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Is Is Is an Issue?

April, 2020 Language Matters

The thing is is that English has some unusual speech patterns.

In the above sentence, the second is serves no obvious purpose. Yet this kind of construction is very common, particularly in spoken English. It is known as the double copula, double is, or simply is is, and it has been puzzling linguists ever since it was first recorded, which, according to the revised third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, was in the early 1970s. Speakers of American English are by far the most prolific double is users, but usage in Britain and elsewhere has been recorded almost as far back as the initial American occurrence.

While some may object to it more strongly than others, the status of double is is not the subject of much debate: it is widely regarded as non-standard, meaning that it should be avoided in formal contexts. Still, since its usage is so widespread, it is worth examining how the double is came to be in the first place. How did this needless duplication of a word entrench itself so firmly into our spoken language?

What Is Double Is?

When we talk about double is, we don’t simply mean “two ‘is’s in a row”. Repetition, including of the word is, is sometimes a standard and unremarkable feature of English. Take the following example:

What it is is a catastrophe.

What’s the difference between the above example and the very first sentence of this article? In both cases, the word is appears twice in succession, but few people would object to the latter. Unlike the former, there is nothing grammatically wrong, or even dubious, about it. It’s simply an example of what linguists call a pseudocleft sentence, a familiar structure in which information that would usually be expressed in a simple sentence (one that contains only one main clause), is rearranged to form a complex sentence (one that contains a main clause as well as at least one subordinate clause beginning with an interrogative word such as what or where).

In the above example, the initial What it is is both a subordinate clause and the subject of the sentence. Rudimentary grammar tells us that the subject is typically followed by a verb, which, in this case, happens to be is. The non-pseudocleft version of this sentence would simply be “It is a catastrophe”, in which the initial It plays the same syntactic role as What it is plays in the pseudocleft version.

If we were to remove an is from our second example, the sentence would become meaningless. Doing so with our first example—a true case of double is—would take nothing away from its meaning. In fact, most people would consider it an improvement:

The thing is that English has some unusual speech patterns.

Why Do People Say It?

There is nothing particularly objectionable about the above sentence. It is perfectly natural and consistent with grammatical conventions. We return, then, to our initial question: why the double is? Well, the thing is, we don’t really know. But there are a number of possibilities.

We’ve seen how similar in appearance double is sentences are to pseudoclefts. In fact, any double is could technically be turned into a pseudocleft by adding the word what. The pseudocleft version of our above example would be the following:

What the thing is is that English has some unusual speech patterns.

Here, What the thing is is our subject, the second is is our verb, and that English has some unusual speech patterns. is our object. We have a perfectly legitimate, albeit inelegant, pseudocleft sentence. So, perhaps double is sentences are really pseudoclefts, only ones in which the initial what is omitted.

Alternatively, double is might just be a result of how we speak. Speech is usually spontaneous: we don’t tend to have our sentences ready before we begin to articulate them. As a result, we sometimes stutter or pause. And after we pause, we often resume our speech by repeating the last word we uttered before pausing. The final is of the thing is often gives way to a pause, giving the uncertain speaker a moment to properly articulate what exactly the thing is, particularly if said thing is a complex idea that must be expressed using a that-clause.

It is possible that both of the above theories partially explain why we use double is. It is also possible that there is another explanation altogether. In any case, most people who use it nowadays are not consciously omitting the first word from a pseudocleft sentence, nor are they repeating themselves as a result of hesitation. They are simply using a common (but discouraged) turn of phrase.

This turn of phrase has a number of variants; thing is frequently replaced by fact, problem, or one of many alternatives; a comma sometimes divides the first is from the second; and the preposition that can be either included or omitted. Unlike many non-standard features of speech, double is is not associated with a lack of education, nor is it characteristic of a particular social group. People from all walks of life use it, from politicians to academics, from authors to rappers. While largely a North American phenomenon, it can be heard in all varieties of English.

While we do not encourage our readers to use double is, we can also offer some reassurance: If you, as a reader, tend to use double is when you speak, it will most likely go uncriticized, perhaps even unnoticed. And should you be challenged on it, you will almost certainly be more knowledgeable about the subject than your challenger.

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