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excerpt from a text:

"He’d had a complicated childhood and was especially close to his brother, with whom he works. Friends suggested he was cheating. But I knew he was just trapped in an all-night flurry of anxiety about clients, medium-density fiberboard and his brother’s needs."

From: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/08/style/modern-love-closing-up-shop-on-a-marriage.html

I think it could just be: He had a complicated childhood......

Am I right??

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  • It could be changed, but can you explain what you think the difference would be?
    – stangdon
    Apr 8, 2022 at 15:44
  • @stangdon, seems to me like it's the same. Apr 8, 2022 at 17:58
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    "had had" is the past perfect tense, and just "had" would be the simple past tense. It might be easier to see the difference if you try it with a different verb, like "eat", which would be had eaten vs ate.
    – stangdon
    Apr 8, 2022 at 18:17

1 Answer 1

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You are correct that you might simply use had, which is the past tense. Here, the writer used the past perfect tense, which is typically used to describe something that happened before something else. In this case, it's not really clear what that something else is, but it's probably the incident or circumstances that are the subject of the conversation.

What makes it even more confusing is when the verb is had, the auxiliary verb is also had in the past perfect tense.

Perhaps another example would help:

I had enough of his shenanigans. (past)

I had had enough of his shenanigans. (past perfect)

In the past perfect, it's implied that something else occurred before I had enough of his shenanigans. For example:

By Tuesday, I had had enough of his shenanigans.

So to answer your question, since it's not clear what that "something else" is when using had had, there is really is no difference between the two. Perhaps the author used it to add emphasis to the statement.

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  • I wholly accept the main part of your answer and was about to up-vote it. But I cannot agree with your final paragraph - i.e. that the past perfect indicates that the childhood is to be considered in two parts. The fact of the indefinite article "a complicated childhood' clearly indicates that there is only one childhood under discussion here. There is the finest nuance that separates the 'had had' from a single 'had' here. To me, the use of the past perfect, puts a stronger separation of the complicated childhood from the other issues which follow - treating it more as an incidental matter.
    – WS2
    Apr 8, 2022 at 22:06
  • We don't have the full context of the quote. If the person the writer is talking about is an adult, then it's a moot point because his childhood is definitively over. I added the last paragraph because I didn't feel like I answered the original question of whether there is a difference between the two. Apr 9, 2022 at 5:22
  • If he has "had his dinner", that tells me he has finished eating - otherwise he would be "having his dinner". Similarly if he "had had his dinner", when the announcement was made - that tells me he had finished eating. So if he "had had a complicated childhood", then I don't think there is any doubt that he is now an adult.
    – WS2
    Apr 9, 2022 at 7:25
  • OK, I'll change my final paragraph. Apr 10, 2022 at 3:41

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