Grammar Q

My mom is an ESL teacher, and she was stumped as to the technical reason(s) why this is a grammatically incorrect sentence:

“I like books having good plots”

It seems to me that this should be “I like books that have good plots,” but why?

“having goods plots” is a gerund, and a gerund functions as a noun. In your sentence, though, you need “having good plots” to function as an adjective. Your suggested version is correct, because “that have good plots” is an adjective clause.

But can’t there be an adjective clause that consists of a noun?

For example “The rules allowing public access to wilderness areas…”

How is that different from “The books having good plots…” ?

In the OP’s sentence, “having” is a present participle, not a gerund. It’s not incorrect according to the grade school grammar rules, but it’s definitely not something a native speaker of American English would say.

This is an interesting question.

That is all.


The following sentences seem to have different meanings:

You’ll find there several lions that lie in the grass.

You’ll find there several lions lying in the grass.

If we can tease out the difference in meaning and the contribution made to that difference in meaning by the “that lie”/“lying” distinction between the sentences, we may have a clue as to why “books that have good plots” is okay but “books having good plots” is, in this context, not okay.


I don’t believe that it’s technically incorrect (as ultrafilter said), but as an editor I would absolutely change it if I came across it – to either “I like books that have good plots” or “I like books with good plots.” Probably the former.

I think it strikes our ears as wrong because we’re used to -ing words being verbs, and a book can’t do anything. So even though a book can have something (a property), the -ing construction just doesn’t sound right.

Yeesh … I would change that one, too. :slight_smile:

The present progressive tense is supposed to be used only with action verbs. For example, you wouldn’t say “I am believing in God,” because “believe” is not really an action but more of a continuous state. To express the thought that you, right this minute, believe in God, you would use the simple present.

The verb “have,” when used to express a possessive, is not considered an action verb. When a book “has” a plot, it possesses a plot; therefore, you wouldn’t use the present progressive form for “have” in this context.

Don’t you have any books sitting on your bookshelf?


That’s my point - it’s not the subject, but the verb that’s the issue. “Sit” is an action verb. “The book is sitting on the shelf.” “Have” is not. “The book has a good plot.”

For instance, you’d never say “I am having a car”; it’s always “I have a car”. Ditto with other verbs of possession: “I have/possess/own a car”; “The car belongs to me.”

You can group verbs we use in the simple present rather than the present continuous because they’re not “action” verbs into a number of general categories, although there are of course certain exceptions - these are broad guidelines, not strict rules:

1/ Verbs of the {involuntary} senses: “I feel someone touching my leg”.

2/ Verbs of emotions or feelings: “I hate people who touch my leg.”

3/ Verbs of “mental activity”: “I believe I’ll punch him in the mouth.”

4/ Verbs of possession: “I have a good left hook.”

But I hear, and am okay with, people saying things like “Those having three or more items should go to the other line” or things like that.

It sounds a little “faux proper” to me, but it doesn’t sound ungrammatical or strange.


That’s a defining relative clause: “Those [people] having / Those people who have three or more items should go to the end of the line.” Now, if one action follows another and the subject is the same, you can use a present participle phrase for the first action if- and this is where it gets a little tricky - the participle phrase gives the reason for the second action: “Having nothing better to do, I sat and picked my nose.”

OK. so to take your example, we can make “Having only three items, I went to the end of the line.” Now we can just build it up into your sentence by adding the relative clause and the modal auxiliary “should”: “Those [people] having three items should go to the end of the line.”

Good example.

Frankly, it would be pretty easy to find clear counterexamples to each of the rules put forth so far. The fact is that linguistics simply cannot come up with any a priori method to determine whether a sentence is grammatical or ungrammatical; our knowledge of syntax is simply not yet sophisticated enough to accomplish that task. I don’t know much about English syntax. It’s possible that this particular question is something that experts could answer; it’s certainly true, however, that in many cases, experts simply cannot come up with a theory that predicts a native speaker’s grammaticality judgments.

The folk grammar explanations cited so far in this thread are even less capable of addressing this question than actual scientific syntax. You might as well ask the village shaman where lightning comes from; atmospheric scientists haven’t puzzled out all the ins and outs of it, but if the shaman comes up with some sort of explanation, you know it’s not going to have anything to do with reality.

So I agree with the OP’s grammaticality judgment. So far, none of the explanations cited seem adequate to me; I wish I could offer up an accurate answer, but I can’t. It’s highly possible that no one can.

Utter tosh. If you can fault Hazel’s or my analysis of why “have” {in the sense of possession} is not usually used in the progressive in Standard English without going into your usual “prescriptivism bad” dance, have at it.

I haven’t seen any “analysis”. I’ve seen some sort of odd claim about what you’re calling “action verbs”, but from what I can see the degree of ‘kinesis’ (if you will) present seems at best peripherally related to whether a verb is used in the indicative or progressive. Particularly since parallel examples using verbs that indisputably describe actions also seem at least awkward and questionably grammatical: I like men dancing the lambada and I like cats chasing mice are both strikingly less natural sounding than I like men that dance the lambada and I like cats that chase mice. More peculiar yet, these become completely acceptable when you insert an additional verb: I like to see men dancing the lambada and I like to see cats chasing mice strike me as pretty unexceptional. Thus, the claim made about “action verbs” seems to be of limited utility in this case - at very least, it’s one factor among many. I suspect that, since there’s no simple rule about “action verbs” versus other verbs and the use of the progressive in main clauses, that this it’s a major oversimplification to assert that this distinction is of particular relevance here.

What seems clear to me so far is that the use of the progressive in relative clauses as in the OP’s example doesn’t precisely parallel its use in main clauses - though clearly there is some degree of similarity. I have some ideas about why the progressive is so distinctly unfavorable in this position, but nothing I can easily explain or confidently set forth as a rule. As I’ve said, I’m no expert on English syntax and even experts have no generally applicable method to determine which sentences are grammatical and which ones are not - except, of course, for asking a native speaker to render a grammaticality judgment.

At any rate, I don’t see anywhere in this thread where I declared “prescriptivism bad”. Clearly, I favor a scientific, empirical approach to understand language rather than superstition and taboo. I’m sorry if you don’t share that preference, because I think the utility of a genuinely empirical approach to language is obvious. I would think even you would recognize that, when someone asks for an explanation of some particular phenomenon, there’s great utility in examining a scientific explanation as opposed to one based upon the received wisdom of one’s elders.

P.S.: Revisit Phrontist’s very astute observation regarding allow. Is allow an “action verb”? Can rules perform actions? I don’t think most native English speakers would disagree that *Rules allowing . . . * is at least distinctly better than *Books having . . . *.

What part of “broad guidelines, not strict rules” {Post 12} did you not get, Excalibre? And you still haven’t provided an answer other than to say “I don’t know but nor does anyone else really”. As for superstition and taboo - what are you even talking about? Do you suppose I consulted the Oxford Guide To Chicken Entrails?

Must be a dialectal thing. I perceive no difference between “I like men dancing the lambada” and “I like men that dance the lambada.” Well, I find the “that” for the men to be problematic as I would prefer “who” in its place. Otherwise, I’m comfortable with both expressions. Mind you, I’m not into men either, whether they’re dancing the lambada or not.

Ooh, so no response to the actual criticisms of your analysis?