Xtreme Isisism

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Brian at Squbbishness drew my attention (“is is that“, 8/11/2011) to the frequent use of copula-doubling by Kevin Slavin in his TED talk “How algorithms shape the world“.  My transcript has 9 instances of ISIS in 2,568 words, for a rate of one every 285 words, or 3504 per million words.

As Brian points out, it’s just as interesting to note where Mr. Slavin doesn’t double his copulas as where he does — and given his frequency of both doubled and undoubled copulas, a few hours of similar presentations would make hundreds of each available for study.

But even in this 15-minute talk, there is food for thought. For example, there’s never a prosodic boundary between the two instances of is — and there’s often one before them:

1) [audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/KevinISIS1.mp3]

I think the point IS IS that this is metaphor
with teeth.

2) [audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/KevinISIS2.mp3]

and the magic and the horror
of that IS IS that the same math

3) [audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/KevinISIS3.mp3]

right, what could go wrong IS IS that a year ago

4) [audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/KevinISIS3a.mp3]

and that’s the thing, right, IS IS that we’re writing things
we’re writing these things that we can no longer read

5) [audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/KevinISIS4.mp3]

and the thing IS IS IS that
this isn’t Google

6) [audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/KevinISIS5.mp3]

and what you see here, or what you don’t really see,
IS IS that these are the physics of culture

7) [audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/KevinISIS6.mp3]

the problem with that IS IS that people
freak out

8) [audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/KevinISIS7.mp3]

the reality IS IS that the further away you are from that, you’re a few microseconds behind every time

9) [audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/KevinISIS8.mp3]

and what this map says
IS IS that if you’re trying to make money on the markets

And as Brian notes, the doubling applies in most but not all cases where the copula precedes the complementizer that. There are four cases of non-doubled “is that”:

which is that they’re moving these positions,
whether it’s  Proctor and Gamble or Accenture, whatever,

and they do what we’ve always done when confronted
with huge amounts of data that we don’t understand
which is that they give them a name
and a story

and the gag is that of course
these aren’t just running through the market

and the thing that you might have noticed about those blue dots is that a lot of them are
in the middle of the ocean

One final intriguing fact — you might have noticed that example (5) is actually a triple is. It goes by pretty fast, so here’s just the “is is is” part repeated a few times:

5 repeated) [audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/KevinISIS4aREP.mp3]

Some previous LL posts:

The thing is is people talk this way. The question is is why? The answer is is (drumroll please) …“, 6/27/2004
A bird in the hand is, is…“, 6/29/2004
Isis Fest, with emergent free-bees“, 6/29/2004
Isis bibliography“, 7/5/2004

And some handouts, abstracts, papers, etc.:

Arnold Zwicky, “ISIS Fest Handout“, 2003
Elizabeth Coppock and Laura Staum, “Origin of the English Double-is Construction“, 2004
Patrick McConvell and Arnold Zwicky, “ISIS Bibliography“, 2006
Arnold Zwicky, “Extris, Extris“, 2006
Elizabeth Coppock et al., “ISIS: It’s Not Disfluent, but How Do We Know That?“, 2006


  1. Gordon Campbell said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 6:17 am

    Slightly off-topic punctuation question: As mentioned in the 27 June 2004 post listed above, ‘is is’ is sometimes standard English; e.g. ‘What the problem is is what we have to identify’. I’d tend not to put a comma between a subject and its verb, but I’ve seen a comma included after the first ‘is’ in similar contructions in published writing. Supplementary query: How do you search for a specific string including punctuation in Google? An “is, is” search doesn’t do it.

  2. Barney said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 7:35 am

    Gorden: I don’t think it is is generally possible to search for specific punctuation in google. It’s a few years old, but this is is discussed at http://groups.google.com/group/Google_Web_Search_Help-UsingWS/browse_thread/thread/319ba8f480745020/4cf16566ae3c87ef?lnk=gst&q=special+characters#4cf16566ae3c87ef

  3. Alix said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 8:04 am

    When I read the examples, it *looks* as if Slavin is stammering a little. Could Brian be making too much of this?

  4. Sili said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 8:27 am

    This is one of those quirks of the English language that I never noticed before reading about it here on LL.

    Pamela Gay of Astronomy Cast uses it a lot. At least enough to trigger my frequency illusion.

  5. ENKI-][ said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 9:04 am

    @gordon: while that is arguably correct (insomuch as it does not break what people consider to be grammatical rules or guidelines), it seems unnecessarily unclear. My immediate response upon formulating such a sentence would be to rephrase it as”‘The nature of the problem is that which we must identify” — or if I gain rhetorical power from using the first part (“what the problem is”), I might instead say “The problem is to determine what the problem is”. In other words, grammatical correctness is a poor man’s substitute for clarity (just as a degree is a poor man’s substitute for an education: one can assume that if one uses proper grammar one is capable of being clear, but such an assumption is only as valid as saying that one is educated if one has a degree, and fails for the same reasons).

  6. Doug said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 9:21 am

    I have a co-worker who says things like, “The thing of the thing IS is, is that we have to … “. The stress makes it sound as if the first “IS” is the subject of the second. (And yes, she says “The thing of the thing”.)

  7. Mary Bull said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 10:30 am

    Bill Clinton’s famous use of it:

  8. Mr Punch said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    Part of what is going on, here and elsewhere, is that certain stock phrases (“the point is,” “the reason being,” etc.) tend to get treated as units; the speaker in effect does not parse them, ignores the verb they contain, and just goes ahead with an “extra” verb.

  9. Will Nediger said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 11:27 am

    @Mr Punch: Which is why it’s so unusual that there’s no prosodic boundary between the two instances of IS in Slavin’s speech. Very interesting.

  10. The Ridger said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    @Gordon: Many style guides (e.g., Chicago (chap 6.29)) allow such commas to clarify the sentence. Optional, not mandatory. Given that many people would read right over it without a comma, it seems like a good idea.

  11. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    I’ve reported on one speaker who uses Isis close to 100% of the time when it’s possible (this from close listening to hours of his talking on the radio, attending specifically to single- vs. extra-is examples. Virtually all of them smooth.

    I also have a moderate number of fortuitous finds from actors on scripted tv shows. Again, smoothly produced. But surely not in the script; instead, the actors introduce a usage that’s natural for them — that’s the way they pronounce what’s on the page.

  12. sarang said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

    Had a Canadian physics professor who was a serious isisist.

    I think there’s some rhythmical appeal to the “the thing is, is that X” construction. I have not thought this through but if you were to replace “the thing” with some other, comparably used, equivalent, say “what’s meant here // is that X” or “the key observation here // is that X” etc. it seems that the logic of the “is, is” construction is, is that the extra “is” allows you to pause in the right place. Now the natural place — in the alt. constructions — to put the pause is before the “is.” But you can’t pause after “thing” or “point” so you have to add a piece of filler. Because “the thing is (pause)” is natural and “(pause) is that X” is natural, it is not surprising that these tend to be put together. The alternative is not to pause, but not pausing is also unnatural.

  13. Brian said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    Ah man, and here I thought we were finally going to get a linguistic blog post on advanced worship of the Egyptian goddess. I am so disappointed.

  14. Stacy said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

    There’s a few good scholarly papers that address the question of whether ISIS is disfluent (Spoiler alert: It’s not.):

    Brenier, Jason M. & Laura A. Michaelis. 2005. Prosodic optimization via syntactic amalgam: Syntax-prosody mismatch and copula doubling. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory, 1, 45-88.

    Coppock, Liz, et al. 2006. ISIS: It’s not disfluent, but how do we know that? In Proceedings of the Berkeley Linguistics Society 32. Berkley: Berkeley Linguistics Society. (See link in post, above.)

    There’s a squib out of UCSC that looks at where prosodic pauses occur in ISIS sentences and provides a phonological account of the phenomenon:
    Kaplan, Abby. 2006. Prosodic Recruiting and Double Is. Unpublished ms., University of California, Santa Cruz.

    If you want to search for examples of ISIS, the Corpus of Contemporary American English (http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/) is your best bet for this, but you have to be very tricksy about how you search for it as you’ll get a lot of pseudocleft responses (“What the thing is is that…”) if you’re not careful.

    One of the things that makes this construction so hard to search for in the wilds of the internet is that the majority of speakers who use this construction use it exclusively in their spoken English, not in their written English, and finding repositories of uncorrected radio and speech transcripts outside of official linguistic corpora can be difficult at best.

    Furthermore, for those speakers for whom this construction is perfectly grammatical, the number of situations in which they would use such a construction is incredibly small as compared to the overall number of situations in which they are talking, period. What this means is that there are significantly fewer instances of this construction, period, as compared to something like a basic declarative of habitual action, such as, “I go to the store every Sunday.”

    If you’re willing to concede that the construction isn’t just a speech error, there are a variety of syntactic accounts of the phenomenon:

    Diane Massam treats ISIS like pseudoclefts (eg., “What the problem is is that there’s no way to get to the store if the trains aren’t running.”).
    (Massam, Diane. 1999. Thing is constructions: The thing is, is what’s the right analysis? English Language and Linguistics, 3.2, 335-352.)

    Brenier & Michaelis treat ISIS as a syntactic amalgam along the lines of hypotactic apposition (eg., “That’s the real problem is that you never really know.”).
    (See above for citation.)

    As for my own personal opinion on such matters, I’ve got an unpublished squiblet where I treat the second IS in a sentence like “The thing is is that I like languages,” as a Focus particle. The subsequent CP “that I like languages” is moved to Spec, Focus as per the Spec-Head Focus relationship of Aboh (2004), and “The thing is” constituent is dealt with via remnant movement.
    (Dickerman, Stacy M. 2009. The thing is is it’s a focus particle: A new analysis of the Thing-is construction in English. Unpublished ms., New York University.)

    Hope that helps!

  15. No Linguist said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

    Yeah, I tend toward Mr Punch’s observation, that the “is that” is treated as a virtual unit. To me it seems to play an emphatic role.

    The times I’ve caught myself uttering an “is is that”, it usually had the same grammatical content as a “you know” or “like”, or other valley-girl-isms, that one might insert in place of a dramatic pause.

    For instance, take (8): “and the reality IS IS that the further away you are from that, you’re a few microseconds behind every time”

    If I were to speak it without thinking about it, I would have said: “and the reality is, is that, the further away you are from that, you’re a few microseconds behind every time”, where the commas represent slight pauses or breathes.

    And if I said it with some premeditation, or had written it as a speech: “and the reality is: the further away you are from that, you’re a few microseconds behind every time”, where the colon indicates a longer pause.

    The pace, however, with which Mr. Slavin takes it makes it seem rather manic, which is the tendency with valley girls, where the “like” and “you know” are thrown in without any inherent meaning, and certainly no pausing.

  16. Ed said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

    i agree with No Linguist that Slavin must treat “is that” as a unit (although i don’t think this is quite the point that Mr. Punch was making). the idiosyncrasy is that he’s somehow stored the pronunciation of this unit as “is is that”. the triple “is” in (5) is the clincher: this is the ordinary ISIS environment (whereas none of the other examples are canonical ISIS environments, and a couple are marginal), plus the odd duplication of the second “is”. my bet would be that if we found other instances where Slavin started a sentence with “the thing is”, we would find ISISIS every time.

  17. Eric said,

    August 13, 2011 @ 11:59 pm


  18. Stacy said,

    August 14, 2011 @ 12:43 am

    Hey, Ed.

    How are you defining marginal/canonical for ISIS constructions?

    I understand why one might want to treat (3), (6), and (9) as somewhat marginal cases, in the sense that they don’t follow the traditional formula for the “Thing-is” variety of ISIS:

    “the” + appositional noun phrase + BE1 + {is/was}.

    My guess is that they’re some kind of pseudocleft + ISIS structure, which may or may not be of the Thing-is variety.

    I can also see why one might want to include (2) in the marginal group due to its coordinate structure. I know that the appositional noun phrase in a Thing-is construction can be internally complex, but I haven’t personally investigated whether this also extends more generally to coordination. Maybe someone else has, but I can’t recall any of the references off the top of my head.

    I also find it interesting that Slavin, at least in this speech, seems not to have the following “that”-less variant (documented for other ISIS speakers elsewhere) for any of his ISIS uses:

    (8′) the reality IS IS the further away you are from that, you’re a few microseconds behind every time

    It’s certainly possible that he’s treating “is that” as some kind of lexical unit. I’d personally prefer to analyze the “is” and the “that” as separate heads in an expanded CP, thus allowing for the variation between “that”-ful and “that”-less ISIS constructions that are otherwise syntactically identical.

    As for the TripleIS in (5), the only thing I’ve got to add to this discussion is that it’s theoretically possible to get something like the following:

    (9′) and [what the fact is] IS IS that if you’re trying to make money on the markets

    My grammaticality judgment on this as a native ISIS-user is that (9′) is possible but VERY marginal. However, I’m fairly certain that there’s one instance of this particular construction in the COCA, and–who knows–I may even say stuff like this and be completely unaware of it.

  19. Erik Zyman Carrasco said,

    August 14, 2011 @ 2:28 am

    @ Stacy, re: acceptability of triple is:

    I think I (an almost 20-year-old Manhattanite) use double is only very rarely, if at all, but I do find it well formed (albeit somewhat informal, probably owing to all the prescriptivist condemnation). And I did discover by introspection (rather than by hearing a relevant example) that I find triple is well formed as well, with the right prosody:

    (10) The problem is is, is everyone keeps on fighting all the time.

    (Maybe it’s a little awkward—”(?)”—but it’s fundamentally fine.)

  20. Ed said,

    August 14, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

    Stacy, to clarify my comments/thoughts on several fronts:

    first, when i said “marginal” i was referring to the environment, not the acceptability of the sentence as a whole. the template you provided is pretty much exactly what i was thinking of as a “canonical” environment, and thing is certainly the most common appositional noun phrase to be slotted in there. point (1) and problem with that (7) and reality (8) are less common, and may sound worse than Thing-is to people who aren’t themselves ISISers.

    i’m not sure that pseudoclefting is necessarily the best description of what’s going on, but i’m not going to argue heavily against it since it’s not a construction i have any particular expertise in. maybe i’m thinking of Thing-is constructions in too much of a diachronic sense, but they seem much more like hyper-reduced relatives:

    the thing that is PRED –> the thing Ø is _____

    Ø is null C, ____ is some predicative constituent, to be supplied by the listener because it’s presumed to be obvious, and generally would indicate some type of salience if you were to spell it out. this fits well with your focus particle theory. essentially, a relative clause containing copula + predicate of salience is reduced to just the copula, but with the salience meaning preserved.

    under either interpretation this still doesn’t explain (4). “that’s the thing” cannot be modified by a relative clause. “thing” certainly can, but because of its position doesn’t afford the appropriate continuation:

    *that’s [the thing [that is important]] is that we’re writing things…

    likewise, under the topic view, “that’s the thing” is a miserable constituent to try to topicalize, and “thing” is buried in the verbal domain.

    (2) also bothers me, because it appears to have _no movement_ and _no relativization_ whatsoever. i don’t think being second conjunct can give it a free pass here. and i think even most ISISers would rate parallel constructions like the following as pretty awful:

    ??my favorite part of the post is is that Mark included audio clips
    *my least favorite book is is Great Expectations

    open for your (or anyone else’s) thoughts.

  21. Mark F. said,

    August 14, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    I once read an essay where GKP complained about linguists who wouldn’t accept that a theory predicting ~P was falsified when P was observed. But in the area of syntax, I wonder. It seems as if there could be fairly concise syntactic theories that might correctly reflect the underlying structure in a set of sentences of a language, and a different, conflicting, theory, that applies to other sentences. Of course, two such theories could be converted into one grand, consistent theory by specifying when each subtheory is to be applied, but what if that specification cannot be made in any elegant way? What if the brain has combinatorial modules as well as pattern-recognition modules, and the pattern recognition modules feed sentences to the combinatorial modules? It might be hard to make this model work on the production side, but still.

    This may seem off topic, but it was certainly motivated by reading the different proposed analyses of the construction. I wonder if different analyses are correct in different cases.

    Also, I don’t really have doubts about the point Pullum was actually making in his (very good) essay. It just stimulated my thoughts and seemed like a good way to introduce what I was getting at.

    [(myl) (1) It seems likely that there are different ISIS structures/grammars; (2) If this is true, then it’s also likely that most ISIS users also have more than one psychological ISIS structure/grammar; (3) We don’t have nearly enough ISIS (and non-ISIS) data to constrain theories very strongly, either within or across individuals. (Though Elizabeth Coppock et al. (2006) make a convincing case against the view that ISIS examples are simple disfluencies.)]

  22. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 6:18 am

    I initially crash-blossomed the hed into prejudice against followers of ancient Egyptian mother goddesses.

  23. Gordon Campbell said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 7:39 pm

    ‘What the problem is (,) is what we have to identify.’
    Whether it’s clear or not, there may be an occasion when you want to write it as is (e.g. reporting what someone said). And there’s no problem with it in spoken English, where emphasis on the first ‘is’ (or a pause after) makes it clear, cromulent and unambiguous (and much better than the alternatives you suggest). I know that orthography can’t always keep up with spoken English –but I hate that! A grammatically correct humdinger of a sentence like that SHOULD be writable (i.e. I want to be able to write it).

  24. Stacy said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 10:43 pm

    @Erik Zyman Carrasco

    Your TripleIS example is a bit different than the one I presented in (9′). Mine’s a sort of combo cleft-like-thing+ISIS; yours is what I refer to as the Thing-is subtype of ISIS, but with an extra Extris (to coopt Zwicky’s term) tacked on.

    I have to admit, I personally find these judgments VERY hard to get in writing. It’s very well possible that I’ve used a TripleIS like your (10) at some point or have found it perfectly felicitous when used by someone else, but I can’t recall any situation like this off the top of my head, so I personally don’t feel comfortable assigning a grammaticality judgment to it at the moment.

    If it is, in fact, felicitous, then it certainly raises issues for Massam’s and my own analyses, possibly Brenier & Michaelis as well.

  25. Katje said,

    August 27, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

    I know someone who frequently begins sentences with “the problem is is that.” It never sounds like a hesitation, and there is no pause between the first “is” and the second. I know at least three people who seem to have picked up the speech pattern from him, virus-style.

  26. The elusive triple “is” | English Teaching Daily said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 1:49 am

    […] says, “Last month (“Xtreme Isisism“, 8/13/11), Mark Liberman analyzed a TED talk by Kevin Slavin, a speaker who is […]

  27. Andrew Greene said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    [Coming late to the party from today’s post that refers back to this one.]

    I went to high school with Kevin, and we had a teacher who used the construct “The thing is, is…” several times each class. (This speech pattern was even parodied in our yearbook, in the caption of that teacher’s photograph.)

    So I suspect that for Kevin, this phrase has become imprinted as an indivisible lexical unit. (Sometimes, I even catch myself saying it.) Which doesn’t diminish the question of its ultimate origin, but does mean that analyzing other parts of Kevin’s speech patterns may not be the place to start.

  28. SocietyOfDigitalAgencies said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 9:31 am

    […] real and relaxed. Ironically, the imperfections in his delivery make the performance more resonant. Researchers at McGill University identified significant “speech doubling”—a stutter, essentially—in Slavin’s talk, […]

  29. The dramatic grammatic evolution of “LOL” | Sentence first said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

    […] did you notice McWhorter’s double copula? Not your garden variety is is, either! About these ads var wpcom_adclk_hovering = false; var […]

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