What Is Is the Deal?

Two men talking to one another, word bubbles overlapping picture‘Round about the mid-1990s or so, I started to notice a peculiar phenomenon in the speech patterns of some English speakers.

It began happening more and more often, with an ever-increasing range of speakers. Now it’s a full-blown epidemic which appears to have infected every corner of our society. This is serious, folks, and Something Must Be Done, I tell you! (Or not.)

I speak of the “is is” construction.

Some Background

Standard English includes the verb “to be,” which we use in this common form:

[Some subject] is [some optional predicate].

In ordinary conversation, we almost always include the predicate; for example,

[My mother] is [smart] or
[Sandy] is [home] or
[That man] is [reading]. 

We can also use more complex subjects and predicates:

[The quick brown fox] is [a far better jumper than the lazy dog].
A cartoon describing the situation "A qui...

Image via Wikipedia

The subject can be any noun phrase that can have a state or engage in an action: My mother, Sandy, that man, the quick brown fox. Or it can take on some very complex constructions, like

[The quick brown fox that startled the man who
invited Sandy and my mother to a cookout] is [a good jumper]. 

Now the Setup. . .

It’s possible to construct a noun phrase that ends with the word “is”; for example, “what it is.” And hey presto, you can create a perfectly legitimate sentence containing “is is”:

[What it is] is [a new process].     (valid)

This noun phrase works because the “is” that it contains plays an essential part in the phrase. You can’t remove that first “is” and still have a sentence that makes sense (“what it” doesn’t constitute a noun phrase). This doesn’t work:

[What it] is [a new process].     (not valid)

However, not just any phrase ending in “is” can be a valid noun phrase. In fact, I can think of only a few, such as “the lady who is” (as opposed to “the lady who isn’t”) something previously mentioned; say, an auctioneer. (“The lady who is is a fast talker.”) And variations on that theme. (Disclaimer: you can put anything in quotes to make it the subject of a sentence, and indeed this article does exactly that to discuss the parts of language, but I’m discounting that usage as specialized and beside the point.)

. . .and the Punch Line

Take the following sentence:

[Your cousin] is [a talented singer].     (valid)

“Your cousin” constitutes a noun phrase, but you can’t add an “is” to it. “Your cousin is is” doesn’t work:

[Your cousin is] is [a talented singer].     (not valid)

And yet, this non-valid “is is” construction is exactly the way that many people are now commonly speaking throughout the English-speaking world. It doesn’t seem to occur in written text, so I can only conclude that it’s a performance quirk of the spoken word, and that people don’t notice themselves doing it. It’s now so common that I hear it multiple times every day, from radio announcers, writers, news anchors, public officials, people whose professions demand good speaking skills.

Check out this excellent video: The “Is-is” Epidemic (Steve’s Grammatical Observations #1)

If you haven’t noticed this phenomenon, listen closely to radio and television interviews, and to your friends, family, teachers, and so on. Go on, I dare you. You’ll hear it. You’ll probably even catch yourself saying it:

“The thing is, is. . .”

a peculiar quirk in the speech patterns of some English speakers.

Posted on 16 September, 2010, in My Native Language and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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