Noel Anenberg, author of The Dog Boy and The Karma Kaper, once asked me about a usage of have that implies, Anenberg wrote, “the speaker’s active role in the events.” Compare:
I had my house cleaned.
I had my car stolen.
The first sentence is easy enough: the speaker hired someone to clean their house. But what about the second sentence? Did the speaker have someone steal their car? If not, why say I had my car stolen instead of My car was stolen? Is this just laziness?
To Have: Causing an Action to Happen
Though the two sentences have the same construction—Subject + Verb + Object + Past Participle—they aren’t creating the same meaning because have does not have the same meaning.
As a main verb, have is one of the most common lexical verbs in English. (A lexical verb is used for its meaning rather than as an auxiliary to show things like tense and mood.) Merriam-Webster Unabridged lists 17 definitions for have, most of which have subdefinitions. And those don’t include auxiliary verb usage (I have finished dinner.) or idiomatic usage (Tom had a hand in Stan winning the election.)
In general, though, have shows some sort of relationship. When a sentence is taken out of context, we need to determine what the relationship have is showing to decide whether the usage is legitimate.
In the first sentence, had tells us the relationship between the subject (I) and the object (my house cleaned): I caused my house to be cleaned. The speaker didn’t clean the house themselves but had someone else do it. We get the same results with similar sentences, even when the subject is an inanimate object:
Laurie had her book edited.
Sam will have his taxes done.
All the gifts had their gift tags torn off.
To Receive: Emphasizing the Recipient
In “I had my car stolen,” had is again connecting the subject (I) with the object (my car stolen), but it’s showing a different relationship. Here, the subject experienced the action buried in the object. The object tells us that a car was stolen. I had shows that the speaker experienced the theft.
In other words, the emphasis is on the subject of the sentence and how the object relates to it.
The object doesn’t always contain a past participle verb, either. It can have the bare infinitive (the infinitive form of the verb without the to):
I had my house burn down.
When the infinitive form of the verb is used, we can see more clearly that the subject of the sentence is the ultimate recipient of the action: the speaker experienced their house burning down.
If the speaker is the one to cause the action to happen, the object will contain a past participle verb:
The insurance company will never suspect a thing: I had my house burned down by an expert arsonist.
Choose Your Emphasis
All of these sentences are grammatical. The difference between I had my car stolen and My car was stolen isn’t laziness, it’s emphasis. In the first sentence, the emphasis is on the victim, the ultimate receiver of the action (I); in the second, it’s on the direct receiver of the action (my car).
The modern writing style trends toward shorter, more direct sentences and, as a result, more immediate action. Both of these sentence structures put the action at a distance. They soften it, sometimes smothering it.
However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use such sentence structures. They can be particularly useful when you want to emphasize the relationship between a subject (I, Laurie, Sam, etc.) and an action the subject didn’t take. Consider what the main point of your sentence is and use sentence structure to make that point clear.
A version of this article originally published in November 2013 on Visual Thesaurus.