Grammar Guerilla: That That And Had Had (Updated)

Guerilla GorillaHave you ever used, heard, or read these cumbersome constructions: “I had had that same experience but then something else happened” or “She said that that car nearly hit her”? My experience suggests that they are being used more frequently but they need not be. The use of “had had” is an attempt to say that something happened in the past but is happening no longer. There are a couple of ways to avoid this clunky expression. If it is not essential to communicate that the episode is not ongoing then use had only once. If it is essential to communicate that the experience was completed in the past then substitute “once” for the first “had” as in “I once had that same experience” or “I have had that experience.” You might use an adverb: “I formerly had that experience.” That’s a little archaic but it might be better than “had had.”

“That that” can be avoided by finding a substitute for the first “that” or the second. This construction usually occurs when one is paraphrasing or summarizing. “I find that that construction is clunky.” The paraphrastic “that” is followed by a demonstrative “that.” It is grammatical but it is also ugly and sometimes disconcerting to the reader. Sometimes the paraphrastic “that” can be omitted with no loss of clarity. “I find that construction to be clunky.” In some cases one can simply omit the demonstrative “that.” The demonstrative can sometimes be replaced with “such as.” American English has a strong impulse to pile up words for emphasis. The construction “that that” is one instance of this phenomenon. Fewer words can be an elegant solution to the problem.

Ps. A correspondent pointed out that Lincoln used “that that” in the Gettysburg Address. Responses: 1. Sometimes it us unavoidable. 2. Most of what is written isn’t the Gettysburg Address.

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  1. “The use of ‘had had’ is an attempt to say that something happened in the past but is happening no longer” – No it isn’t. It is a way of saying that something had happened in what not only is now the past and is no longer happening, but also was the past relative to the time about which the speaker or writer is discoursing and was no longer happening. As such, the only way of avoiding it is to replace the second “had” with another verb and probably replace the entire phrase in question. I remember having had something about this at school. Look up and stop whingeing!

  2. I knew a school Superintendent in Mississippi who used to say “lot uh lot uh” to describe a large number, as in “There were a lot uh lot uh students at the game.” Must be a Southern thang.

    • I’d spell that ‘lotta lotta’, where the doubling intensifies regular old ‘lotta’, which is simply a bastardization (spelling of a lazy pronunciation) of “lot of”.

  3. If you start talking about grammar enough that you can use ‘that’ as a noun (because you are discussing various words and what they are doing), you can get constructions like:
    That that that that that referred to referred to the hat.

    To try and explain, there is a hat, there is a sentence that refers to it with ‘that’, and there is another ‘that’ (possibly in a second sentence) which is referring to the first that. The crazy sentence might thus be ‘improved’ as:

    The ‘that’ which the other ‘that’ referred to, referred to the hat.

  4. The “that that” example reminds me of one of my favorite German sentences: “weißt du das, dass das ‘das’ das falsches Wort ist?”

  5. Cringe Alert:

    This morning, I heard a radio commercial that contained the phrase, “people like you and I.” Awful. Just awful. Would anyone ever say, “a person like I”?

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