When ‘I have’ ≠ ‘Я имею’

When I was in Brighton Beach (‘Little Russia’), New York, I saw a funny shop and made a photo:

Мы имеем продукты

Мы имеем продукты из России по низким ценам – We have food from Russia at low prices.

I read this store belongs to a Korean family. But why was it funny? For Russians it sounds strange. Instead of saying Я имею (‘I have…’) in everyday Russian we usually say У меня есть (‘By me there is(are)…)’. We use иметь with some set expressions (e.g. иметь смысл – to have (make) sense), and in rather formal situations, documents, etc. So if we compare:

Я имею дом – У меня есть дом

we will see the first one sounds very formal. Some people would argue that in this case имею would – again formalities – mean legally own but the second one can mean that also. So, unless it’s a set expression or something formal, it’s better to use У меня есть. The bonus is that after this you don’t need to rack your brain with cases as you should use Nominative. Please note for the opposite (“I don’t have”) you should use У меня нет + Genitive.

Another danger of иметь, apart from the formal bit, is that it has also various slang meanings: to use somebody in a bad way, cheat somebody or other (sexual) meanings you wouldn’t want to actually mean. Just stick with У меня есть in everyday situations.

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