When Are Double Words OK?

Are “is is” and “had had” acceptable?

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #142

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.

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“Had Had”

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.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.