John Larrysson's Column: Double Words

In the last article I investigated double had. This time I will cover several other examples of doubled words that look like errors, but that normally occur in English. The key point is that usually the two words are being used in different senses or meanings. For example consider double right and double that.


Turn right right there to go to the school.


The first 'right' is the opposite of left. The second 'right' is the adverb meaning exactly. Alternately the word 'exactly' might be awkwardly substituted for the second 'right'. “Turn right just there” or “Turn right at that corner” would also work.

audio 1


I know that that school is famous for winning the HK debate competition.


The first 'that' is a relative pronoun, it refers to what one knows. The second 'that' is a demonstrative pronoun, but it refers to the school. Alternatively one could use the school's name instead of the second 'that': 'I know that Happy College is famous for winning the HK debate competition.'

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Sometimes the double words are identical, but in different clauses. Consider double it, double her and double is as examples.


When I found it it was dirty.


Both its (plural of it/"it"s) are pronouns that refer to exactly the same thing. The sentence is technically correct. However I suggest either separating the its with a comma, or other words using the noun to replace one of them.


When I found it, it was dirty.


It was dirty when I found it.


When I found the candy it was dirty.

When I found the candy, it was dirty.


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Consider the sentence: When I gave her her teddy bear back, she smiled. The first 'her' is the object of the verb 'gave'. What was given was “her teddy bear”. The second 'her' shows ownership of the teddy bear. Alternatively it can be reworded: 'Mary lost her teddy bear. When I gave it back to her, she smiled.'

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The difficulty is is we need a mechanism.


What she needs is the summer weather.


The first sentence is awkward. In it, the subject is “The difficulty is”. The subject is followed with a verb, which just happens to also be is. The second sentence has a similar structure, but no doubled word. The subject is “What she needs”; it is also followed by a verb, which is also is.

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Words sometimes are doubled in perfectly correct sentences. To show that these structures are normal I did a small comparison of them, and other structures, on the British National Corpus. (chart below) The frequency shows that these are normal, if less common. Sometimes these structures might be slightly awkward. If a doubled word makes your sentence difficult to understand, reword your sentence. It is better to avoid doubled words, unless the reworded sentence is much longer or even more awkward.

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A comparison of double-word frequencies with other common structures. [click here]

Related article: Double Had

by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE:Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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