What to Do When Words Appear Twice in a Row

By Mark Nichol

Using a word twice in a row isn’t always a no-no, but there’s always a more elegant way to revise a sentence in which you might initially be inclined to repeat a word immediately. When words collide, try these approaches:

1. “What you do do is your own business.”
Even if this sentence is intended as a counterpoint to a “what you don’t do” proposition, the emphatic first do is superfluous (“What you do is your own business”). If you must retain the repetition, introduce a separating phrase: “What you do decide to do is your own business.”

2. “They had had many arguments.”
Replace the second had with a prepositional phrase (“They had gotten into many arguments”) or a more specific verb (“They had endured many arguments”), or introduce more vivid imagery into a revision (“They had verbally sparred many times”).

3. “I showed her her message.”
Replace one pronoun — preferably, both of the pronouns — with a noun (“I showed my sister the woman’s message”). This isn’t a problem with him, because two forms of the pronoun would appear (“I showed him his message”), though, again, if him and his refer to different men, it might be better to specify, in place of one pronoun or the other, one of the men in question.

4. “He came in in disarray.”
Replace the prepositional phrase with a simple verb (“She entered in disarray”).

5. “She gives in in every case.”
Simply recast the final phrase (“She gives in every time”) or flip the phrase to the front (“In every case, she gives in”).

6. “What it is is a travesty.”
“What it is” is always an unnecessarily verbose way to start a sentence. Start with the subject (“It’s a travesty”).

7. “I placed the card I had written on on the desk.”
Recast the prepositional phrase “written on” with on at its head (“I placed the card on which I had written the note on the desk”). But first confirm that the modifying phrase involving written is necessary at all.

8. “We realize that that will not be satisfactory.”
Replace the second that with a noun (“We realize that the proposal will not be satisfactory”).

9. “We will discuss this this evening.”
Replace the first this with a pronoun (“We will discuss it this evening”) or a noun (“We will discuss the matter this evening”).

10. “Is there someone I can talk to to resolve the issue?”
Employ a participial phrase in place in the infinitive phrase “to resolve” (“Is there someone I can talk to about resolving the issue?”) or amplify the second to by replacing it with the phrase “in order to” (“Is there someone I can talk to in order to resolve the issue?”).

Occasionally, an immediate repetition of a word, separated from the first instance by punctuation, is appropriate for emphatic effect (“I have come here from far, far away”). At other times, even though punctuation separates the repetition, a recast would improve the sentence. For example, “Even though I was there, there didn’t seem to be anything for me to do” might be revised to “Even though I was there, I didn’t seem to be of any use” or “Despite my presence, there didn’t seem to be anything for me to do.”

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8 Responses to “What to Do When Words Appear Twice in a Row”

  • Oliver Lawrence

    2) Simply “They had often argued” implements the plain language principle of using a vivid verb rather than a weak verb + nominalization (had + arguments).

    3) As you say, better to avoid using two pronouns together unless it is unequivocally clear to whom they each refer.

    5) “She always gives in” is the obvious simplification.

    7) “I placed the card on which I had written the note on the desk” may easily make some readers stumble, thinking that “the note on the desk” is the object of “written”. Alternatively, “I took the card on which I had written the note, and I put it on the desk”.

    8) “We realize that will not be satisfactory” is even simpler.

  • Demosthenes

    I generally use FrameMaker, and it automatically pings repetitive words. It is very hard to discourage in cases when they are, in fact, desired. It will generally allow you to use words in a particular file, but not repeated words.

    I wrote a chapter on mnemonics recently, and I used medical examples. There is a mnemonic for the cranial nerves that begins “Oh, Oh, Oh,” and then continues to a vivid and memorable image. FrameMaker HATES this. I have had to rephrase it as “Oh, Ooh, Oh.”

  • Clint

    When using in dialogue, would inserting a comma be acceptable in the case of:
    “What it is, is a travesty!”?
    Or maybe adding an ellipsis,
    “What it is. . . is a travesty.”?

    Another easily correctable, but common blunder I’ve encountered:
    “Is that that thing that’s been smelling so awful?”

  • Mark Nichol

    Clint:

    If you must repeat is in such a construction, yes, insert a comma.

  • Retta McSweeney

    There you are using that horrendous word “got” formation in the second example. To say “They had gotten into many arguments” is a very poor example of good English. “They had previous arguments” or “They had been in many arguments” would certainly work better and certainly sound better than “gotten”, which sounds so gutteral.

  • Paul M

    I knew someone would pounce on “gotten”. I agree in this case, although perhaps not so vehemently, that it just sounds like bad grammar.

    It seems that double words are used best in dialogue I think, where it tends to be most found.

  • Rain

    This is helpful advice. In fact, after reading it I went and changed a few instances of “had had” in the novel I’m writing.

    But what do you do when you can’t change it? In one part of my novel, the phrase “They had had personalities” appears at the end of a paragraph. I cannot change the structure of the sentence without changing the entire paragraph because I aim to use the parallelism in sentence structure to convey a sarcasm which is essential in that point in the story; I checked the (excellent) thesaurus I normally use when writing, and none of the synonyms for ‘have’ seems to work or have the desired effect (“They had owned personalities” just sounds silly). What would you do in such a situation?

    Thanks for the advice. =)

    / Rain

  • venqax

    I assume the anti-gottenists are not Americans, to whom, gotten sounds not only fine, but correct and natural. Personally, I see no need to avoid the double words in most cases. I think it comes off fine to say, “What is is is not the issue”. BUT, what is not acceptable is simply skipping the repetion and not re-wording, as in, “Is there someone I can talk to resolve this issue?” or “She gives in every case.” That happens in speech with fair frequency.

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