“The problem is is that the Social Security system is effectively headed for bankruptcy.”
The double-IS construction involves two instances of the verb is occurring together, as in sentence (1):
1) The funny thing is is that Lisa was there too.
It occurs most commonly after noun phrases such as the problem, the reason, the issue, and the thing. It may also occur with noun phrases like what’s nice, as shown in (2):
2) What’s nice is is that it has a sort of other-worldly character.
Is and its other forms (such as was, be, and am) are also known as copulas; therefore, the double-IS construction is also called the reduplicative copula or double copula construction. Still other names include ISIS, Extris, or the thing is construction.
Who says this?
Double-IS is well-attested in contemporary American English as well as in Australian and New Zealand English. Curzan’s (2012) analysis of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) suggests that this construction first appeared in the second half of the 20th century. There is no known evidence of geographic or sociological factors that might characterize its speaker distribution (McConvell 1988).
In both of the example sentences above, double-IS precedes a clause headed by that. Curzan (2012) also gives examples in which double-IS occurs before a clause not headed by that as in (3a), before an infinitive phrase as in (3b), and before a noun phrase as in (3c):
3) a.*Well, the fact is is the money is there in the budget.
b.*The purpose of this is is to make sure that no one is taking anything inside...
c.*The problem always is is hypersensitivity.
Occurrence with the past tense
Double-IS appears in the past tense as well as the present. When the initial copula is in the past tense, is and was are both permitted in the second position, as illustrated in (4a) and (4b).
4) a.*My feeling was, was that she doesn’t have a professional hold on the situation.
(Coppock and Staum 2004)
b.*The thing was, is that we had no control over the situation.
However, when the initial copula is in the present tense and the second is in the past tense, many speakers judge the sentence as unacceptable. For example, (5) is unacceptable to many speakers:
5) *The thing is, was that we had no control over the situation.
(Coppock and Staum 2004)
Double-IS seldom occurs in written English, but its prosodic profile supports the view that it is not a speech error or disfluency because the first is must receive more prominence than the second, which does not fit the typical pattern of acoustic repair or mid-speech corrections (Coppock et al. 2006).
Coppock et al. (2006) show that speakers produce significantly fewer pauses between the first and second is in constructions such as assertions like (6a) than in examples of ungrammatical speech errors such as questions like (6b), predicative sentences like (6c), and constructions where the first is functions as an auxiliary as in (6d):
6) a.*The problem is (is) that you’re always late.
b. *The question is, is do we have enough time?
c. *John is is happy.
d. *The thing is, is going to fall apart.
The difference between (6a) and (6b-d) provides further evidence that the double-IS construction is not a speech error but rather a syntactic construction.
Double-IS has been extensively compared to the wh-pseudocleft construction for which it is unremarkably grammatical to have two copulas in a row. Shapiro and Haley (2002) succinctly illustrate the formation of a pseudocleft, shown in sentence (7b), from the base sentence in (7a):
7) a.*Dostoevsky witnessed a murder.
b.*[What Dostoevsky witnessed] is a murder.
When the verb in the original sentence is a copula, as in (8a), pseudoclefting results in a sentence with two consecutive copulas, as in (8b):
8) a. Dostoevsky is a murder witness.
b. [What Dostoevsky is] is a murder witness.
In (8b) it is clear that the doubled copula results from the mechanism of clefting, parallel to constructions in which the main verb is not is.
The existence of doubled copulas in these environments leads Massam (1999) to propose that double-IS consists of a pseudocleft in which certain noun phrases (called “appositive” noun phrases) allow a wh-word to be optionally silent. This idea is illustrated by pseudoclefting of sentence (9a), which first becomes a typically pseudoclefted sentence seen in (9b) and then undergoes optional deletion of the wh-word what to yield a double-IS construction in (9c):
9) a.*The problem is that you’re always late.
b.*[ What the problem is] is that you’re always late.
whatthe problem is] is that you’re always late.
Double-IS constructions are therefore considered in this analysis to be a subset of pseudoclefts.
Coppock and Staum (2004) argue against a “silent what” analysis on the grounds that it cannot explain the presence of is in sentences like (10), which they take to be of the same species as the double-IS construction:
10) That can’t be a very welcome outcome, is that rates will now rise.
Coppock and Staum (2004) argue that the second is has become a focus marker, and that this analysis provides a ready explanation for the existence of other colloquial constructions in which unstressed IS occurs before a that clause as in (11):
11) Can I simply say this, is that the parliamentary process is a difficult one. (McConvell 1988)
Indeed, Curzan (2012) notes that the rise of the double-IS construction occurred along with a striking increase in the use of focus expressions in the 1960s and 1970s.
Page contributed by Phoebe Gaston on February 10, 2014
Page updated by Tom McCoy on August 9, 2015
Coppock, Elizabeth and Laura Staum. 2004. Origin of the English Double-is Construction. Unpublished Manuscript, Stanford University.
Coppock, Elizabeth, Laura Staum, Jason Brenier, and Laura Michaelis. 2006. ISIS: It’s not a Disfluency, but How do We Know That? Paper presented at the 32nd Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistic Society, Berkeley, CA. Available here.
Curzan, Anne. 2012. Revisiting the Reduplicative Copula with Corpus-based Evidence. In Terttu Nevalainen and Elizabeth Closs Traugott [eds.] The Oxford Handbook of the History of English, Oxford Handbooks Online.
Massam, Diane. 1999. Thing is constructions: the thing is, is what’s the right analysis? English Language and Linguistics 3(2), 335-352.
McConvell, Patrick. 1988. To be or double be? Current changes in the English copula. Australian Journal of Linguistics 8, 287-305.
Shapiro, Michael, and Michael C. Haley. 2002. ‘The Reduplicative Copula is is, American Speech 77 (3), 305-312.
Andersen, Gisle. 2002. Corpora and the Double Copula. In Leiv Egil Breivik and Angela Hasselgren [eds.] From the COLT’s mouth ... and others: Language Corpora Studies, in Honor of Anna-Brita Strenstrom, 43-58. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Bolinger, Dwight. 1987. The Remarkable Double IS. English Today 9, 39-40.
Brenier, Jason, and Laura Michaelis. 2005. Optimization via Syntactic Amalgam: Syntax- Prosody Mismatch and Copula Doubling. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 1 (1), 45-88.
Calude, A. 2008. Demonstrative clefts and double cleft constructions in spoken English. Studia Linguistica 62, 78–118.
Heycock, Caroline and Anthony Kroch. 1999. Pseudocleft connectedness: Implications for the LF interface level. Linguistic Inquiry 30 (3), 365–397.
O'Neill, Teresa. 2014. Demystifying double-is. Talk handout, CUNY Graduate Center. Available here.
Ross-Hagebaum, Sebastian. 2005. “And that’s my big area of interest in linguistics is discourse” - The forms and functions of the English that’s X is Y-construction. BLS 30, 403-414.
Tuggy, David. 1995. The Thing Is Is That People Talk That Way. The Question Is Is Why? In Eugene H. Casad [ed.] Cognitive Linguistics in the Redwoods: The Expansion of a New Paradigm in Linguistics, 713-752. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Zwicky, Arnold. 2006. Extris, extris. NWAV Abstract, Stanford University, July 2006. Available here.
Zwicky, A. M. 2007: Extris, extris. Paper presented at Stanford University, 16 March 2007. Available here.