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November 16, 2006

Is, is

I just heard some talking head on NPR use the "is, is" construction again. That's a new (and rather irritating) piece of English syntax that reanalyzes pseudo-clefts and generates a spurious reduplication.

I suppose that, as a syntactician, I ought to greet such innovations in my native tongue with delight; but frankly this one irritates me even more than uses of intensifier so, or as far as.. without a bookend. Just getting curmudgeonly, I guess.

I hear it a lot on NPR, but mostly when I'm driving, it seems, so I can't write them down. Here are some examples collected last year [commas interpolated]:

(1) The difference is, is that it's not coming from the top. ('On the Media' 12-10-05)
(2) But the reality of it is, is that ... ('Marketplace' segment on 'Morning Edition' 11-25-05)
(3) The situation was, is that my mom died ... ('Smart Money' 11-6-05)
(4) The problem is, is that the traditional Haitian government ... ('All Things Considered' 11-25-05)

I've never encountered this in writing; it seems to be strictly oral, which is what you would expect for a nascent syntactic rule. I have a theory about how it developed -- i.e, I thought of an explanation, but I haven't made any attempt to search the literature, so I don't know if it's the same as or different from anybody else's explanation.

It seems to me that these come from the pseudo-cleft rule, or rather from a misunderstanding of the pseudo-cleft rule. You remember cleft and pseudo-cleft, right? As Fillmore
puts it, "Instances of cleavage have IT in front; instances of pseudo-cleavage have WHAT in front."

Any of the sentences above could have been pseudo-clefts with two is's in a row:

(1a) What the difference is is that it's not coming from the top.

This has one is isolated at the end of the What clause, before the trace formed by Wh-movement, followed immediately after the trace by a second is serving as the fulcrum of cleavage.

They could also have been simple uncleft sentences, with only one is:

(1b) The difference is that it's not coming from the top.

It seems to me that speakers that use the "is, is" construction re-interpret the double is as a constituent, a marker for some kind of cleavage (instead of a syntactic accident), and drop the What that is the real marker -- after all, it doesn't add any information to (1a), as (1b) shows. (I suppose someone who cared more than I do could use this as an argument against the reality of traces.)

Why keep the double is at all, then? For the same reason people use whom nowadays: to appear authoritative. I guess that's what irritates me about it.

Posted by jlawler at November 16, 2006 09:58 AM


You may already know, but the folks at Stanford are hard at work at this construction (witness the reading group from a couple years ago: http://www.stanford.edu/~coppock/isisbib.html).

(at the moment, however, I have nothing useful to say about it)

Posted by: rleegold@gmail.com at November 16, 2006 11:09 AM

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