I was solving a test on modals and there was the following line:

What was the problem? Why _ leave early?

The proposed fill-in combinations were:

  1. had you to
  2. did you have to
  3. must you
  4. you had to

I picked 1 and 2, but the key to the test contained only choice 2.

I've consulted Quirk et al. and it says that in operator constructions (that is, for example, in interrogative sentences, when some auxiliary should be put in the 'operator' position at the beginning of the sentence) 'have to' may be treated either as:

  • A 'main verb', which requires DO-support:

Do we have to get up early tomorrow?

  • An auxiliary. Here, 'have' itself turns into an operator and participates in subject-operator inversion, so no DO is necessary. He notes that this usage is 'British English, somewhat old-fashioned':

Have we to get up early tomorrow?

Does this mean that "Why had you to leave early?" is also a passable answer?

I've found an instance of "But go on, why had you to go?" in The Good Apprentice by Iris Murdoch.

I'm curious whether any native speaker uses constructions like "Why had you to ..." in real life or is it always "Why did you have to ...".

  • 3
    None I know. But I live in the US.
    – user230
    Feb 8, 2014 at 18:41
  • 1
    I looked at these constructions on Ngrams, and neither were used much before 1900. How did people ask this question in the 19th century? Feb 8, 2014 at 18:53

2 Answers 2


I can't think of an actual example where I would say "Why had you to ____"

In the question above I would have chosen 2 & 3, both are things I say regularly.

FYI I am also in the USA.

  • Thanks, Angela! But I wonder if "Why must you leave early?" is grammatical in a sentence referring to the past ("What was the problem..") Feb 9, 2014 at 6:31
  • 1
    This is how I imagined that sentence taking place. Let's say Bill gets a phone call, and he looks worried. He says "Sorry Joe, I have to go home now". You then say "What was the problem? Why must you leave early?"
    – Angela
    Feb 9, 2014 at 12:57

I think it’s a bit mean to exclude a statement like “Why had you to leave early?”, since there is nothing wrong with it technically. After all, it is OK to say “Why had you left early?”.

Reversing the position of the subject and the verb to form a question is a classic form. You won’t see it very much in modern speech — “Went you to the shop?” is perfectly correct, but would come across as archaic to the point of seeming pretentious. You will however, see exactly that sort of thing in literature from a century or more ago, such as in Sherlock Holmes stories.

Ironically, although this form is archaic, it is virtually supplanted by exactly the same thing. We routinely use “have you …” or “did you …” to ask the same question. “Went you … ?” has been replaced with “Did you (go) …” or “Have you (gone) …” which still uses reversal to ask the question. It’s just we have limited what we’re reversing.

The French also routinely reverse subject and verb to ask a question (“Went you”) but also substitute a construction like “Is it that you went?”.

The Japanese just stick a ka after the verb, which simpiflies things temendously.

  • "I think it’s a bit mean to exclude a statement like “Why had you to leave early?”, since there is nothing wrong with it technically." Unfortunately I don't know the reason why but I think it is wrong. "Why had you to leave early?" sounds really bizarre to me, and I don't think I've ever heard it said.
    – Andy
    Mar 22, 2017 at 13:28

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