English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin Usage Word origin

“This this” and “that that”

Q: What do you call those constructions where the same word is repeated? Specifically: “I can see that that is going to be a problem” or “I received this this morning.” I’ve used a few in writing recently, but I’m puzzled at whether they require punctuation to make the reader realize they aren’t typos.

A: When a sentence has two words back to back, like “that that” or “this this,” we hear an echo. But there’s not necessarily anything wrong. Unless it’s a typo (as when we type “the the”), the words are doing different jobs.

If there’s a special term for back-to-back words used legitimately, we haven’t been able to find it. But your sentences are good examples; both are grammatically correct and neither requires any special punctuation.

Let’s look at them one at a time.

(1) “I can see that that is going to be a problem.”

Here we have two clauses (a clause is part of a sentence and includes both a subject and its verb). The first “that” is a conjunction—it introduces a subordinate clause that’s the object of the main clause (“I can see”). The second “that” is a demonstrative pronoun and the subject of the subordinate clause (“that is going to be a problem”).

(2) “I received this this morning.”

Here the first “this” is a demonstrative pronoun and the direct object of the verb (“received”). The second “this” modifies the noun “morning,” and you can call it a demonstrative adjective or (as many grammarians prefer) a “demonstrative determiner.” The phrase “this morning” is adverbial because it tells when.

Examples of back-to-back repetition—especially with “that”—are not uncommon, even in great literature.

For instance, you can find them in the King James Version of the Bible: “for that that is determined shall be done” … “What is that that hath been done?”

And they’re abundant in Shakespeare: “Pursuing that that flies, and flying what pursues” (Merry Wives of Windsor); “Who is that that spake?” (The Two Gentlemen of Verona); “Who’s that that bears the sceptre?” (King Henry VIII).

Finally, here’s another, in a passage from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653): “it is that that makes an angler: it is diligence, and observation, and practice, and an ambition to be the best in the art.”

As we said, such repetitions are perfectly good English. But if the echo bothers you, the repetition can easily be avoided.

Going back to sentence #1, the first “that” could be deleted (“I can see that’s going to be a problem”). Or the second one could be replaced with another pronoun (“I can see that this [or it] is going to be a problem”).

In sentence #2, either “this” could be replaced: “I received it this morning” … “I received this in the morning.”

We’ve written before about another kind of repetition—the double “is.” This formation is sometimes grammatical (“What this is is an enigma”), and sometimes not (“The problem is is he’s too young”).

The nongrammatical usage does indeed have a name—actually, several names. The two most common are “double copula” and “reduplicate copula.” (A copula is a linking verb that joins the subject and predicate of a sentence.)

And just in case one “that” after another isn’t enough for you, we’ve written about a sentence with five of them in a row.  

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