’d at the end of the subject if it’s a pronoun, as we demonstrated previously.

  • I had had a rough week⟶I’d had a rough week.

The “had” is still there. The repetition is just less noticeable because it’s not the same word twice. Nonetheless, you are limited as you cannot use the -’d after all subjects.

Additionally, you can get rid of the second “had” entirely in some instances, and your sentence will still be correct. However, remember that doing so changes the tense from past perfect to past simple.

Returning to a previous, “I had had breakfast,” you can replace the second “had” with “eaten” or any other synonyms (devoured, chewed, munched, etc.) based on what you feel best gets your message across.

In another example, “Sara had had the worst week of her life,” you can replace the second “had” with the word “experienced,” and it would read as “Sarah had experienced the worst week of her life.”

What Is the Grammar Rule for “Had”?

As you can see from the table above, we need to use “had” when writing in past perfect and past continuous tense. You’ll want to be sure that you understand the difference between the two tenses and how to use them correctly. 

You write in the past perfect tense when talking about something completed before a point in the past. For example:

  • I had written a sentence in the past perfect tense.

You use the past perfect continuous tense, also known as the past perfect progressive tense, to describe an action or process in the past. For example:

  • I had been writing in the past perfect continuous tense.

That may seem rather confusing, so here are some useful formulas you can use when writing or trying to identify tenses:

Past Perfect Tense = Subject + had + past participle (infinitive*+ed/en).

Past Perfect Continuous Tense = Subject + had been + present participle (infinitive+ing).

*Note: the infinitive is the most basic form of the verb.

So, following the formulas above, you can see that a sentence like “she had modeled” is an example of the past perfect tense, while “she had been modeling” is past perfect continuous tense.

For more on the perfect tenses with “had,” you might wish to read “Has Been or Had Been: How to Use the Perfect Tense.”

Active/Passive Voice

You can see that in all of the above formulas, the sentence begins with the subject. However, that isn’t always the case.

In English, you can write in the active voice where the subject performs the action or in the passive voice where the subject undergoes the action (source).

Generally, it is best to be clear and direct; thus, it is often preferable to use the active voice. By being clear regarding who is doing what, you can better help your reader understand your subject matter’s cause-and-effect relationships.

However, the passive voice still has a place in your writing, such as when you want to avoid referring to yourself or sounding accusative of someone. However, be careful. Sometimes, writers use it to be evasive or because they don’t understand the cause and effect relations of the topic.

For example, look at these two fictional headlines:

  • Passive voice: Millions had been stolen from welfare funds.
  • Active voice: The Minister stole millions from welfare funds.

The first sentence only tells us what happened, while the second sentence shows us what happened and who did it. This is because the passive voice uses an auxiliary verb with the main verb, and the auxiliary verb makes the main verb a condition or state instead of an action (source).

Active/Passive Voice in the Past Perfect

Writing in the active voice is often one way to avoid using “had” in a sentence, although this does not apply to the past perfect tense. However, it is possible to write using the past perfect and past perfect progressive using either the active or passive voice.

If you want to make a passive sentence active, you’ll first want to swap the position of the object and subject.

  • Active voice: He had signed the contract.
  • Passive voice: The contract had been signed [by him].

Understanding the Meaning of “Have Had It.”

Have you ever just given up on something? Or at least almost reached the end of your rope?  There’s a common phrase for that: I’ve had it!

It essentially means the same thing as feeling “done” or “over it.” So, if you say you “have had it,” it means you’re tired or annoyed and don’t wish to continue. Often, you’ll write it as “I’ve had it.” Take, for example:

  • I’ve had it with you!
  • The teacher told us she had had it up to here with our class’s shenanigans.

Substitutions for “Have Had It”

If you wish to convey that you “have had it” without using “had,” here are some other options:

  • I’m done.
  • I’m finished.
  • I’m over it.
  • I’ve had enough. 
  • I’m at the end of my rope.

Other sayings are similar but differ slightly in meaning:

  • I’m beat — When you use this informally, this indicates feeling tired.
  • I quit — This shows annoyance and giving up.

“Had” as an Adjective

Rarely, you’ll find “had” as an adjective. In these situations, “had” refers to being fooled.

  • I’ve been had.
  • James opened the envelope to find it empty; he had been had!

Keep in mind that the second sentence shows “had” twice. The first “had” is a verb and an indicator of the past perfect continuous tense. The second use of “had” is as an adjective.

Substitutes for “Had” as an Adjective

If you want to use another word instead of “had”  as an adjective, the safest choice is “fooled” or “tricked.” This article was written for strategiesforparents.com

Another valid substitute is “scammed.” However, the word “scam” typically refers to when someone fools you financially through fraudulent actions. So your brother may trick you, but he’s unlikely to scam you — we hope!

Final Thoughts

The Verb “had” can function as a transitive or auxiliary verb, so you’ll need to take different approaches to avoid each. If you’re writing and feel you’re overusing it, just ask yourself if it’s part of the predicate, showing the past simple tense, is an auxiliary verb, or is an adjective.

Once you’ve identified your answer, look over our list and see if any substitutes sound better, such as “owned,” “experienced” or, “tricked.” If not, try to think of another more suitable synonym or leave it as it is. At times, using “had” twice is simply the best option.