The elusive triple "is"

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Last month ("Xtreme Isisism", 8/13/11), Mark Liberman analyzed a TED talk by Kevin Slavin, a speaker who is particularly prone to copula-doubling ("the point IS IS that…", "the reality IS IS that…", etc.). Slavin even produced an impressive case of copula-tripling: "and the thing IS IS IS that this isn't Google." The triple IS is rare enough that any instance in the wild is worth noting. On the American Dialect Society mailing list, Jonathan Lighter reported one that he heard in an interview of Ron Suskind by Howard Kurtz on the CNN show "Reliable Sources." Well, it's an IS IS IS with a vocative "Howie" inserted, but close enough.

In the exchange (which starts at about 5:30 in the video), Kurtz is grilling Suskind about one of the more controversial parts of his new book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President. Suskind quoted former White House communications director Anita Dunn as saying that "this place [the White House] would be in court for a hostile workplace. Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women." But as revealed by the Washington Post, Suskind omitted the key phrase, "if it weren't for the president…" when quoting Dunn.

I've isolated the relevant audio here:

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SUSKIND: So, the, the point of the-
KURTZ: Whether she asked you to or not, taking those six words out really changes the, the impact of what she is saying. Why didn't you as an author give us the full quote so we can make up our minds?
SUSKIND: Well, the fact IS IS Howie IS that with a quote like that, you press the subject, and you say, is this what you really mean?

The official CNN transcript has Suskind saying, "Well, the fact is, Howie, is that with a quote like that, you press the subject." But there are clearly two ISes before the "Howie" and one after it. The transcriber similarly cleans up other bits of the interview, such as Kurtz's doubled "the" in the preceding question ("taking those six words out really changes the, the impact of what she is saying"). We really wouldn't expect the doubled "the" to show up in a news transcript, however, since most listeners would identify it as a momentary disfluency. The transcriber may have felt the same way about the two ISes before "Howie" in Suskind's response. In fact, in his ADS-L post, Jonathan Lighter wondered if Suskind was merely stammering, but said it "didn't sound like a classic stammer." I would agree. But then again, a missing IS in the CNN transcript is still pretty minor compared to the six missing words in Suskind's quote of Dunn.

(See Mark's post for previous Language Log posts and other references on the ISIS phenomenon.)

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13 Comments »

  1. Alexander said,

    September 25, 2011 @ 10:48 pm

    "What what John is is is worthwhile." – F. Roger Higgins (1973, The Pseudo-Cleft Construction in English, PhD dissertation, MIT)

  2. Bekah said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 3:38 am

    How is his brain is processesing those "ises"? I wonder if, in his mind, he formed some sort of nominative phrase ending with "is"… or maybe it IS IS an emphasis tool. :) Very interesting.

  3. Stan said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 3:57 am

    When this was discussed on Language Hat, I linked to a couple of written examples of triple "is". One link has expired but has been archived; I reproduce them here:

    "What it is, is , is a chance for you to experience just what the Australian soldiers experienced…" (beside the photo here)

    "They call it 'shoe-polish', but what it is, is, is a good quality hard-wax paste wax with lots of pigmenting." (final paragraph here)

    Any reports yet of a quadruple "is"?

  4. Tim Silverman said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 5:39 am

    @Stan: those are double ISes. In each case, the first IS is inside a relative clause in the first NP. Only the second two ISes come from doubling.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 6:44 am

    I think the first two ises are syntactic and the third is disfluency prompted by the inserted 'Howie.'

  6. Edith Maxwell said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 7:40 am

    My beau (age 62, from New Jersey, lives in Massachusetts) always uses triple ISes. Without fail.

    @Stan – Wouldn't any written instances be from transcriptions? Does anybody really write "What it is is, is …"?

  7. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 8:07 am

    "The thing is, 'is' is really easy to duplicate by accident".

  8. Nicholas Sanders said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 8:36 am

    Anyone come across "is was"? I heard that on a British radio programme the other night, but it was a podcast and I cannot remember which it was.

  9. ENKI-][ said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    'What is is' is the question asked by the man who is the former president of the united states, which is a state formed of other smaller states.

  10. Andy Averill said,

    September 26, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

    Looks like we're mostly talking about verbatim transcripts, so the best I could do for 4 ises is from some sort of podcast on Slate.com:

    [Robert Wright] I mean there's all … I don't know… in the several cases I'm familiar with it's not the way it has happened let me just say that. I mean is is is is the kind of emerging American Buddhism in some ways a sterilized Buddhism or or or a I mean a perfectly fine Buddhism but just a a different creature from what's going on in the real heartland of Buddhism.

  11. Kris Rhodes said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    I suspect this construction is somehow meaningfully related to the construction "point being is" ("My point being is that people don't work that way.")

  12. maidhc said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 10:25 pm

    I just attended a talk where the speaker was discussing some things he had done years ago, and he several times used the construction "the problem was is …"

  13. un malpaso said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 11:16 pm

    Obviously, what some are saying is "is" is "is." Is it?

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