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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 is-is 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.

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