The Grammarphobia Blog

Is that what it’s all about?

Q: We seem to have lost a “that” (“The conference made clear [that] the two sides were divided”) and gained an “is” (“The thing is … is that I forgot to add the baking soda”). How do you explain these two phenomena?

A: Quite often, “that” is optional. I discussed this in a March 7, 2008, blog item, so you might want to take a look.

As for the “is … is” business, here’s my feeling. The speaker gets as far as the first verb (“The thing is …”), hesitates, and then continues, forgetting that a verb has already been used ( ” … is that I forgot to add the baking soda”).

People who do this are essentially treating a clause like “the thing is” or “the point is” or “the problem is” as the subject of the sentence as a whole.

They then have to give that subject a verb, so they forge ahead with another verb (“is that etc.”), mentally shifting gears and grinding them in the process. This often happens when the clause after “is” starts with “that.”

Two linguists, Michael Shapiro and Michael C. Haley, wrote about the subject in the journal American Speech in 2002, calling this kind of “is is” a “reduplicative copula.” (A copula is a linking verb, like “is.”)

The simple double copula, on the other hand, isn’t grammatically incorrect. Examples: “What that is is an armadillo,” or “What he is is a felon.” (Or, to use an example quoted by Shapiro and Haley: “What the problem is is still unclear.”)

But the kind of sentence we’re talking about (“The problem is is that I’m too busy”) is grammatically incorrect, or, as Shapiro and Haley would say, it’s a “nonstandard syntactic construction.” The phenomenon is recent but not particularly new. The two linguists cite examples going back to 1993.

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