What Is-Is Is, Is Exasperating



Leave it to academia to invent lofty labels for obnoxious habits.

You might not know the term nonstandard reduplicative copula, but you probably know what it refers to, and chances are it drives you crazy. We call it “the is-is hiccup”: the addition of a redundant second is in sentences like The truth is is that the two sides are divided or The fact of the matter is is that they want to disrupt our elections or this beauty we heard last week: The big issue now moving forward is is that rates are rising.

You probably know someone who says “is is,” and there is no avoiding it when your radio or television is on. The airwaves are teeming with commentators afflicted with the isis hiccup. It’s one of life’s mysteries—even to those who say it.

We doubt you will ever find the is-is hiccup in print, however. Spoken sentences are one thing, but no competent writer or editor who sees it written out will fail to expunge the is-is hiccup on sight.

As this turn of phrase has spread, it has developed exotic variations, many of which are inspired nonsense: What I meant was isThe cruel facts are is But the difficulty then becomes is

These are seriously silly constructions, but those who say them are not necessarily fools or charlatans. Often these are statements made by sophisticated and qualified spokespersons. “It’s worth noting that this construction, though stigmatized, is widely used by highly educated people,” says one online grammarian. “I have a valued colleague who can be counted on to use it several times per lecture.”

So how did it come to this?

Examples of legitimate double-is abound in our culture, high and low. The distinguished author G.K. Chesterton used one when he wrote, “What the thing is, is not cowardly, but profoundly and detestably wicked.” And a comedian from North Carolina named Andy Griffith once made America laugh with “What It Was, Was Football,” his monologue about college football from a country boy’s perspective.

Those uses of the double-is are clearly correct. And sentences we hear and read all the time would be meaningless with an is left out. Try removing an is from these sentences:

  • How important this is is hard to say.
  • The question is, is this OK?
  • What the point is, is this.

Perhaps the is-is hiccup can be traced to sentences like those three. It’s easy to see how, in an animated conversation, someone who means What the point is, is this might instead say, “The point is is this.”

Could it be that careful speakers, not wanting to leave out a necessary word, got into this bad habit, and it spread across the culture and took on a crazy life of its own? Maybe the is-is hiccup is an object lesson in how linguistic absurdities result from trying too conscientiously to avoid them.

Posted on Wednesday, September 14, 2016, at 1:15 pm

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8 Comments on What Is-Is Is, Is Exasperating

8 responses to “What Is-Is Is, Is Exasperating”

  1. Bill Killpatrick says:

    Indeed, sometimes an “is, is” is appropriate. However, it would be easier just to construct the written or spoken sentence differently. To wit:

    How important this is is hard to say.
    Alt: It’s hard to say how important this is.
    The question is, is this okay?
    Alt: Is this okay? (Or … Is this okay is the question.)
    What the point is, is this.
    Alt: Once again, the point is this. (Or, more bluntly … If you’re too stupid to understand the point, take up basket weaving. Leave politics and religion to the adults.)

  2. Linda says:

    This comment is about editing. Lately, I’ve been using online editing apps to improve my writing skills. One app reports a sticky factor about sentences. I find that I use a lot of sticky filler words to make a point. Here is their sample:
    —ORIGINAL: Dave walked over into the back yard of the school in order to see if there was a new bicycle that he could use in his class.
    —REDRAFT: Dave checked the school’s back yard for a new bicycle to use in class.
    You can see the difference.
    Does the original sentence have any grammatical errors?
    The sticky thing they measure baffles me. The second sentence is so compact it doesn’t feel right. What are your thoughts?

  3. Tom S. says:

    Love the weekly column!! Keep up the good work.

    The “is-is” column contains what I consider to be bad grammar. It refers to something that is “written out.”

    Doesn’t that fall into the same category of errors as “printed out” and “tested out?”

    I believe things are written, printed and tested. Period.

    • You may not like written out, but we used it because it is good idiomatic English, and the phrase suited the rhythm and purpose of the sentence. We doubt you will find much support among experts that written out is bad grammar.

      Thank you for the kind words and for taking the time to write.

  4. Dennis T. says:

    I believe it’s simply a breathing pause which, like the next wave rolling in on top of it before it leaves the beach, is the appropriate break in the continuity, but needs to be started up again by the next “is,” which is the start of the second wave. It’s a very natural use of the language when spoken, but inappropriate for the written word.

  5. Sylvia E. says:

    Thank you so much!!! I have been noticing this mistake for years. I call it “double issing” and it drives me crazy! I’m so glad someone is finally talking about it. You should contact a well-known venue, perhaps a popular TV show like CBS News Sunday Morning and ask them to do a humorous piece on current grammatical mistakes in the English language. Someone like Bill Geist, Nancy Giles or Mo Rocca would be good commentators on the subject.

    Anyway, yes, your explanation is true. There are instances when it is correct which is why it must have caused confusion however when you look at the correct usage and reflect on it, the sentence makes complete sense. The wrong ones do sound like a hiccup!

    I will send this around to all my grammar loving friends. You made my day! (By the way, I “feel badly” drives me crazy too!)

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