James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher

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"James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher" is an English sentence used to demonstrate lexical ambiguity and the necessity of punctuation,[1] which serves as a substitute for the intonation,[2] stress, and pauses found in speech.[3] In human information processing research, the sentence has been used to show how readers depend on punctuation to give sentences meaning, especially in the context of scanning across lines of text.[4] The sentence is sometimes presented as a puzzle, where the solver must add the punctuation.


The sentence refers to two students, James and John, who are required by an English teacher to describe a man who had suffered from a cold in the past. John writes "The man had a cold", which the teacher marks incorrect, while James writes the correct "The man had had a cold". James's answer, being more grammatical, resulted in a better impression on the teacher.[5]

The sentence is easier to understand with added punctuation and emphasis:

James, while John had had "had", had had "had had"; "had had" had had a better effect on the teacher.[6]

In each of the five "had had" word pairs in the above sentence, the first of the pair is in the past perfect form. The italicized instances denote emphasis of intonation, focusing on the differences in the students' answers, then finally identifying the correct one.

Alternatively, the sentence can also be read as John's answer being better than James', simply by placing the same punctuation in a different arrangement through the sentence:

James, while John had had "had had", had had "had"; "had had" had had a better effect on the teacher.


The sentence can be given as a grammatical puzzle[7][8][9] or an item on a test,[1][2] for which one must find the proper punctuation to give it meaning. Hans Reichenbach used a similar sentence ("John where Jack had...") in his 1947 book Elements of Symbolic Logic as an exercise for the reader, to illustrate the different levels of language, namely object language and metalanguage. The intention was for the reader to add the needed punctuation for the sentence to make grammatical sense.[10]

In research showing how people make sense of information in their environment, this sentence was used to demonstrate how seemingly arbitrary decisions can drastically change the meaning, analogous to how changes in the punctuation and quotes in the sentence show that the teacher alternately prefers James's work and John's work (e.g., compare: 'James, while John had had "had", had...' vs. 'James, while John had had "had had", ...').[11]

The sentence is also used to show the semantic vagueness of the word had, as well as to demonstrate the difference between using a word and mentioning a word.[12]

It has also been used as an example of the complexities of language, its interpretation, and its effects on a person's perceptions.[13]

For the syntactic structure to be clear to a reader, this sentence requires, at a minimum, that the two phrases be separated by using a semicolon, period, en-dash or em-dash. Still, Jasper Fforde's novel The Well of Lost Plots employs a variation of the phrase to illustrate the confusion that may arise even from well-punctuated writing:[14]

"Okay," said the Bellman, whose head was in danger of falling apart like a chocolate orange, "let me get this straight: David Copperfield, unlike Pilgrim's Progress, which had had 'had', had had 'had had'. Had 'had had' had TGC's approval?"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Magonet, Jonathan (2004). A rabbi reads the Bible (2nd ed.). SCM-Canterbury Press. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-334-02952-6. Retrieved 30 April 2009. You may remember an old classroom test in English language. What punctuation marks do you have to add to this sentence so as to make sense of it?
  2. ^ a b Dundes, Alan; Pagter, Carl R. (1987). When you're up to your ass in alligators: more urban folklore from the paperwork empire (Illustrated ed.). Wayne State University Press. p. 135. ISBN 0-8143-1867-3. Retrieved 30 April 2009. The object of this and similar tests is to make sense of a series of words by figuring out the correct intonation pattern.
  3. ^ Hudson, Grover (1999). Essential introductory linguistics. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 372. ISBN 0-631-20304-4. Retrieved 30 April 2009. Writing is secondary to speech, in history and in the fact that speech and not writing is fundamental to the human species.
  4. ^ van de Velde, Roger G. (1992). Text and thinking: on some roles of thinking in text interpretation (Illustrated ed.). Walter de Gruyter. p. 43. ISBN 3-11-013250-8. Retrieved 30 April 2009. In scanning across lines, readers also make use of the information parts carried along with the punctuation markes [sic]: a period, a dash, a colon, a semicolon or a comma may signal different degrees of integration/separation between the groupings.
  5. ^ Sterbenz, Christina (8 January 2014). "9 Sentences That Are Perfectly Accurate". Business Insider Australia. Retrieved 19 April 2020.
  6. ^ "Problem C: Operator Jumble". 31st ACM International Collegiate Programming Conference, 2006–2007.
  7. ^ Amon, Mike (28 January 2004). "GADFLY". Financial Times. Retrieved 30 April 2009. HAD up to here? So were readers of last week's column, invited to punctuate "Smith where Jones had had had had had had had had had had had the examiners approval."
  8. ^ Jackson, Howard (2002). Grammar and Vocabulary: A Resource Book for Students. Routledge. p. 123. ISBN 0-415-23170-1. Retrieved 30 April 2009. Finally, verbal humour is often an ingredient of puzzles. As part of an advertising campaign for its educational website <learn.co.uk>, the Guardian (for 3 January 2001) included the following familiar grammatical puzzle.
  9. ^ 3802 – Operator Jumble Archived 13 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Reichenbach, Hans (1947) Elements of Symbolic logic. London: Collier-MacMillan. Exercise 3–4, p. 405; solution p. 417.
  11. ^ Weick, Karl E. (2005). Making Sense of the Organization (8th ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 186–187. ISBN 0-631-22319-3. Retrieved 30 April 2009. Once a person has generated/bracketed part of the stream, then the activities of punctuation and connection (parsing) can occur to transform the raw data into information.
  12. ^ Lecercle, Jean-Jacques (1990). The violence of language (Illustrated ed.). Routledge. p. 86. ISBN 0-415-03431-0. Retrieved 30 April 2009. Suppose I decide that I wish to make up a sentence containing eleven occurrences of the word 'had' in a row ...
  13. ^ Hollin, Clive R. (1995). Contemporary Psychology: An Introduction (Illustrated ed.). Routledge. p. 34. ISBN 0-7484-0191-1. Retrieved 30 April 2009. Do readers make use of the ways in which sentences are structured?
  14. ^ Fforde, Jasper (2003). The Well of Lost Plots. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 9781844569212. Retrieved 30 April 2012.

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