English English language Grammar Usage

When a contraction won’t do

Q: I’m a non-native English speaker from Hong Kong. I read the following online: “Had I not had you in my life, I would not be who I’m today.” Is it correct? Wouldn’t it be better to begin with “If I had not had you in my life”?

A: The problem with that sentence is at the end, not the beginning.

So let’s start with the last part of the sentence (“… I would not be who I’m today”).

The contraction here isn’t idiomatic. The author should have written “who I am today.”

A native English speaker would hear what’s wrong. Spoken aloud, the contraction “I’m” is weak in that position because the important part, the verb, is swallowed up.

A weakened verb is all right if it leads to something stronger—say, another verb, as in a construction like “that’s where I’m going.”

But a contracted verb isn’t idiomatic when it’s the star attraction, which is why we say, “that’s where I am [not I’m] now.”

This is the reason why contractions of subject and verb—like “I’ve,” “he’s,” “they’ll,” “Jane’s,” and so on—generally appear toward the beginning rather the end of a sentence or clause.

We don’t say, “Yes, I’ve.” Or, “That’s what he’s.” Or, “They insist they’ll.” Or, “Bob’s not going but Jane’s.”

In those cases we use uncontracted forms: “I have” … “he is” … “they will” … “Jane is.”

There are exceptions of course, as when the final word is a strong adverb like “not” (‘Harry’s going, but I’m not.”)

And the contraction can go last if the subject isn’t part of it. This often happens with negative contractions:

“No, I haven’t” … “That’s one thing he isn’t” … “They insist they won’t” … “Bob’s going but Jane isn’t.”

Ultimately, this is a matter of phonology and how things “sound”—even when our English is written, not spoken.

Now let’s return to the first part of the sentence you asked about (“Had I not had you in my life …”).

There’s nothing wrong with that, though “If I had not had you in my life” is a more common way of saying the same thing.

The past perfect tense (as in “had had”) is often used, with or without “if,” to express a supposition, as we wrote at greater length in a post last year.

So “had I had breakfast,” for example, is comparable to “if I had had breakfast.”

This is easier to see with other verbs, since “have” uses forms of itself in the compound tenses and we get those confusing “had had” pileups.

Using the past perfect of “go” as an example, “had I gone there” is a slightly more literary way of saying “if I had gone there.”

Similarly, “had I seen him” is another way of expressing “if I had seen him,” and “had I known that” is a different version of “if I had known that.”

In the “had I gone” and “had I seen” and “had I known” forms, the subject and verb are reversed and there’s no “if.”

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