Episode 142: September 28, 2012
by Bonnie Trenga
Today’s today’s podcast podcast is is about words that are doubled, such as “had had” and “is is.” Word’s grammar checker automatically alerts you when you repeat a word, but sometimes such doubling is allowed.
Acceptable Doubled Words
Sometimes in the normal course of writing or speaking, we have to double words because that’s just how the sentence comes out (1). We might say something like, “When I gave her her hat back, she thanked me.” Word does not approve, but the sentence is grammatical, if a bit awkward. Another example is “By the time I thought of it, it was too late.” In this case, you can put a comma between the “it”s to make the sentence easier to follow. Although these doubled words are correct, consider rewording your sentence if the repeated words bother you.
Another double you might encounter is “had had,” and Frank from New York would like to know if it’s a correct phrase. It is correct, though it too might seem a bit awkward. To understand “had had,” we need to take a look at the present perfect and past perfect tenses. Take this sentence: “I have had too many chocolates today.” That sentence is in the present perfect tense. You use that tense when you’re talking about a past action that is continuing into the present. This sentence means that I started eating chocolates in the past but the chocolate eating is continuing up to the present. Present perfect tense uses “has” and “have” plus the past participle, as in “have had” and “has gone.”
Now let’s put the chocolate sentence in the past tense. To do so, we’ll use past perfect tense, which uses “had” plus the past participle, as in “had had” and “had gone.” So in the sentence “I had had too many chocolates, so I was too full to eat dinner yesterday,” two things happened in the past. First was eating chocolates; second was trying to eat dinner.
When you have two past-tense occurrences, you use past perfect to express the action that came first. If you are using the verb “to have” in past perfect, you need to use two “had”s.
Here’s another past perfect example: “I had eaten too many chocolates, so I was too full to eat dinner yesterday.” This is grammatically the same as the “had had” sentence but we used the verb “to eat” instead of “to have.” Although “had had” isn't wrong, “had eaten” definitely sounds better.
“Is” Is a Special Case
Another odd doubling up occurs with the verb “to be.” This phenomenon is sometimes called the “double is,” although you can double up other forms of “to be.” You’ve probably heard of the song “Que será será,” which is Spanish for “Whatever will be will be.” In this song, “will be,” a future form, is repeated.
The double “is” has been part of American speech since at least the 1980s, but “it isn’t an expression for careful speakers,” says grammar authority Bryan Garner (2). You’ll often hear it when a sentence begins with “The problem is” and “The question is” (1). In such cases, another “is” would be incorrect. For example, in the sentence “The problem is is that it’s raining,” the subject of the sentence is “the problem”; therefore, we need only one “is.” We probably say such ungrammatical sentences because we’re stalling as we think of what to say next. Thinking longer before you speak is a better idea.
There is, however, a case when two “is” verbs in a row is grammatical. Well, at least I think so. One source I consulted agrees with me (3), but one does not (2). Sometimes you might hear a sentence such as “What he is is a complete jerk.” I believe this is grammatically correct, though a bit wordy. We use such sentences when we want to emphasize our point. If we use the same grammatical structure but not the double “is,” I think we can see that the double “is” sentence is grammatical: “What she wants is a bigger chocolate bar.” Here, “What he is” and “What she wants” are both the subjects, so we need to follow the subject with a verb. In the first case, the verb “is” turns out to be next to another “is”; in the second, the verb “wants” is next to the “is.” If you want to be a more careful speaker, you should probably reword such sentences: “He is a complete jerk” is more concise but less emphatic.
That’s about it for doubled words. Remember that words sometimes get doubled in the normal course of creating a sentence. It’s also possible to double up “had” if you’re using the past perfect tense. These constructions might be slightly awkward, so if you don’t like them, go ahead and reword your sentence. As for the double “is,” although you’ll probably let an occasional double “is” slip out every once in a while, it’s probably better to avoid this construction when possible.
This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
1. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, pp. 667-8.
2. Garner, B. Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 469.. Accessed Sept. 26, 2008.