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There's a particular sentence which I've been pondering over:

All the faith he had had had had no effect on the outcome of his life.

Some people seem to think there's supposed to be a comma after the second had but I don't think there should be. Technically, 4 had words in a row in this scenario does make clear sense.

Should there be a comma there or not?

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  • For the record: facebook.com/… Dec 31, 2013 at 23:51
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    I'm glad you added your link. :) I think you are correct; no need exists for a comma. There is no preposition, conjunction, or need to separate the two main clauses. It is analogous to saying: All the faith he once possessed made no difference on the outcome of his life. Jan 1, 2014 at 0:03
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    The people who pronounce on the bit of fashion called punctuation have decreed that you shouldn't use a comma to separate the subject from the predicate, no matter how difficult it is to parse the sentence without, and no matter how you would actually speak it. That this is an arbitrary convention is shown by the fact that other languages have a different rule for it. If I needed to speak that monstrosity of a sentence, I would certainly end a breath group after the second had, and therefore I would write it with a comma there.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 1, 2014 at 1:22
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    @Colin Fine: +1 for 'breath group'; +1 for panning the punctuation police; +1 for speaking common sense; +1 for the telling comparison with other sometimes more sensible languages; +1 for panning the sentence; +1 for putting the comma in; +1 for committing punctuation heresy just to help some poor wight understand things better. (I don't seem to have more than one vote, though.) Jan 1, 2014 at 1:35
  • @Susan: well, I find it awkward. YMMV. As for your last sentence, I agree absolutely. But some of the so-called rules of punctuation don't serve people in the use of their own language, but are arbitrary conventions. This is why I don't usually venture into discussions about punctuation.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 1, 2014 at 11:02

4 Answers 4

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I think you're correct. There is no need for a comma and I don't see how adding one would make the sentence clearer.

Those are not independent clauses and without a series, parenthetical element, preposition, conjunction or interruption, adding one would be a mistake.

EDIT:

Let's suppose there were a comma.

"All the faith he had had, had had no effect on the outcome of his life."

The only arguments I could conceive being made for this construction would be the following: 1) Interruption - Not the case. A reader may stumble with the flow or meaning, but that's not the sentence's fault. 2) Independent clauses - Neither of the clauses are independent in this case. If it were reworded to something like, "With all the faith he had had, it is embarrassing that it had had no effect on the outcome of his life," then sure.

Sources:

  • The Only Grammar Book You'll Ever Need: A One-Stop Source for Every Writing Assignment - Susan Thurman (2003)
  • Purdue Student Writing Guide (2004)
  • Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th Edition
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  • I'd say a sentence with four consecutive had's (or worse, eight BUFFALO's) could be deemed likely to lead more than the odd individual up the garden path. Jan 1, 2014 at 1:00
  • @EdwinAshworth I agree the sentence is clumsy and would likely lead to confusion, but I don't think that's a reason to change the structure of a sentence. With the exception of "utilitarian" documents that should avoid ambiguity(e.g., loan documents, drafted legislation, a textbook), writing should carry what the author hopes to convey. If that structure was chosen, I would assume it was for a reason and believe it shouldn't be changed if there's not clear reason to do so. That's just my humble opinion, though.
    – emsoff
    Jan 1, 2014 at 1:08
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    Ah – I believe grammar (and or including punctuation, depending on one's viewpoint) is there to serve, not to dictate. Extending Orwell's Sixth Rule: if rigidly adhering to other grammatical 'rules' leads to something barbarous / ambiguous / unclear / clumsy, be prepared to suspend those rules. Jan 1, 2014 at 1:20
  • @EdwinAshworth I would agree entirely, depending on the context. If it's a piece of poetry, where structure is arguably one of the most important elements of composition, I believe the author's will trumps all grammatical rules. But, as a minimalist who subscribe's to Strunk and White's overarching rule of "Be clear," I would suggest redoing the entire sentence, not adding a comma to try to salvage it ;). Since in this case I didn't know the context, audience, or author, I fell back on grammatical rules as I understand them. At the least we can both agree the sentence is rubbish.
    – emsoff
    Jan 1, 2014 at 1:31
  • The snags with 'grammatical rules' are that English is so complex grammarians are still trying to pin them down, 'authorities' disagree over the rules (eg England is/are winning 2 - 0), and 'authorities' often speak as though they actually have the authority to legislate (rather than describe common usage). Jan 1, 2014 at 1:48
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A comma is used to help readers comprehend the sentence correctly (to avoid confusion).

Therefore, as long as the sentence is comprehensible, a comma is not necessary.

But, if there are only three or two had-s there, you will need a comma.

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Quite honestly, until I read jboneca's post, (complete with the comma), I had had had had no idea what that sentence even meant. Commas are primarily used to represent a break in speech, but they're also used to clear up any confusion the reader might have. One classic example of this is "Let's eat, grandma", and "Let's eat grandma". Four of the same word in a row can indeed lead to confusion. I therefore think that there should be a comma separating the second and third "had".

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  • Oh but you see "Let's eat grandma" isn't a proper representation of the original intention in the first place - it's a whole different meaning obviously. Jan 1, 2014 at 2:21
  • In other words, you can't just make up your own grammatical rules based on a single phrase. Jan 1, 2014 at 2:24
  • @JerryDodge This is punctuation we're talking about, not grammar. Punctuation is a conventional system of marks we add to our text to make it easier for the reader to understand. If a slight break from convention helps make a difficult passage more comprehensible, then go ahead and do it.
    – Pitarou
    Jan 1, 2014 at 2:56
  • @JerryDodge, I was only using this phrase as an example. As Pitarou said, commas are used to make text more comprehensible. That really isn't a rule, but it is a widely accepted and implied one. Jan 2, 2014 at 21:00
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Personally, I'll just say that any sentence with four 'had's must have been doomed for a catastrophe. I bet you could get the same point across by saying: All the faith he had previously had no effect on the outcome of his life. I feel as if there was one extraneous 'had' in that sentence up there. No one should have to to suffer from 'had'itis.

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  • I’m afraid you’ve been had.
    – tchrist
    Jan 1, 2014 at 5:28

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