Had had and that that

Try explaining why using “had had” or “that that” can be grammatically correct. For examples: “The woman had had a bad day,” and “I can see that that bothers you.” Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Open Window
Open Window by Diego Torres Silvestre via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This week I tried to explain this to my English as a Foreign Language student, and instead simply gave more examples without explaining why they were good grammar. In fact, I recommended that she write sentences that would not create doubled words. Instead she might write, ‘The woman’s day had been difficult,” and “I can see that you are troubled by English grammar.”

I probably should be able to explain doubled words and a lot of other linguistic quirks, but when I weigh the value of our short time together I usually decide that it isn’t worth the effort—either mine or hers.  There are more important, and simpler, things that she needs to grasp first.

The White Rabbit
The White Rabbit by John Tenniel via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)

Another problem I am running into is that the workbook we have been provided includes a lot of readings that use outdated language.  Many of them are from classic texts but by virtue of being from the 19th and 20th centuries, a lot of the vocabulary is, well, weird.  At the very least, many of the words are rarely used, and some have changed their meanings over the years.

Words like Antipodes, thwart, whilst, romance (to mean fantastic story), and rectory are all words that were commonplace once, in England, but are rarely if ever heard in conversational American English today. When my time as a tutor ends, I am going to suggest that the people who provide this service look for a different book. My guess is that the readings selected were free from copyright because they were older by seventy years or more than the lifespan of their authors. What they gained in copyright costs, though, the workbook publishers have lost in clarity and familiarity.

Marmalade by Duncan Hull via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I’m also struggling with the contexts and cultural components of some of the stories. This week’s readings included The Open Window by H.H. Munro (Saki) and a selection from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. In the first, a teenaged girl deceives an adult visitor about family members being killed while hunting, and she scares him with what is, essentially, a ghost story. For more advanced English students, this tale would provide lots of material for discussing symbolism and irony, etc. As a tutor in EFL, however, I got bogged down explaining why a child would disrespect an adult male by lying to him and why that is supposed to be amusing.

The selection about Alice falling down the rabbit hole was understood to be fantasy, but there were so many unfamiliar details that we got sidetracked. When you have never heard of things like marmalade or waistcoats, you are distracted from the joy of the story. It was also a bit tricky to explain why Alice used the word antipathies when she meant Antipodes. My student was unfamiliar with both words, and so the joke was lost.

In spite of the fact that my student had had a difficult time reading some of the material, she did a very good job of completing the exercises that followed.  I assured her that that was what mattered most.






  1. Hi, I agree that there are simpler and more important issues your student needs to deal with first. I also agree that students don’t usually need to understand linguistic nuances. I just want to try and explain those double words.

    “The woman had had a bad day,” It is past perfect. We use past perfect when we talk about events which happened earlier in the past before another event in the past which happened later. The first word is auxiliary (a fancy word which means it helps to create grammar tense) and the second word carries the meaning. We form past perfect with (the little helper) had+past participle of the verb. I had cooked dinner before the TV show started. Or. I had had 2 girlfriends before I got married. The first had tells us it’s an event which happened before another event in the past. The second had is just the past participle of the verb to have.

    “I can see that that bothers you.” The first that is a conjunction, its function is to tell us what we can see. What can we see? We can see that…It introduces the main clause ( the important part of the sentence) The second that is a pronoun. It tells us what bothers us. What bothers you? That (bothers me). If you replace the second that with a noun it starts to make more sense. “I can see that grammar bothers you.” What bothers you? Grammar bothers me.

    • That is a great explanation! Thank you. I am surprised that they included the past perfect in the workbook for EFL students, but I confess I didn’t spend much time on it. Stylistically, I find it clunky and would prefer not to read it. If I come across it again, though, I will be sure to use your explanation. Thanks again.

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