The @#$%&! Word “Had”

Although I never met British writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), he was one of my most important teachers. I’ve read just about everything he published, and the lessons I learned have stayed with me.

So I was pleased to read a New York Times article by Sarah Hart, a mathematician who admires Lewis as much as I do. But one sentence in her article troubled me:

I went off to Oxford to study mathematics, very happy to be living one street away from the pub where my childhood literary heroes C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had met each week to discuss their work.

More accurately, one word bothered me: had. I struggle with had the way some writers struggle with commas. I put had in, and then I take it out, and then I try it again…a huge waste of time. Usually the “take it out” impulse wins.

You might be wondering why I don’t just look up the rule for had and be done with it. The answer, unfortunately, is that I’ve done that – in fact I’ve taught the “had” rule many times. Sometimes it doesn’t help.

You’re supposed to use had any time you’re writing about two different times in the past. “I did the laundry after I had eaten breakfast.” Easy enough, and I use that rule often. But sometimes had  seems unnecessary. It would be more natural to write, “I did the laundry after I ate breakfast.”

I’m pleased to report that some editors agree with me. If an event obviously happened earlier in the past, you can omit that pesky had.

So there!

Photo  of C.S. Lewis courtesy of Aronsyne (CC License)


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