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May 1, 2012 5:20 AM   Subscribe

Why do people say "is is" when they mean "is?"

I'm an amateur sociologist and linguist (ok, an actor) who enjoys thinking about why people talk the way they do. About the time that the use of "uptalk" was becoming prevalent? So that people would keep paying attention to you? Because they might think you were asking them a question? I noticed that there was a smaller group of talkers who were also saying "is is" when "is" would have been sufficient. I've asked people about it over the years and many have professed not to have noticed it at all. Others have defended it as proper English. (What it is, is I know that there are proper uses of "is is," but I'm not talking about those.)

I hear it in both professional and non-professional talkers, so I'm preconditioned to doubt that it's a form of hemming and hawing or a replacement for "um." Also, people frequently say it very slowly and solemnly as if they believe they're adding emphasis and sounding sage (while to me it has the opposite effect.)

It seems be becoming more widespread, or at least, I'll be surprised if lots of people hereabouts say they've never heard it.

So the question is, has a proper linguist made a study of this? Is there a term for this? I have my own theory as to why it's done but would like to hear what other people think before I put it out there...if, in fact, anybody's noticed it.
posted by Infinity_8 to Society & Culture (72 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
OH and apologies in advance if I've tweaked any local "is is" sayers. I know that habits of speech are tough to break, or justify.
posted by Infinity_8 at 5:23 AM on May 1, 2012


....I've never heard that before in my life, except once when Bill Clinton said it. Where are you hearing this?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:23 AM on May 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos Radio talkers. Radio callers. TV Announcers especially when speaking extempore. Everyday people!

I might have to post examples if I get a lot of responses like this! Unfortunately I'm at work so it would have to be tonight.
posted by Infinity_8 at 5:25 AM on May 1, 2012


Don't think I've ever noticed it (I am in the UK), outside of the correct usage that you mention (What it is, is I know that there are proper uses of "is is").

Can you post some examples (just text)? Are people just saying stuff like "Hello my name is is John"?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:27 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


....Maybe they're just stuttering?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:29 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Or are they saying something like, "The thing is, is you may be assuming the two 'is's' are part of the same clause, when they're in different clauses like in this sentence I'm saying now."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:31 AM on May 1, 2012 [11 favorites]


EndsOfInvention I don't have any direct quotes but it does seem to frequently happen in the middle of longer statements.

"I was talking with the producer and he said that the most important thing is is that we face the camera when we speak."

Like I say, unless I get some backup / affirmation here, I'll track down some real examples. I honestly thought there'd be at least a few people who'd noticed it!
posted by Infinity_8 at 5:31 AM on May 1, 2012


Is there a brief pause between the two? "The most important thing is... is that we face the camera."

I hear that sometimes, but have always taken it to be hesitation or filler.
posted by OLechat at 5:33 AM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Looking at your example, I think my guess may have been accurate - I think the sentence you typed should have been punctuated thus:

"I was talking with the producer and he said that the most important thing is, is that we face the camera when we speak."

The two "is's" are part of different clauses. It's as if they were saying "The most important thing is, [then they describe what the most important thing is]." There's just an extra "is" in the second clause.

It's as if they were saying "The most important thing is, don't forget to face the camera". My hunch is that because they're in different clauses, people just don't notice that it sounds weird if you think about it too much.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:39 AM on May 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've heard this. Here's a brief web thing about it.

I interpret this as people losing track of how they structured the sentence, leaving them unsure as to whether they need another "is".

To adapt your example: suppose you'd said "I was talking with the producer and he said that what the most important thing is, is that we face the camera when we speak". That would be a horrible sentence, of course, but the two uses of 'is' would not be wrong in the way that I think you mean. So I assume people are just not keeping track of what they said a few words ago.
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:40 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]




(My adapted example above may be wrong, I'm realising – the repeated "is" thing begins to sound very weird very quickly and I've now lost track myself. But I think my main point stands.)
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:42 AM on May 1, 2012


Thanks for the pointers from people who've noticed this. I no longer feel so alone.

I tend to equate it with upspeak, a means of emphasizing that they want you to hear what they're about to say and so interrupting the proper flow of the sentence in order to ensure your attention.

But what do I know.
posted by Infinity_8 at 5:46 AM on May 1, 2012


Empress, I don't think your repunctuation falls into the proper use of "is, is." I don't know from clauses (sorry) so this is all handwaving, but wouldn't your example also apply to, for example, "the apple is, is red?"
posted by Infinity_8 at 5:48 AM on May 1, 2012


No - The thing you're missing is that when people say "The thing is..." is that they're kind of announcing that whatever "The thing" is, it's important. I've heard a lot of people say "The thing is, is [thing]", but I've never heard a person go "The apple is, is [blah]" or "the orange is, is [blah]" or "the [anything except "thing"] is, is [blah]".

A "clause" is maybe the wrong word - maybe "phrase" or "piece of a sentence". In the example you gave, "The thing is" makes sense as a standalone piece of a sentence, and "the apple is" doesn't. People wouldn't say "The apple is, is red," but they may say "The thing is, is the apple is red." To check it, if you can switch them around ("The apple is red, is the thing" then they're separate clauses, but if you can't do that without sounding like Yoda then they're not separate clauses ("is red, the apple is"). In the example you gave, you can switch them around ("The most important thing is that we face the camera when we speak, is the thing.")

And because they're two separate pieces of the sentence, people may just not notice that they're putting two "is's" next to each other, because they're two separate thoughts.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:55 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Answered! With link to a proper (or at least, published :) linguist. Thanks all!
posted by Infinity_8 at 5:55 AM on May 1, 2012


I think the fact that you are hearing it in professional settings has nothing to do with whether it's used as a space-filler like "um" or "ah." President Obama is widely regarded as an excellent speaker and his speeches are filled with placeholders.

As an anecdotal aside, my brother used to say "is what it is, is" when he was a kid, so when I hear it (you are not the only one who hears it!) it sounds childish to me, like nucular.
posted by headnsouth at 5:59 AM on May 1, 2012


A colleague of mine has worked on this.
McConvell, Patrick. 1988. To be or double be: current change in the
English copula. Australian Journal of Linguistics 8.2:287-305.

Some other relevant references:
Massam, Diane. 1999. Thing Is Constructions: The Thing Is, Is What's
the Right Analysis? English Language and Linguistics 3: 335-352.

Ross-Hagebaum, Sebastian 2004. "And that's my big area of interest in
linguistics is discourse" - The forms and functions of the English
that's X is Y-construction.Paper to BLS 2004.

Tuggy, David. 1996. The Thing Is Is That People Talk That Way. The
Question Is Is Why? In: Eugene H. Casad (ed.), Cognitive Linguistics
in the Redwoods: The Expansion of a New Paradigm in Linguistics,
713-752. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
posted by lollusc at 6:06 AM on May 1, 2012 [11 favorites]


Also, it's expanding. Now it's quite common to find "is was" or "was is" or similar verbs like "The fact remains is that...".
posted by lollusc at 6:08 AM on May 1, 2012


Oh thank heavens lollusc. It's like ears popping or getting a kernel out of a molar.
posted by Infinity_8 at 6:13 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


("The apple is red, is the thing"

I think you basically nailed the meaning here. It's not really a mistake or a forgetting, but an attempt to emphasize "the thing is."

This definitely predates uptalking. I've heard it all my life; grew up mostly in the New York area. I probably even say it from time to time. It's a funny construction, but to my ears, not terribly unusual sounding. For most people, I suspect it goes by unnoticed.
posted by Miko at 7:11 AM on May 1, 2012


(For those interested: Googling those journal references brings a wealth of material. Thanks again.)
posted by Infinity_8 at 7:33 AM on May 1, 2012


I hear this all the time and it drives me crazy!
posted by Boogiechild at 7:39 AM on May 1, 2012


You can even get a trifecta: "The thing is, is, Is the apple red?"
posted by probably not that Karen Blair at 8:18 AM on May 1, 2012


The thing is, is, Is "is" the word we're looking for?
posted by probably not that Karen Blair at 8:19 AM on May 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Infinity_8 You have lanced this wound for me and now the healing can begin. I tried to ask this question in another form about 20 years ago but couldn't get anyone to understand me. I've been suffering ever since, but today I AM FREE!!!!1! Thank You!
posted by probably not that Karen Blair at 8:21 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Believe me, PNTKB, my relief is doubtless near great as yours. I've been asking around about it for probably 15 years myself. This is the first time I've gotten anything aside from blank stares! (Note to blank starers: you're ok, it's me.)
posted by Infinity_8 at 8:43 AM on May 1, 2012


I hear it all the time, especially from educated people and so called "experts" on various subjects, and it drives me nuts. Even Obama says it, which surprises me. I attribute it to the redundancy meme that has produced such gems as "pre-planned" and "pre-programmed" (Please tell me how a computer that comes pre-programmed with Windows is different from a computer that comes programmed with Windows). People seem to think that if they say something twice it will carry more meaning. We must rid ourselves of this linguistic plague; the grammatical bar must be raised up a little higher ;^)
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:34 AM on May 1, 2012


> I've never heard that before in my life

Yes, you have; you just didn't notice it, and for that reason you don't know what is being talked about and your responses here are off the mark. You might want to consult the references lollusc has listed.
posted by languagehat at 9:45 AM on May 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


Not only do I hear it all the time, but I also have heard myself doing it. And then I worry if I'll devolve into an uptalker or someone who says "nukular."
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 10:01 AM on May 1, 2012


Yes, a former boss used to do this all the time, and I noticed a couple of my co-workers picking it up. He used "the thing is" as a stock phrase, then bolted on "is blah blah blah", yielding the doubled "is". It always grated on me so I never picked it up, but I definitely noticed it spreading around the office over the years.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:59 AM on May 1, 2012


Here's a Wikipedia entry on double copula:

he double copula, also known as the double is and reduplicative copula, is the usage of two successive copulae, largely in the spoken English language when only one is necessary. For example:

My point is, is that...

This should not be confused with legitimate usages of two successive copulae, such as:

What my point is is that...
The Reduplicative Copula Is Is from the journal American Speech

It's interesting to note that not all "is is"es are incorrect in standard English usage. Just reflecting on a construction like "What this is is an example of poor grammar," it seems to be fine, breaking no rules I'm aware of. If in doubt, you can rephrase it to read "What exists here [synonymous with is] is an example of poor grammar," and syntactically, it seems completely fine.
posted by Miko at 11:30 AM on May 1, 2012


I have definitely heard an increase in:

"The point is, is that..."

"The fact is, is that..."

And so on. These are just wrong - only one "is" is necessary (ooh... see what I did there? :-) ). It should be "The point is that..." and "The fact is that...". One "is".

I believe this is one of those things where the phrase itself ("The point is", "The fact is") somehow becomes seen as a single word or concept in the mind of the person who adds the extra "is". They mean "The point is that" but they think "Thepointis, is that". Something like that. Anyway, it's extremely irritating and I feel a powerful urge to correct people who do it, I must admit.
posted by Decani at 11:38 AM on May 1, 2012


Damn you for a confounder, Alexander Pope!

"All Nature is but Art unknown to thee;
All chance direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

I just had a search on JSTOR and couldn't turn up any of the cited articles quickly - just short on time, really, as I'm sure you could find them.
posted by Miko at 11:40 AM on May 1, 2012


Something like that.

I think it's probably just overgeneralizing from what Wikipedia calls the "legitimate use" to other instances of phrases containing the word "is." That's my theory.

Anyway, I like the sound of it. It sharpens up the attention.
posted by Miko at 11:44 AM on May 1, 2012


I'd add that I do not think "The thing is, is that..." is justifiable at all, even if it is strictly correct given the construction (and I'm not convinced of that, either). There is simply no need for that extra "is" and it's horrible use of language. All you are saying is "The thing is that... (whatever the thing is)".
posted by Decani at 11:45 AM on May 1, 2012


That's the one that's not strictly correct. The one that is considered correct is the one that goes with "wh-" words:

"Why this is, is an issue we have discussed for some time."
"Where the new building is is something we have yet to determine."
"What this is is an ancient stone tool."
posted by Miko at 11:54 AM on May 1, 2012


Most of spoken language is repeated phrases that are connected together. The phrases have a specific meaning outside the words of which they are comprised. Sometimes the connecting of two different phrases isn't as smooth as it should be.

In Miko's example, "Why this is", and "what this is" are separate phrases that are added onto the phrase at the second half of the sentence.
posted by JJ86 at 1:39 PM on May 1, 2012


Right, they're clauses, really. If you read the piece The Reduplicative Copula Is Is linked above, the author breaks down how these phrases are engineered so as to substitute for a more elaborated clause.
posted by Miko at 1:58 PM on May 1, 2012


People wouldn't say "The apple is, is red," but they may say "The thing is, is the apple is red." To check it, if you can switch them around ("The apple is red, is the thing" then they're separate clauses, but if you can't do that without sounding like Yoda then they're not separate clauses ("is red, the apple is")

I don't think that can be right. The phrase "The thing is, is the apple is red." has three "ises". The only way to switch the parts and have it make grammatical sense is to the eliminate the extra "is", just as you would have to with ("The apple is, is red") - "red, the apple is". Otherwise you end up with something like "is the apple is red, the thing is". I think what you're identifying is that "the thing is" is a stock phrase used for emphasis, rather than a part of speech like a clause in any grammatical sense.
posted by howfar at 2:00 PM on May 1, 2012


> There is simply no need for that extra "is" and it's horrible use of language. All you are saying is "The thing is that... (whatever the thing is)".

By "horrible use of language" you mean, like most peevers, "a use of language I personally hate." Language is not logical and it is not efficient. Do you also consider the double negatives that are routine and mandatory in many languages a "horrible use of language"? The "is is" thing is a relatively recent development that may or may not spread, it's actually quite interesting, and I don't see the point of standing up on a rock and crying out "EEEVIL!" in one's best Charlton Heston impersonation. It is what it is.
posted by languagehat at 2:15 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


howfar, stop and read the linked article. It explains this perfectly. She's right.

[What] the thing [I want you to attend to] is is [that] the apple is red.
posted by Miko at 2:17 PM on May 1, 2012


It is what it is.

Or, the thing is is it is what it is.
posted by Miko at 2:17 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


What we've got here is is failure to communicate.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 3:01 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I once had a boss who would say, "...the reason being is you can increase your sales by doing x." This is pretty much the same construction, just with a different conjugation of "is."

Decani's right; the speaker is treating "the reason is" or "the reason being" as a unit, mentally including "is" in the nominative phrase, and adding a redundant verb. I agree it's irritating.
posted by torticat at 3:07 PM on May 1, 2012


By the way, if anyone is having trouble accessing the references I listed, memail me and I can send you at least one or two of them.
posted by lollusc at 4:25 PM on May 1, 2012


howfar, stop and read the linked article. It explains this perfectly. She's right.

I'm not sure that you and EmpressCallipygos are saying the same thing. If fact, I think my initial response was maybe closer to hers than to yours or the argument in the article. What I think the article is saying is that the additional "is" is inserted to emphasise the expression of identity in the phrase "the thing is", rather than the existential aspect. Hence, it serves to emphasise that the phrase is about the nature of the thing (what the thing is), not its existence (that the thing is).

I think the reason we don't do this for apples is not because "the apple is" is any less meaningful as a clause (because I don't see how it can be), but that we never use "the apple is" except in the context of expressing identity, rather than existence. We all know that all apples exist (even if only in a fictional context), there are lots of things that don't exist in any context. Hence it can be important to show, when discussing a problem, thing, issue or what have you, that the point of the sentence is to describe its identity, not to point out its existence.
posted by howfar at 4:30 PM on May 1, 2012


I'm fairly sure we are saying the same thing. The thing is, is they're separate clauses. The additional clause is inserted, as the article details, to add emphasis, but it's still a clause. And that's why it's not redundant to use "is" in each clause, because each clause requires a verb. Or, stated another way, "the thing is that they are separate clauses." Same thing.

"I wish apples were purple and Joe wishes apples were orange!"

Option 1: "Sure, but the thing is is that apples are red."
Option 2: "Sure, but apples are red, is the thing."

Still requires a verb of being in each clause.
posted by Miko at 7:48 AM on May 2, 2012


Perhaps we're all saying the same thing. Or more likely, because the article identifies more than one usage of the double copula, we're looking at different usages.

In the apple experiment, you can work with the "cleft sentence" proof to see how that works:

The apple is red.

= Red is what the apple is.
= What the apple is is red.

[What the apple is] = subordinate clause
[is red] = main clause

The authors call this a "a perfectly grammatical double copula" used to bring two clauses together in a sentence.

The later discussion is about how the copula can be used to deliver emphasis. They call that an "approximation of the cleft" and show how it emphasizes identity, as you say above, and delivers more punch rhetorically. Then there's a discussion about how "is that" becomes a like a morpheme anyway, allowing this whole construction to come together.
Sentences of the form X is Y contain the copula not simply in its
existential meaning but as an expression of identity. Now, identity is—as is
well known—a semantic state often realized in particular ways in syntax.
When the copula of identity stands between two syntactically equivalent but
heterogeneous constituents—topic noun to its left, dependent nominal
clause headed by that to its right—the link between the two constituents
can be interpreted to be asymmetrical, and this asymmetry tends to undermine
the (inherent) meaning of identity. Compensatorily, then, the meaning
of identity in the case of asymmetry between constituents on either side
of the copula can be strengthened by inserting the reduplicative version of
the copula as a proclitic, that is, as an element bound to (parasitic on) the
syntactic element following it, that.

I'm not sure there's any disagreement here as long as we are focused on discussing the same model.
posted by Miko at 8:16 AM on May 2, 2012


I'm not seeing the difference between Case 1: "the important thing is is to look at the camera," and Case 2: "the apple is is red," and if I did I probably would have chosen a different initial example, because it seems to me that there's a lot of Case 2 going around and that really was what I was asking about. I think :)

I appreciate that y'all *do* see the difference, so I'm not complaining.

But is it true, as it seems to me, that prior to around the early '90's or so Case 1: with "is is" was very rare? The lollusc papers seem to indicate that.

And far be it from me to pick a fight with languagehat, but it does seem to me that, as justifiable as it seems to y'all, its sudden surge in usage rode in on a wave of pretension.

I see the linguistic case for the thing -- or that y'all are pretty linguistically satisfied with it -- but what's going on sociologically?
posted by Infinity_8 at 9:15 AM on May 3, 2012


is it true, as it seems to me, that prior to around the early '90's or so Case 1: with "is is" was very rare?

I can't answer the question about why there seems to be an increase. But, as I said, I grew up hearing it (in the 70s and 80s) and have always thought it was a New York-ism. I can't recall a time before hearing it or a time when it seemed new to me.

So I did my favorite Google books date-limited search and found a bunch of old instances. Search, of course, brings up both kids of "is is"es, but here is a small sampling of the many instances of the construction:

Here's an interview in 1985: "But, the thing is, is that it's not feeling better.

1979: From the journal Verbatim, someone commenting on the "the thing is, is that" construction.

1980: But the thing is is that we really can't at this point anyway.

1970, Liberation: "The only thing is is that the parent would have to write to you..."

1966, psychotherapy journal, doctor speaking: "Well, I think that the problem is, that you feel that if you're successful..."

1961, Proceedings of the Annual Consumer Credit Conference: "Now, the thing is, is that you have done very little..."

1957: "Yeah, well,the thing is, is shaking hands with a thousand boys in high school going to help you to know any of them?"

1953, Billboard: "The funny thing is, is that we frequently amaze ourselves with our prodigality."

1920: "The next thing is, is that going to pay you to sell it?"

1919: "...the only thing that suggests itself to my mind as intelligent explanation of what that something is is that..."

1916: "The thing is, is he dismissed?"

1914: "The important thing is, is it Shakespeare?"

So, though it may be on an upswing in prevalence, it's definitely not new.
posted by Miko at 9:51 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do you need a new worm can opener, Miko? We were already unclear on what we're discussing, and now you bring in a bunch of examples, some of which are examples of the originally quoted form and some of which aren't.

The 1953 example is the earliest case of the construction I think we're talking about.
posted by howfar at 12:37 PM on May 3, 2012


Tone clarification: jocular.
posted by howfar at 1:56 PM on May 3, 2012


Yeah... about half of those are grammatical and don't represent the newer usage. (The easy test is to take out the second "is" and see if the sentence still makes sense.)

I do think it's interesting that it's a construction that you see used almost exclusively in spoken English, not in written. It's as if people don't quite trust the grammatical structure to be clear when they speak it, so they throw the extra "is" in to be safe.
posted by torticat at 2:08 PM on May 3, 2012


some of which are examples of the originally quoted form and some of which aren't

I did note that before giving examples. I don't feel that we're unclear; you and I may have different perspectives on what is under discussion at this stage, though.

I think that all of us have been discussing and reading about instances of "is is," of which there are many kinds, some deemed "correct" and some deemed "incorrect." My personal theory is that at least some of the contemporary usage the OP notes is due to an overgeneralization of the "correct" forms of "is is." You're right, though, that not all of the examples illustrate the "incorrect" form.

Continuing the "is is" hunt with alternate trigger words reveals some even older versions which I think are considered "incorrect."

1927: "one reason why this is is because the actors are brothers..."

1923: "One reason why this is, is because we can play on the other senses through the imagination of the mind."

1900: "The reason is is because..."

1899: "The reason why this is is because before you went to the the track you took a great deal of interest in this matter..."

1895: "My opinion is is that there is little to choose between these two things."

1894: "What my present idea is, is that with mostly old bees we can never be safe..."
posted by Miko at 2:11 PM on May 3, 2012


I do think it's interesting that it's a construction that you see used almost exclusively in spoken English, not in written.

And in fact, when you look through records for instances, they turn up much more commonly in court records, proceedings, interviews, and other situations in which spoken English is being transcribed, rather than situations where English is being composed for the page.

Also, more than a few of the more recent examples I came across were uttered by none other than George W. Bush. If there has been a recent upsurge, he's a very likely vector.
posted by Miko at 2:14 PM on May 3, 2012


> My personal theory is that at least some of the contemporary usage the OP notes is due to an overgeneralization of the "correct" forms of "is is."

I'm quite sure you're wrong; those "correct" situations come up so rarely they couldn't possibly influence general usage. It seems clear that it spread from phrases like "the thing is" and "the fact is" that came to be felt as blocks, so that an extra is was added.
posted by languagehat at 2:40 PM on May 3, 2012


Continuing the "is is" hunt with alternate trigger words reveals some even older versions which I think are considered "incorrect."

Only the 1900 and the 1895 ones; the rest go with the "wh-" forms that are covered in the article and are grammatical. (Again--if you take the second "is" out in these sentences, they don't make sense; the second "is" is necessary.) I suspect those other two are simple typos, but who knows. I suspect this mainly because, as the article points out, you don't find this construction in written English.
posted by torticat at 3:25 PM on May 3, 2012


Possibly, sure.

those "correct" situations come up so rarely they couldn't possibly influence general usage

I'm not sure I agree that they're so rare, based on doing the search. "The question is, is...." is really very common, especially in debate sorts of situations. I screened almost all of those out, because they were clearly, well, questions.

But my theory could certainly still be wrong.

I also feel like the spoken emphasis is a factor. There's a tendency to say "The thing IS..." with emphasis on the IS, especially when contradicting someone. If we said "The THING is" it would be more natural sounding to go right to "that," but usually we don't emphasize thing, we emphasize IS, and it seems to require more of a breather before we get to the "that" clause. I think this, not just the logic of the sentence, plays into the emphasis strategy for using it.
posted by Miko at 5:49 PM on May 3, 2012


> I'm not sure I agree that they're so rare, based on doing the search.

That's because you were searching for them in a way that made them easy to find. If you had to look for them in random text, you could look for years without finding any.
posted by languagehat at 7:01 PM on May 3, 2012


Sure, languagehat, but I"m not sure what that proves. It's a common enough construction that I'm sure we've all heard it multiple times. Here it is on Metafilter, about 1000 uses. Is this a random text? Safe to say we've all encountered it as a model, is my point.
posted by Miko at 8:21 PM on May 3, 2012


"The question is, is...." is really very common

That usage that you're highlighting there is another thing entirely, one in which the verb "is" is followed by a quote that merely coincidentally starts with the word "is." It's no more relevant to the discussion of how the "syntactic innovation" is-is arose than Clinton's "meaning of the word 'is' is" [is]. (OMG)

I mean, you could say, "The question is, what time is it?" Or "The question is, is it past noon?" and there's no syntactic significance to the double "is" in the second sentence. This is not one of the constructions that arguably gave rise to "The thing is, is that..."

To put it in the terms of that discussion, you'd have to put a triple "is" in those sentences. E.g. (first hit in the Metafilter search):
As written: The question is "is there enough of a crowd?"
Put in the (grammatical) wh-cleft form: What the question is, is "is there enough of a crowd?"
Using the (ungrammatical) stutter-is: The question is, is "is there enough of a crowd?"

More to the point, none of the "question is is" sentences have the "that" clause that is common to the new usage and the grammatical forms it evolved from.
posted by torticat at 10:30 PM on May 3, 2012


That usage that you're highlighting there is another thing entirely,

Yes, I get that entirely and completely as I've now said three times, and don't need the detailed explanation - in fact, I'm the one who found and shared the article which explained this distinction in the first place, and I did read it.

The reason I looked for the "the question is is" is that I still think my theory is viable - the theory being that constructions like "the thing is," "the reason is," "my guess is" and so on are overgeneralizing from the grammatically correct usage of "the question is" and other similarly appropriate constructions. I believe that people, on fairly frequently hearing a duplicate "is" which seems to break the rules, can develop a new rule which follows this example and which generalizes the double "is" to other similar constructions which contain the short defining clause "the ____is."

You can think my theory is BS, as languagehat does, and it certainly may be so. He's a lot more qualified to speak on it than I. But it's not because I don't understand the differences. My point is that there are legitimate uses and illegitimate uses of an "is is" construction and that it's quite possible that the illegitimate uses borrow from the legitimate uses because of an erroneous sense that the second is is required by the beginning phrase "the/my ___ is."
posted by Miko at 8:52 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Come to think, I didn't even find a "the question is is" before 1890 and my search included years from 1850 onward. I wonder when that arose.
posted by Miko at 9:00 AM on May 4, 2012


Metafilter: is is!
Metafilter: Reduplicative Copulae!

(Thanks to all for an illuminating and thrilling journey into the language. Don't stop on my account. I was hoping for a few, "Yeah, I've heard it"'s and maybe a "here's my handwaving attempt at thinking through it." This thread is (IS!) beyond my wildest dreams.)
posted by Infinity_8 at 9:16 AM on May 4, 2012


I learned a lot and it was an interesting question, even if I'm still off the mark.
posted by Miko at 9:35 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


This reminded me of a similar situation in programming:

if (x == true) ...

If x is the type of variable that is true or false, then the "== true" is redundant. This would be the shorter way to write it:

if (x) ...

But sometimes the redundant longer form is easier to understand in context.

I don't think I've ever seen the analog of "is is is?" though:

if ((x == true) == true) ...
posted by hAndrew at 1:46 PM on May 4, 2012


I usually only encounter problematic double-ising in the following sort of phrase.

1. What the thing is, is that...
2. The thing is, is that...
3. The thing is that...
4. The thing is, ...
5. Thing is, ...

What the thing is, is that the whole phrase, sensical or not, regardless of amount of is, is 100% redundant and superfluous and unnecessary in all instances. It's "um"-like thought-gathering filler, with the added benefit of "Please pay attention to this next thing I say." Those sorts of phrasings are just preprogrammed stock phrases that just get blurted out automatically; people tend not to think about them at all, and tend not to notice (or care) that they've messed them up.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:40 PM on May 4, 2012




"Why this is, is an issue we have discussed for some time."
"Where the new building is is something we have yet to determine."
"What this is is an ancient stone tool."
"What this is is an example of poor grammar,"


Outside of the above, every example listed in this discussion sounds completely crazy to me. If I've heard people doing this I assumed that they were stuttering or filling, and still think that is more likely than the other theories.
posted by bongo_x at 9:31 AM on May 6, 2012


I just heard someone say it on this StoryCorps recording about someone lost in 9/11 from the 40 Years of NPR Disk.

It's really not always a stutter or a way to buy time; it's something that makes sense to the speaker.

StoryCorps, in fact, will be a great place to research stuff like this once that Library of Congress archive becomes fully searchable online.
posted by Miko at 12:37 PM on May 6, 2012


As a naturally introverted person, I dont have much control of the way I deliver my sentences. I stutter too, although I dont necessarily hear myself doing it.
posted by Highest_Of_Fives at 5:40 PM on May 8, 2012


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