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.

It refers to two students, James and John, required by an English test 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." Since James' answer was right, it had had a better effect on the teacher.

The sentence is much 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.[5]

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.


The sentence can be given as a grammatical puzzle[6][7][8] 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 in 1947 as an exercise to the reader ("John where Jack..."), to illustrate the different levels of language, namely object language and metalanguage.[9]

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 meaning, analogous to how changes in the punctuation and quotes in the sentence show that the teacher alternately prefers James' work and John's work (e.g., compare: 'James, while John had had "had," had...' vs. 'James, while John had had "had had,"...').[10]

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.[11]

It has also been used as an example of the complexities of language, its interpretation, and their effects on a person's perceptions.[12]

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:[13]

"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 2009-04-30. 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 2009-04-30. 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 2009-04-30. 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 2009-04-30. 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. ^ "Problem C: Operator Jumble". 31st ACM International Collegiate Programming Conference, 2006–2007.
  6. ^ Amon, Mike (2004-01-28). "GADFLY". Financial Times. Retrieved 2009-04-30. 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." 
  7. ^ Jackson, Howard (2002). Grammar and Vocabulary: A Resource Book for Students. Routledge. p. 123. ISBN 0-415-23170-1. Retrieved 2009-04-30. 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. 
  8. ^ 3802 - Operator Jumble
  9. ^ Reichenbach, Hans (1947) Elements of symbolic logic. London: Collier-MacMillan. Exercise 3-4, p.405; solution p.417.
  10. ^ Weick, Karl E. (2005). Making Sense of the Organization (8th ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 186–187. ISBN 0-631-22319-3. Retrieved 2009-04-30. Once a person has generated/bracketed part of the stream, then the activities of punctuation and connection (parsing) can occur in an effort to transform the raw data into information. 
  11. ^ Lecercle, Jean-Jacques (1990). The violence of language (Illustrated ed.). Routledge. p. 86. ISBN 0-415-03431-0. Retrieved 2009-04-30. Suppose I decide that I wish to make up a sentence containing eleven occurrences of the word 'had' in a row ... 
  12. ^ Hollin, Clive R. (1995). Contemporary Psychology: An Introduction (Illustrated ed.). Routledge. p. 34. ISBN 0-7484-0191-1. Retrieved 2009-04-30. Do readers make use of the ways in which sentences are structured? 
  13. ^ Fforde, Jasper (2003). The Well of Lost Plots. Hodder & Stoughton. Retrieved 2012-04-30. 

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