What is correct English?

I’m currently reading “The City & the City” by China Miéville. I have found a few places where he writes, for example, “Ul Quoma had had only the People’s National Party.” I have stuck on the use of “had had” and wonder if the sentence in my example could have been written “Ul Quoma had only had the People’s National Party.” instead?
In my native language (Swedish) those two sentences translates exactly the same but are they exchangeable in correct English? If so, which is preferable?

/Thomas, curious

“Had had” is legitimate and in strict grammatical terms probably more correct; however it’s slightly ugly and passing from idiomatic and conversational English to the point where it’s now almost archaic (in my opinion).

You can see why “had had” is strictly correct when you consider the past tense of the verb “to have”: for example as in “I have had measles”. In that sentence, you wouldn’t necessarily drop the “have” or the “had”. “Had had” is the pluperfect of the verb “to have”, as in “He had had measles before he moved to London.” But you can see or hear from that sentence that one of the “hads” could be dropped without really destroying the sense, and that is what is happening in everyday English speech. Written English is following.

My idiomatic tuppence.


To put it simply, “had had” is the past tense of “had”. Something had something, but no longer does. “The bus had had no passengers, but now it did.” Compare that to “The bus had no passengers, but now it did.” Both basically mean the same thing, but I think the first makes more sense.

Thank you for your answers Hugh and cinder6.

I would argue that, pedantically speaking, “He had measles before he moved to London” sounds more like he had the measles and still had it when he moved to London, where as “had had” makes it clear he recovered from it before moving.

Incidentally, am I supposed to count “measles” as singular or plural?

“Had had” is the past perfect form and is perfectly correct. It seems to me that OPs original problem was with the placing of the “only”.

“Only” is usually termed an “adverb”, but “only” is the most flexible word in the English language in terms of where it can appear in structure. Take a very simple sentence:

I saw my brother in the park yesterday.

Where in relation to that string can you put “only”?

Only I saw my brother in the park yesterday.
I only saw my brother in the park yesterday.
I saw only my brother in the park yesterday.
I saw my only brother in the park yesterday.
I saw my brother only in the park yesterday.
I saw my brother in the only park yesterday.
I saw my brother in the park only yesterday.
I saw my brother in the park yesterday only.

They are all perfectly grammatical in English. Adverb? “Adverb” is a dustbin category … if it doesn’t fit any of the other categories, it’s an adverb.

I think the problem with the sentence the op raises is that it is ugly – it doesn’t sound good, which is part of the art of writing. But without a larger context, it is impossible to say whether there is a good reason to place it in that position, with its scope covering the complement rather than the verb phrase as a whole, as in the more common placement, as in his alternative suggestion.


PS: Phew, at least this time I’m not off-topicking by talking about linguistics.

Wikipedia had had had had had covered that.

Stannard Allen, Living English Structure, 1950s originally I think, has a similar sentence in one of the exercises:

 If the sentence that had had had had had had, it would have been correct.

which in itself is ambiguous,


Gotta love those little grammar/punctuation puzzles. The strangest one I know of (though it deals with homonyms more than punctuation) is:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo bufallo Buffalo buffalo.

It’s supposed to be grammatically correct, but I still think that somebody just took a word out after the second “buffalo” which would make it much easier to understand.