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Had enough? – a nerdy word-based challenge

John Murray

Here’s a challenge for you – can you create a grammatically correct string of words that, if said out loud, would require the speaker to make the same monosyllabic utterance 17 times in a row?

At first, this  reminds me of the story of an old lady calling her cat in by going to the door and calling:

“Here, puss puss puss puss puss puss puss puss puss puss puss puss puss puss puss puss puss…”

That’s a bit of a cheat though, and is little more than a lazy schoolboy’s way of approaching a task to write a story of a set word count. Of course, I wouldn’t dream of trying to pad out an article in such a way for this or any other blog.

Instead, let’s consider the diversity of a short word we use hundreds of times every day. The word is ‘had’.

Most commonly used as the past participle of ‘have’, ‘had’ is a funny little word. It can be a conjunction with a similar meaning to ‘if’ but used entirely in the past tense (as in “had I chosen those lottery numbers, I would’ve won”), or an adjective meaning ‘conned’ (“I’ve been had”). Perhaps oddest of all, the word can be doubled to form the past perfect tense (as in “I had had something to eat but I still felt hungry”), making it one of the few words Microsoft Word won’t underline and tell you is a repeated word if you type it twice.

It’s this peculiarity that forms the epicentre of our 17-bit mouthful. Well, that and two conveniently named academics – Professor Had and Professor Hadhad.

We have to introduce this sentence by giving it some context – the two professors have entered a competition in writing an academic paper, and the judges have decided that their papers are the best. There can only be one winner, however, and the judges need to find some way to separate the two very closely matched submissions.

Of course, it comes down to grammar and, specifically, the past perfect tense. It turns out that Hadhad, despite his name, didn’t know how to use it, and simply wrote ‘had’ in one of his statements, while Had correctly used ‘had had’ in his. In short, it was Hadhad not using ‘had had’ that gifted the award to Had.

Or, to put it another way:

“Had, where Hadhad had had ‘had’, had had ‘had had’. Had Hadhad had had ‘had had’, Had would not have won.”

So there’s your answer, and it’s a very good example of how ambiguous English words can be, and how important punctuation is. I hope you don’t feel you’ve been had, or that I’ve had it as a writer. One thing is very likely though – we’ve all got a terrible had-ache now!

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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