The hadted to do it

My grandson (8 years, 11 months) and his brother (6 years, 6 months) both form the past tense of had to in an unusual and interesting way. They have both been doing this consistently and reasonably often for several months, perhaps as long as a year. I don’t know which one started doing this first, or where they got it from.

Adult form

The way adult speakers form the past tense of this phrase is straightforward. They inflect the verb have, producing had and attach the particle to. The result is had to /had tu/.

What the boys say

Instead of saying /had tu/, the boys say /hadtɪd tu/.

Their strategy seems to be:

  • attach a reduced form of the particle to /tuu/ onto the verb have, forming a compound verb /hav.tu/.
  • then, attach the regular weak past ending /ɪd/ to a reduced form /t-/ of the final syllable, making the final syllable /tɪd/.
  • next, although they are already marking the past tense on the final syllable, mark it also on the first syllable (/hav/ + /d/ = /havd/ = /had/).
  • finally, retain a full copy of the indeclinable particle to /tuu/ as a separate word.


The derivation seems to go through the following stages:

(1) Start
/hav tuu/  

(2) attach reduced copy of /tuu/ to the end of /hav/
/hav.tu tuu/ 

(3) attach past tense suffix /d/ to /hav/ and /ɪd/ to /tu/
/havd.tuɪd tu/   

(4) delete final /v/ of /hav/ and final /u/ of /tu
/had.tɪd tu/ 

Interesting points

There are several interesting things about what they are doing:

  • they are marking the verb as past not just once, but twice.
    (1) The first syllable is the past form /had/, not the present form /hav/.
    (2) And the past suffix /ɪd/ is attached to a reduced form /t-/ of the particle /tu/.
  • the particle to is present twice: (1) in a reduced form attaching to /had/ and (2) in a full as a separate word.
  • the only plausible source of the /t/ in the middle of the construction is a copy of the particle to. That copy evidently does not contain the full vowel which I have transcribed as /uu/. If the full vowel were present, the expected form of the past tense suffix would be simply the bare consonant /d/ as in tattooed /tatuud/, rather than /ɪd/.
    On the other hand, that copy presumably contains at least a reduced vowel. Otherwise, we would expect the combination /d.t/ to reduce to just /d/.

Overall, it seems they are doing something more complex than just merging to on to the end of have. That latter strategy would presumably have produced a past tense like /hav.tɪd/ or /haf.tɪd/

Do all children do this?

The boys’ younger brother (3 years, 3 months) isn’t producing this form. That doesn’t surprise me. He may not have come across the phrase have to yet. And if he has encountered it, he may not understand syntax and morphology well enough to produce the forms I discuss above.

The boys have cousins of similar age (girls aged 8 years 6 months and 6 years 4 months). I haven’t heard them (or, indeed their 3-year-old sister) produce these forms. Perhaps these forms are idiosyncrasies of these particular boys, not forms that many children produce on their way to learning the adult forms.     

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *