IS IS, WAS IS.

For years now I’ve been noticing the increasing prevalence of the grammatically unmotivated doubling of is, as in “The thing is is that…” This is not a matter of insufficient education or literacy; President Obama does it so regularly it could be considered part of his idiolect. Mark Liberman at Language Log wrote about it back in 2004; at that time he thought that this was “the result of a non-standard conception of English grammar, rather than just a faulty implementation of standard English grammar,” which is interesting but would require a lot of research to substantiate. At any rate, I was recently watching a Nova program about the mission to repair the Hubble when I heard astronaut Mike Massimino say “My point was is…” (Or, as the transcript punctuates it, “So my point was, is, out of all the stuff we’re doing, the thing I really need is a light.”) This absolutely astonished me, and I record it here as a data point for the further grammaticalization of this phenomenon. It’s now developed a past tense.
Update (November 2012): Mark Liberman has posted a couple more clear examples of “was is” at the Log; if you listen to them, you’ll be disabused of any notion you might have had that it’s a tense correction. (There’s also a convenient list of previous posts on the subject.)

Comments

  1. I suspect that “The thing is” has become, as it were, “lexicalised”. People throw it out as a discrete phrase, not an integrated part of the sentence. It’s a lead-in, after which people go on to explain what they want to say.

  2. I think that particular case is just a correction on the fly: he’s changing “My point was” to “My point is”, since it’s still in some sense his point.

  3. I’ve run into these doublets in my own speech from time to time. When I bother to think about, I know the doublet is ungrammatical, but often the doubled version seems more satisfying prosodically. Timing data on the is-is’s and was-is’s might be interesting.

  4. After reading the LL post, I’ve started noticing it, myself, in podcasts and the like. I think there was one in the latest SGU, but it’s not like I make notes.
    But now I’ll be on the lookout (listenout?) for “was is”.

  5. If you want to hear a cinematic “is is,” check out Alan Arkin in “Glengarry Glen Ross” at 0:40 in this YouTube clip:
    “The thing of it is, is… you know, were the leads insured? Ya think?”
    This type of construction conceivably allows the elusive “triple is”– Arkin could have asked something like, “The thing of it is, is, is it
    insured?”

  6. Googling “my point was is” pulls up some other probable examples. (As well as this entry, and some examples of the very different “my point was/is”.) Good find!

  7. It always strikes me as a hesitation syllable, an alternative to um, uh, er. But if you are seeing it written down, that would not be the case. Huh.

  8. Chas Belov says:

    It’s not a hesitation syllable for me. I don’t use it a lot, but I definitely use it from time to time. I think I’ve even used it in informal writing.
    And it is definitely when I start a sentence “The thing is is that…”
    It just feels right. I don’t know why.

  9. The way we’d make fun of the slower people in English classes was that their essays start with “I was wasing”. We’d also use it when too tired to recall an actual verb.

  10. Cloven Persistence
    The thing of it is is that the thing ‘the thing is is’ is is what the thing ‘the thing is is’ is was and what the thing ‘the thing is is’ is will be, things the thing is is are being what things the thing is is are are.

  11. There’s nothing wrong with it (because) I might easily use it. John Cowan, for once I think you’re wrong. Ben Zimmer is god.

  12. This “feels” in some vague way reminiscent of Irish copula syntax.

  13. Does any body use a double ‘that’ in sentences such as ‘It was not possible that, given the state of his eyesight, that he could see the needle from twenty feet distance.’ It slips into my writing occasionally and I know there is redundancy but it seems that, when longer sentences are involved, with many subclauses, that it helps to connect the parts. See, I’ve done it again but maybe you didn’t notice that time.

  14. michael farris says:

    It’s not a hesitation syllable for me either (and I almost always say “the thing of it is is” (rather than “the thing is is”.
    I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. I can think of three partial reasons.
    1. Re-parsing, the “the thing of it is” is mentally relexicalized as a single unit rather than a noun-verb combination.
    2. Euphony, I find the rhythm of “the thing of it is is that I’m really tired” to be more …. natural? pleasing? than the form with one ‘is’.
    3. Disambiguation, the double copula helps identify the following that as a conjunction rather than a demonstrative.

  15. I agree with bathrobe – “People throw it out as a discrete phrase”.
    In my part of the world it’s common to say “man” after many phrases. “What are you doing, man?”, “just get in the car, man”, and to express exasperation “aah man!”.
    But what happens if you’re talking to a woman? Obviously, you just add “woman” to the end.
    Aah man woman.
    Just get in the car man woman.
    But the purpose of adding “man” to a phrase is to lend it emphasis. So properly, that should be aah man woman man, etc.
    See “Some vocabulary” section of http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Geordies
    “Ah man! That really hurt me knee, man, woman, man! – Here we see the Geordie inability to address a woman without using the word ‘man’”

  16. LH, AJP: I agree with John Cowan, The astronaut simply realised mid-sentence that what “was” a problem in fact still “is” a problem, and thus changed in mid sentence. It’s not, I believe, an example of what LH is talking about.

  17. The reason I believe Language’s version rather than John’s is that Language heard it, and this is all about the way the words are said.
    One of these days you’re going to be able to watch current tv whenever it’s convenient to you. I read that Britain’s Channel 4 is just starting this kind of service; it’s coming on Youtube.

  18. The reason I believe Language’s version rather than John’s is that Language heard it, and this is all about the way the words are said.
    One of these days you’re going to be able to watch current tv whenever it’s convenient to you. I read that Britain’s Channel 4 is just starting this kind of service; it’s coming on Youtube.

  19. Crow tempura ? I prefer prawn tempura …
    AJP: I don’t think hearing it changes the position, if you look at the transcript of his complete remark:
    MIKE MASSIMINO: You know, we’ve spent all this time and money and effort to do this. But if I can’t see the fastener, it don’t matter ’cause it ain’t going to work. So my point was, is, out of all the stuff we’re doing, the thing I really need is a light so I can see what’s going on. And if I can’t, all this other work you’re doing doesn’t matter, ’cause I won’t be able to undo the screw.
    To me, that makes it clear that he has a current problem. He’s repeating his request for a light, which you could rephrase as : ‘The point I was trying to make to you was that I needed a light, but in fact that is still the problem, I still need a light.’
    So I maintain that the ‘was,is, was just changing tense mid-stream (easier than horses) rather than a verbal tic.

  20. michael farris says:

    “So my point was, is, out of all the stuff we’re doing, the thing I really need is a light so I can see what’s going on”
    I’d say that ‘is’ in this case is acting as a conjunction. If you replace ‘is’ with ‘that’ it still makes perfect sense in a way I don’t think it would if it were a tense correction.

  21. The construction does seem to have taken on a life of its own, though I don’t recall ever hearing “was is”. If I do, I’ll report it here! Googling for what Ben calls the ‘elusive “triple is”‘ throws up quite a few instances, e.g.:
    What it is, is , is a chance for you to experience just what the Australian soldiers experienced… (beside the photo here)
    They call it ‘shoe-polish’, but what it is, is, is a good quality hard-wax paste wax with lots of pigmenting. (final paragraph here)

  22. MIchael: I take your point, but for me, the tense change just seems a more obvious reason.
    (Curious, I mis-typed ‘simply’ as ‘cimply’ – and it would work even if it confused everyone …)

  23. I think that particular case is just a correction on the fly: he’s changing “My point was” to “My point is”, since it’s still in some sense his point.
    No, AJP is right, if you listen to it it’s quite clear it’s the same construction (or whatever you want to call it) as the “is is” one. The timing and intonation of a correction would be quite different.

  24. Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?
    As it were.

  25. Here‘s the direct link, and thanks for choosing the great Louis Jordan original rather than one of the many cover versions.

  26. these, to me, have always seemed like pseudoclefts (see here: http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/WhatIsAPseudoCleftSentence.htm). in that case, it’s not surprising that you see tense-mismatch — these two instances of “be” are in two totally independent clauses.
    in fact, if you looked into it, i have a hunch you’d find that all of the subjects of the first “be” are topics of discourse that the speaker is referencing.

  27. Thanks, Dearie & Language. I’ve bought it at Eye Tunes.

  28. Thanks, Dearie & Language. I’ve bought it at Eye Tunes.

  29. I think the ‘that that’ is quite common. You have ‘that’ as a pronoun for, for example, an idea or a proposal. Someone else cries indignantly, “How could you think that that is a good idea?”
    This happens when people want to emphasise the second that.
    (Sorry about the “for, for” there – it just came out.)
    I think with a language like ours – full of compound verbs and expressions full of prepositions – this sort of thing is quite frequent. Other examples that come to mind are:
    “I gave the CD I was listening to to my mother.”
    “What for? For goodness sake!”
    Second one is two different sentences though. Does that still count?

  30. Patrick McConvell says:

    There’s discussion of the variation between ‘was was’ and ‘was is’ (and similar tense-agreement vs tensed plus invariant is) in the double-be construciton in McConvell (1988). The invariant form seems to be related to the ‘free be’ construction discussed in McConvell (1988 & 2004) eg ‘I’d like to say is that…’. The 2004 paper also provides arguments based on prosody that double be is not a hesitation phenomenon. More references are to be found in the McConvell/Zwicky 2006 bibliography on this topic:
    http://www.stanford.edu/~zwicky/
    McConvell, Patrick. 1988. To be or double be? Current changes in the English copula.
    Australian Journal of Linguistics 8.287-305.
    McConvell, Patrick. 2004. Catastrophic change in current English: Emergent Double-be’s and Free-be’s. Talk at Australian National University. Slides available at:
    http://ldc.upenn.edu/myl/anubbppt3.pdf

  31. Thanks, I figured there must be scholarship on this!

  32. Rachel Hendery says:

    I’ve been listening out for these for a while now, and the other day (can’t remember the context, sorry), came across one that started: “The fact remains is that…” So it’s spreading beyond “be” too.
    I also recently did some fieldwork on Palmerston Island, a tiny English-speaking island in the Cooks, which is relatively isolated from the rest of the English-speaking world. The double be was one of the constructions I was looking out for, and in the month I was there, I didn’t hear it at all. I also presented it to locals and people claimed to find it quite weird. So it hasn’t quite spread everywhere! (Yet).

  33. I thought about it today and the way I use it would be in the set beginning “The thing is is that…”
    “The thing was is” just sounds wrong to me. If I wanted to use past tense, I would probably say “The thing was was that…” but I believe I have yet to do that.
    By the way, I see your blog software posts my e-mail if I don’t add an URL. Would you be so kind as to remove it to protect me from the spam demons? (I’m used to blogs that require an e-mail to post but don’t publish it. Sorry for the trouble.)

  34. I agree with the first comment by bathrobe that “the/my thing/point is/was …” is used as a whole phrase. I think it indicates “Please pay attention. I am now about to get to the nub of the matter…”
    In writing, I think it is helpful to separate the two is’s with a comma as in “the thing is, is that I am too tired” to emphasis the whole phrase status of “the thing is”. “That” is optional e.g. “the thing is, is I’m too tired” works just as well for me.
    I also agree with michael farris that the second “is” is used like a conjunction or whatever the correct terminology is (copula?). Actually, I think of this second “is” as the vocalisation of a colon. In just about all the examples I have seen, if you replace the second “is” or “is that” with a colon it still makes sense. e.g. “So my point was, is, out of all the stuff we’re doing, the thing I really need is a light so I can see what’s going on” becomes “So my point was: out of all the stuff we’re doing, the thing I really need is a light so I can see what’s going on”.
    So, for me “thing is” is equivalent to “nub of the matter”. Hence if you say “The thing is I’m tired”, leaving out the second “is” you are really being very terse, almost like a newspaper headline, such as “The nub of the matter: I’m tired”
    My suggestion also works for other similar phrases e.g. the example provided by Rachel Hendery, “the fact remains is”. On the first page of my Google hits for “the fact remains is” is the statement “The fact remains is that most air pollution is generated by humans burning fossil fuels.” Which can also be rendered “The nub of the issue: most air pollution is generated by humans burning fossil fuels.” Google also produces examples of the past tense, “the fact remained is”. e.g. “The fact remained is Jordan could have easily scored the 20+ Magic did and could have easily average double figures in assist had he wanted to be that kind …”. Substituting “:” for “is” works here too.
    There is a mention of “Is, is” in the book “Common Errors in English Usage” by Paul Brians. See http://wsu.edu/~brians/errors/isis.html
    and a video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHp0LxJixvw
    Sorry about the naked URLs, my HTML skills are atrocious.
    Apologies if these musings are all drivel and completely miss the point.

  35. I agree with the idea that this looks alot like a subordinator.
    I think (sentence)
    The problem (sentence)
    “The thing is” is one of those phrases that springs forth as a complete thing all its own.
    Maybe you end up wanting to Say “The thing is, I think that’s cool” but somehow our brains remeber to add the is while forgetting that the phrase “The thing is” already has it.
    I am saying “The thing is, is, I think this feels alright.” – this feels mostly ok for me to say.
    Go figure.

  36. I wonder if you, or anyone else on here, has written about a similar doubling phenomenon in English, the use of phrases such as “My friend, he has …” or “My mother, she is…”? Among younger age groups this seems to have become quite common, almost predominantly so. It also seems to be a form of hesitation (such as “uh,” “um”). Any thoughts?

  37. As some of you may have seen, yesterday, I linked to this entry on my blog, and went ahead and discussed a double is that occurs in Portuguese.
    I make no mention of any English aspect there, but since some people are giving their own theories for this phenomenon in English here, going by what I reviewed on my last blog entry, I will say this: perhaps this double is, as in the thing is, is (that)… in English is connected to the longer structure What the thing is, is (that)…. The same could apply to The point is, is (that)… vs. What the point is, is (that)…

  38. P. Penka, I don’t think the immediate pre-specifying of the referent of a pronoun- as you’ve exemplified- is a hesitation or thought-collector. I think it’s an abbreviated (or “pseudo-”) cleaving of the one subject into two expressions for the purpose of emphasis.
    However newly popular it’s become, this emphasizing was, some years ago, useful to Bob Dylan:
    Queen Mary, she’s my friend
    Yes, I believe I’ll go see her again
    Nobody has to guess
    That Baby can’t be blessed
    ’til she sees finally that she’s like all the rest
    With her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls
    -
    Unless you think that “I” is talking to “Queen Mary”– which is an ambiguity that could affect- ‘infect’- your examples, too, right?

  39. I mean, talking to “Queen Mary” about a different “she”, as one could say (to use one of your examples), ‘My friend, he has …’ to address one friend about what another person- perhaps also a “friend”- “has”.

  40. “My friend, he has …” or “My mother, she is…”? Among younger age groups this seems to have become quite common, almost predominantly so.
    Where I grew up this was a marker of a rural and very unacceptable speech pattern, along with double negatives (sorry, Stuart NZ). Our English textbooks gave practice exercises to teach us how to avoid both constructions. There were actually people from farms who were socially accepted, but the first thing they did was ditch those speech habits, so nobody would know where they came from.

  41. I’ve never encountered the double ‘is’ before. It looks and sounds weird to me. The double that, though, is something I’ve used and I base my understanding of it on the parallel construction in German: I know that that is correct = Ich weiß, dass das richtig ist. I.e. that that = dass das (or daß das in old spelling). I think in relative clauses we tend to swap in ‘which’ rather than repeat a ‘that’, in the same way Germans use ‘was’ to avoid repeating ‘das’.

  42. ‘It just feels right. I don’t know why.’
    The reason it feels right is because ‘What it is, is this’ is right (grammatically unproblematical). So your brain gets used to the ‘is is’, and forgets that ‘The thing is, is this’ is not the same at all.

  43. (Gah! I thought I’d trained myself out of saying ‘the reason [...] is because’. Humbug.)

  44. Don’t worry, “the reason [...] is because” is perfectly normal English, everyone says it. People inveigh against it for reasons that have nothing to do with how language actually works.

  45. I’ve always assumed the same thing Sarra said. That “the thing is is” started to sound right because “what it is is” actually is right.

  46. I sometimes say “My point was or is” which is used as a correction on the fly.

  47. It really depends on what the meaning of “is is” is.

  48. Considerable discussion of “is is” and related examples here, including bibliography from 1987 through 2007. On distinguishing the syntactic construction I call Isis from disfluencies and from other constructions that can give rise to two forms of BE in sequence, see here.

  49. Thanks for the links; from the first one, this interesting remark:

    Isis [i.e., the "is is" construction] seems to be below the level of consciousness for very many of those who use it, though a few people have reported to me that they notice it – and that it “feels near-right, and nearly as good as the alternative”, as one of my (non-linguist) correspondents put it.

    Which is borne out by the comments here.

  50. The thing is, is that that is what that is.

  51. Thus Popeye is cloven from, and cleaves therefore to, JHWH.

  52. A strange thing I’ve started noticing a lot lately is the use of ‘loosing’ where I would expect ‘losing’. An example is at http://www.criticalflame.org/nonfiction/1109_harkema.htm where it occurs twice: “Martin’s biography inevitably looses some momentum” and “Martin handles all of this information without loosing the mythical attraction”. Is this just me or is this becoming more prevalent?

  53. It’s been a common error as far back as I can remember; it’s probably getting into print more lately because there’s much less copyediting/proofreading than there used to be.

Speak Your Mind

*