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For example, what is the difference between the following two sentences:

I had a bad day

I had had a bad day

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2  
This is simple past and past perfect. –  Kosmonaut Sep 7 '10 at 14:51
    
@Kosmonaut: Sorry, I made a mistake in searching the site. The actual duplicate is english.stackexchange.com/questions/2346/… –  delete Sep 7 '10 at 23:33
4  
@Shinto I think that the double word “had had” is confusing enough on its own to be suitable as separate question from a generic question about past perfect. –  nohat Sep 8 '10 at 0:57
    
@nohat: on the other hand, answering this requires some duplication of effort. –  delete Sep 8 '10 at 1:27
    
Good editors are not allowed to suggest edits offically. So here is what you meant to ask in lieu of "For example, what is the difference between the following two sentences" Those are not sentences which makes any answer ambigous. You meant to ask in regard of the "difference between the two clauses". As it was stated, only once could be a sentence: the one without had had. Better to have offered two, hypothetic, complete sentences rather than fragments...although you short hand approach was appreciated. –  lex Oct 20 '12 at 18:50

7 Answers 7

up vote 19 down vote accepted

'Had' is the past form as well as the past participle of 'have'.

The first sentence is in the simple past tense which typically has this form:

Subject + past form of verb

I had (past tense of have) a bad day.

I reached (past tense form of 'reach') the office late.

The simple past is used normally to denote an action that is completed in the past.

The second sentence is in the past perfect tense which has this form:

Subject + had + past participle of verb

If two non-consecutive events happened in the past, this tense is used to show the first event.

By the time we arrived, the party had begun.

= The party began. Then we arrived.

By the time we arrived, they had eaten all the food!

= They ate all the food; then we arrived.

I had had a bad day already, and I arrived home to find that it had been robbed!

= I was having a bad day. During the day my home was robbed. Then I arrived home and found out about the robbery.

Refer to Kajaco's example as well. Here, the past perfect is used to show which incident/action happened first.

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2  
there were some errors in this answer, but since it is already upvoted I have done some work on correcting the English language errors and also added some explanation. I hope you don't mind. –  delete Sep 8 '10 at 1:56
    
@SHinto: Thanks for the edits and the explanation! –  Manjima Sep 8 '10 at 3:03

Consider this sentence:

I had eaten my breakfast.

This is the past perfect form with the verb eat. This uses the past participle ( 3rd form) of the verb.
Now, just substitute the verb eat with have.

I had had my breakfast.

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1  
This is really a great, concise, illustrative answer. –  ShreevatsaR Sep 7 '10 at 18:37
    
past participle not past particle. –  Dia Sep 7 '10 at 19:48
    
@ Dia: Sorry for the typo. I'll correct it. –  Vaibhav Garg Sep 8 '10 at 5:18
    
@kiamlaluno, I had to roll back because "past perfect" is not the form of the verb, which your edit seemed to imply. –  Vaibhav Garg Jun 20 '11 at 10:31
    
Well, had eaten is the past perfect tense of eat. –  kiamlaluno Jun 20 '11 at 15:14

This evening you will tell your wife, "I crashed the car because I had a bad day." Later this month you will explain to the insurance adjuster, "I crashed my car because I had had a bad day."

Just for fun: http://www.reocities.com/oosterwal/puzzle/had.htm

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You would be a damn fool to say that to the insurance adjuster, of course. Much better to say "I crashed my car because a white dog ran out into the road; the fact that I had had a bad day was immaterial." (I've been hunting for a link but can't find it; apparently a mysterious white dog that runs into the road is the "cause" of most single-vehicle accidents in the US. "White dog" is also another name for moonshine. Coincidence?) –  MT_Head Jun 21 '11 at 6:25
    
@MT_Head: I've heard moonshine called 'white lightning' but not 'white dog'. Thanks for that. –  oosterwal Jun 23 '11 at 2:04

There's an idiomatic difference between "to have a bad day" and "to be having a bad day". The first (mostly) refers to external events and the second (mostly) to your internal reaction to them (mood, headache, etc.) - but there's no bright-line separation between them, just as there isn't in life. Perhaps fully-enlightened Buddhists or Stoics can completely separate external events from their own reactions to them - but then, a fully-enlightened Buddhist or Stoic wouldn't refer to any particular day as being "bad", either.

It might be helpful to ring all the changes on this phrase and see how its meaning shifts:

  • I have a bad day. (Don't use this. It doesn't work.)

Present:

  • I am having a bad day. Today, bad things are happening and I am in a bad mood.
  • I have been having a bad day. Much the same as "I am having a bad day", but with a hint of hope that things might be about to change.
  • I have had a bad day. The effect of this one is very similar to "I am having a bad day" - bad things might or might not still be happening, but I am definitely still in a bad mood.

Past:

  • I had a bad day. It's behind me; the bad part is over. Even if I say "I had a bad day today", the implication is that the day has ended - I'm probably at home drinking a beer.
  • I was having a bad day. I am talking about a particular time in the past (e.g., at 18:00 last Monday evening.) At that particular moment, bad things were happening and I was in a bad mood. "Chuck shouldn't have crossed me - he knew I was having a bad day."
  • I had been having a bad day. Bad things had been happening; my mood was bad; things might (or might not!) have been just about to change for the better. "I had been having a bad day when suddenly I found a $100 bill blowing down the street."
  • I had had a bad day. On the day I am speaking of, bad things had happened (and might still have been happening at the moment I am referring to), and my mood was bad. This particular phrase leaves some ambiguity - the bad day might still have been going on, it might have been over but I still had a headache, or I might already have been home unwinding with a beer.
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The first sentence uses the simple past of the verb "to have".

The second sentence uses the pluperfect (past perfect).

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Ok... that doesn't actually answer the entire question –  Pacerier Dec 23 '13 at 16:26

I'm not sure, but as the schoolboy put it...

"I had 'had', where I would have had 'had had', if 'had had' had had the teacher's approval."

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2  
I think you're thinking of this try-to-punctuate-it sentence: John while Jim had had had had had had had had had had had a better affect on the teacher –  Doug Sep 7 '10 at 17:19
    
Wow! Possibly I was. Put this in as an answer so I can upvote it. Particularly if you can punctuate it! –  Brian Hooper Sep 7 '10 at 19:25
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Look at the wiki article "James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher" –  Casebash Sep 8 '10 at 7:39
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Once you have that cracked try the meta-version, where 2 schoolboys were trying to write that sentence: "Smith while Jones had had 'had had had had had had had had' had had ..." - well, you get the idea... –  Tony Andrews Sep 8 '10 at 8:16

You are asking about the difference between these. If you are asking about meanings, then the first is a simple statement of fact that stands alone. The second implies another thought coming with it, such as

I had had a bad day at work already, when I got home and discovered the basement was flooded.

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