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Verbal Energy

Something we should stop having done

A news story from London's National Gallery illustrates the trouble with something people say every day.

By Ruth Walker / September 12, 2012

Fireworks explode over the Olympic Stadium during the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games September 9.

Olivia Harris/Reuters

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This column is coming to you live (well, almost) from a London still flush with an Olympic afterglow. The shade of the moment is Paralympic pink; and images of triumphant special athletes, beaming with their medals, are everywhere, splashed across the front pages of newspapers and video screens of whatever size, including the truly enormous ones in places such as Trafalgar Square.

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It seems to have been the biggest national outpouring of emotion since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, 15 years ago; only this time, people have noticed, the emotions are rather happier.

The "Agenda" page in the magazine of The Independent on Sunday shared, under the heading "Lexpionage," this little coinage: "Parasoul, n. An umbrella feeling, extending across the country, encompassing a warm glow that comes from seeing Team GB continue to trounce the rest of the world on the athletics field, in the velodrome, etc etc."

The Games haven't been the only story in London, though, and paging through the papers the other day I spotted an item in The Sunday Times that began: "An oil painting by Albrecht Dürer bought for £10 million by the National Gallery has had serious doubts cast on its authenticity."

Dear Reader, I try to be careful about how many pet peeves I let myself adopt, but I want your support on this one: The idiom "to have something done" does not serve us – or Dürer – well in this instance.

It works perfectly well when we say, "I'm having my hair cut tomorrow," or "They're having their bathroom remodeled." As in a passive-voice construction ("the hair is being cut"), the hairdresser or the contractor is unknown. The one doing the arranging, the "having done," is in charge. So there's a certain alignment between the grammatical subject ("I" or "they") and the logical subject.

Our painting, though, is the logical subject of the sentence but struggles to be its grammatical subject. A painting can't "have its authenticity questioned" in the same way I can have my hair cut. It's just a painting, after all; it can't call up art experts to have them come over for a look.

The geology of the art world is less stable than you might imagine. When I visited the National Gallery myself the other day, our guide was surprised to see a new label on a picture long thought to be a Titian self-portrait, forerunner of a famous Rembrandt self-portrait hanging nearby. Both featured self-confident 30-somethings with quilted sleeves, in three-quarter poses. But the Titian is now thought to be a portrait of someone else.

But back to grammar. A passive construction would get around the problem sentence in the Times: "Serious doubts have been cast on the authenticity of an oil painting hitherto thought to be by Albrecht Dürer...." Passive voice drives many editors around the bend, but there's a place for it, and this is as good an example as any. This recasting also puts "serious doubts" at the beginning, following good newspaper style in leading with what's most important.

The "to have something done" idiom also shows up – awkwardly – in the way people so often talk about property crime: "They had their house broken into while they were on vacation." Unless we're suggesting that "they" are colluding in an insurance scam, there's something not quite right about this sentence. Do you see what I mean?

If I could root this and similar usages out of the English language, I might turn Olympic pink with happiness.

[Editor's note: The original version of this piece referred to Titian (ca. 1488-1576) as having been influenced by Rembrandt (1606-1669).]

IN PICTURES: Paralympic Games 2012

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