Why Do I Really, Really Want to Say ‘Had Went’?

Does it feel like you're hearing "had went" more often lately?

Ben Yagoda, Writing for
4-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

"Had went" isn't standard English, so don't use it in a school essay or business email. But it's not new, and according to Ben Yagoda, it can create a more emphatic feeling in a conversation.

Interviewed on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2018, the actor and director Jonah Hill was talking about his childhood obsession with movies. “I had ran through so many films,” he said.

In a 2017 interview also on NPR, the director Bryan Fogel talked about Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian doctor who masterminded the doping of athletes at the Sochi Winter Olympics. “What happened at Sochi he was incredibly upset about,” Fogel said, “because he had went from being a scientist, meaning his whole life is — yes, it’s doing the exact opposite of what he should be doing, but he was using science to beat the system.”

'Had went' isn't new

You may see what Hill and Fogel were doing, grammatically. They were using the preterite —the simple past tense—such as “ran” and “went” instead of the past participle such as “run” and “gone.” This is by no means a new thing. Writing in 1781, John Witherspoon decried what he called “vulgarisms”: “had fell," “had rose,” “had broke,” “had threw,” and “had drew.” 

Such constructions have long flourished in the American vernacular. Joseph Whitehouse, a Virginian on the Lewis and Clark expedition, wrote in his journal, “At this run, we were met with by Robert Fields, (one of the party that had went with Captain Clark).” A line of testimony in an 1870 murder trial went, “I had a laugh as to how I had went through the arrangement.” The narrator of William Faulkner’s 1931 novella “Spotted Horses” says: “Flem had done already disappeared; he had went on to see his wife.”

Often, a double substitution is made, with the participle being used instead of the preterite. “She gone home,” or, as in the lyrics of “Frankie and Johnny,” “He done her wrong.”

In the fourth edition of The American Language, published in 1936, H.L. Mencken notes, “The substitution of the preterite for the … participle seems to me to be increasing of late, and such striking examples as ‘How old of a cat have you ever saw?’ are surely not uncommon.” He remarks that Ring Lardner’s unlettered letter-writing ballplayer Jack Keefe, in “You Know Me Al," favors “have wrote,” “have ate,” “have went,” “have drank,” etc., etc. (For example: “I says ‘Do you supose the people over there has heard a bout me and he says Sure because they have wrote a lot of letters asking me to be sure and bring you and Mathewson a long.’)

'Had went' is also a feature of African-American Vernacular English

All the people and characters quoted above are white, but the construction is also a feature of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). In her dissertation, “The Evolution of AAVE in a Rural Texas Community (1995),” Patricia Cukor-Avila quotes an informant using both “had went” and “had took”: “Cause we had went to — one day my mom had took us out to eat. We had went to, to go eat. Then we had went to the mall, then we had went to ‘Quick As A Flash.’” And in a 2012 interview, the African-American former baseball player Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd said: “Some of the best games I’ve ever, ever pitched in the major leagues I stayed up all night; I’d say two-thirds of them. If I had went to bed, I would have won 150 ballgames in the time span that I played.”

'Had went' shows up in online writing

I believe the substitution is still increasing — as Mencken perceived it to be in 1936 — with the added wrinkle that it’s currently seen not only in speech but in various kinds of online writing (although it still is virtually absent in published and edited work, other than in dialogue). Another difference is that it is showing up among unexpected people. Jonah Hill and Bryan Fogel are city-born white men who both went to the University of Colorado. And friends who are college teachers report preterite-for-participle increasingly showing up in student papers. Some of this is probably due to white kids mimicking the lingo they’ve heard from rappers. But that’s not the whole explanation: This construction just seems to be in the air.

The Corpus of Global Web-Based English, consisting of about 1.9 billion words published online in 2012 and 2013, shows the geographical distribution of Hill’s “had ran,” with the highest popularity in Ireland, followed by Great Britain and the United States, and then Canada:

A chart showing that "had ran"is most common in Ireland

“Had ran” shows up a lot on Twitter as well, with these hits in a seven-hour span:

Instances of "had went" on Twitter

Three of the tweeters in that screenshot are from the U.S., two from Britain ("had ran" turns up an awful lot in football contexts), and one from Japan.

I have never said “had went” or “had ran,” but I would like to, quite a lot. The “mistake” just feels somehow stronger and more emphatic than the standard version.

“If I had gone outside this afternoon, I would have sweated bullets”: tame.

“If I had went outside this afternoon, I would have sweat bullets”: vivid and crisp.

So when the conversational time seems right, I may just try to work a preterite into a participle slot. I bet Ring Lardner—and Jonah Hill—would approve.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Ben Yagoda, Writing for Grammar Girl

Ben Yagoda is the author of How to Not Write BadAbout Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, and many other books. You can find out more about him at benyagoda.com and on Twitter.