When French comedian Gad Elmaleh started learning English in 2016 to perform his standup act in New York, he found a lot to laugh about in the peculiarities of his new language – and using the verb “had had” was among them.

In his live performance show, “American Dream,” an exasperated Gad tries to figure out how to use this tense: “Had you – had you have had already had – Should?” he gasps helplessly.

Using “had had” is really not as strange or funny as it looks.

In English, we use “have” as both a regular verb (have-has-had) and an auxiliary (helping) verb.

  • Present: Bob has a meeting at 8 a.m.
  • Past: Bob had a meeting at 8 a.m.
  • Present Perfect: Every Monday for over a year, Bob has had a meeting at 8 a.m. every Monday.
  • Past Perfect: Bob had had a Monday meeting scheduled for 8 a.m., but it was cancelled.

We use the past perfect to describe an action (“had had a meeting”) that takes place before the main action (was cancelled).

In “had had,” the first “had” is an auxiliary verb and the second “had” is the past participle.

Auxiliary verbs are never stressed; rather, the stress goes on the participle. When speaking, it sounds like “Bob-uhd HAD a Monday meeting …” With pronouns, you might use a contraction, like, “He’d HAD a Monday meeting …” So, you hear the participle more than the helping verb.

If it’s easier to say “had had,” go ahead – it takes more breath, but you will still be understood.