Obama’s “is is”

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During last night’s presidential debate, usage maven Bryan A. Garner opined on Twitter that “President Obama is addicted to ‘is is.'” Garner also directed Twitter followers to his treatment of “is is” in Garner’s Modern American Usage, where he writes, “Rarely is this form found in writing, even when speech containing it is transcribed. In any event, it isn’t an expression for careful speakers.” But few would characterize Obama (despite his occasional lapses) as a careless speaker, and we do in fact have accurate transcripts of all three presidential debates to test the claim that Obama has an “is is” addiction. So let’s check.

In the first debate, one of Obama’s “is is” uses was not in fact what Michael Shapiro and Michael C. Haley call “the reduplicative copula” in their 2002 article in American Speech — with a “grammatically superfluous” second is, as Garner puts it. Instead, Obama used the “what X is is” construction (known as a WH-cleft or pseudo-cleft), in which the second “is” is not superfluous:

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/~bgzimmer/isis-debate1a.mp3]

Wh-when Governor Romney talks about this board, for example
unelected board that we’ve created
what this is, is a group of health care experts, doctors, et cetera
to figure out how can we
reduce the cost of care in the system overall.

In GMAU, Garner is careful to distinguish the pseudo-cleft “what it is is” from other cases of “is is.” Though he does not brand it ungrammatical, he calls it an “ungainly construction” and counsels that “a better method in many contexts is to avoid the what-construction altogether and make the sentence more direct.”

Ungainly as the construction might be, we won’t count that toward Obama’s “is is” tally. In another part of the debate, however, Obama managed to follow a WH-clause (“what has to happen”) with a doubled copula, so in that case the second “is” was truly extraneous:

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/~bgzimmer/isis-debate1b.mp3]

And if you are going to save any money through
what Governor Romney’s proposing
uh, what has to happen is, is that
the money has to come from somewhere.

In the second debate, as in the first, Obama used “is is” in the grammatically superfluous manner just once:

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/~bgzimmer/isis-debate2.mp3]

Earlier Governor Romney talked about
he wants to make Pell Grants and
uh, other education
uh, accessible for young people.
Well, the truth of the matter is, is that
that’s exactly what we’ve done.

And in the third and final debate last night, Obama did it twice:

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/~bgzimmer/isis-debate3a.mp3]

Governor, the problem is, is that
on a whole range of issues
whether it’s the Middle East
whether it’s Afghanistan
whether it’s Iraq
whether it’s now, uh, Iran
you’ve been all over the map.

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/~bgzimmer/isis-debate3b.mp3]

But what the American people understand is, is that
I look at what we need to get done to keep the American people safe
and to move our interests forward
and I make those decisions.

The last case (“what the American people understand is, is that…”) resembles the first debate’s “what has to happen is, is that…”: a WH-clause followed by a doubled copula. For connoisseurs of the “is is” phenomenon, this construction is particularly interesting, because it conceivably allows for the elusive triple “is”. A triple “is” could have occurred if Obama’s WH-clause had instead ended in “is” (e.g., “What the American people’s understanding is, is, is that…”).

So unless I’ve missed something, that’s a total of four examples of “is is” in three debates (plus one example of the pseudo-cleft “what this is is”). I don’t think that quite qualifies as an addiction — more of a predilection. For a real “is is” addict, see Mark Liberman’s post about Kevin Slavin’s TED talk, “Xtreme Isisism.” (And see links therein for more discussion of the “is is” construction, aka ISIS.)

Update: Looking again at the transcript of last night’s debate, I see I missed two other potential cases of “is is,” which happened to have occurred in consecutive sentences from Obama:

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/~bgzimmer/isis-debate3c.mp3]

And so one of the things that we’ve been doing is, is
for example, organizing entrepreneurship conferences with these Egyptians
to, to give them a sense of how they can start rebuilding their economy
in a way that’s noncorrupt, that’s transparent.
But what is also important for us to understand is, is that
for America to be successful in this region
there are some things that we’re going to have to do here at home as well.

I’m not sure if the first example (“one of the things that we’ve been doing is, is…”) counts, since to my ear it sounds more like a disfluent stammer than the other more clear-cut cases. But the second one does seem to fit the bill, as it occurs in a frame we’ve seen Obama use previously: a WH-clause followed by a doubled copula (“what is also important for us to understand is, is that…”).


  1. NCSmith said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 11:29 am

    It appears to me from these transcriptions (I didn’t watch the debates) that the double “is” is a way for the speaker to pause and organize for the rest of the sentence. Other speakers use other gap-fillers, like “uhhh”, or “you know”, and so on.

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    Yeah, from the transcript these seem like dysfluencies to me rather than fluent ungrammatical utterances. This is exactly the kind of performance phenomenon that makes generativists privilege grammaticality judgments over actual utterance data.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 11:37 am

    I could scarcely believe my ears when I went and listened to Slavin’s TED talk. He isised so often that I almost thought it was a stutter triggered by the occurrence of “is”. But then I noticed, at the bottom of Mark Liberman’s post there, that a lot of work has been done on the etiology of this aberrant speech form. Nonetheless, both with Slavin and Obama, it comes across to me as a kind of stuttering, stalling, or emphasizing technique, albeit probably an unconscious one.

    All of this talk about ISIS makes me think of the ancient Egyptian goddess (“[She of the] Throne”) and the journal of that name focusing on the history of science, medicine and technology. Come to think of it, isising is a kind of ex cathedra utterance.

    [(myl) This construction has been known as “Isis” for many years — see e.g. here for a handout by Arnold Zwicky for a 2003 IsisFest. ]

    N.B.: I wrote this before I read NCSmith’s comment, but I see that we are in agreement on at least one aspect of the causality or function of isising

  4. Nicholas EGF Berry said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

    I live in Michigan, and everyone I know here uses the reduplicative copula – I even hear “… was is …”.

  5. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

    FWIW, a colleague adapts the “is is” construction to “reason being” to produce statements like “The reason being is we don’t have the funds.” I feel certain he believes “reason-being” to be be a noun phrase meaning, simply, “reason.” But it always makes me cringe when I hear it.

  6. Edward Vanderpump said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

    I’m relieved that I can stop worrying about it now that such an admirable speaker as President Obama uses double is so consistently. But does he also write it? The spoken form can be taken, as NCSmith said, as a pause in order to organise. But in writing? I first worried about it, I think, when President George W. Bush used it, but I don’t suppose he started it, did he? (Any record of his father using it?) I thought then that if the verb to be can go wrong, then native-speaker grammar is going haywire, but that maybe it was a one-off “Bushism”. Then it appeared in the UK – first occurrence I remember was J. McEnroe on British TV, commentating: “The problem with his serve is is the throw up”. Would that have been early 90s? Anyway, I can relax now and even recommend it and use it myself. I’m going to be pushing “The reason being is / was …” Now that’s a real addition to the English language.

  7. Edward Vanderpump said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

    I was getting confused, just by the verb “to be” in my previous comment. I was first really worried by it, I think, when the most powerful man in the world used it. I had noticed it before, mostly Americans or people who had been to the US (and perhaps wanted you to know it), maybe in the 90s in the UK, McEnroe doing Wimbledon commentary and so on. Would that be right?Anyway, Merriam-Webster editors use it now so I am perfectly relaxed about it.

  8. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 1:49 pm

    Me thinks we should summon up the wisdom of the poster boy of the “is is” ‘conjunction’, namely former President Bill Clinton.

    As many recall from his lurid impeachment hearings during the testimony-for-the-defense phase, Clinton became the master of the parsing art, at one point arguing, “Well that really depends on what the definition of is is.” (Or words to that effect.)

    Not exactly the exact same language quirk exhibited by messieurs Obama and Slavin of TED fame, but perhaps relevant to the conversation, nonetheless. (I’m sure you’ll let me know if it isn’t.)

    [(myl) You’re right: it isn’t.]

    @Edward V.

    “You can’t be serious!”. Just mimicking how commentator John McEnroe may have responded to your pointing out his double “is” snafu. (I’m just pulling your chain here. I trust you heard his on-air “is is” correctly.)

    By the by, IMHO, the former bad-boy of pro tennis has matured into one of the best, most entertaining, and witty sports analysts / commentators on TV today. He CAN be serious on-air, but he’s at his best when his NYC-bred, Irish-American feistiness, and humor comes to the fore.

  9. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

    @Mr. Zimmer,

    I get it…. and I ‘GOT’ it. Enough said.

  10. Katje said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

    Am I suffering from the recency illusion, or has isisism become more pervasive? Maybe it just seems that way to me because I work with some people who seemingly picked it up from a former higher-up of theirs. When the person who apparently influenced them left our company, I was kind of hoping he’d take is-is with him, but it stayed behind.

  11. Danny said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

    NCSmith, my feeling is that it’s a more deliberately rhetorical device than an “um” or “you know”, much closer to “the point being:”. In other words, it’s organising his thoughts *for his audience* at least as much as for himself.

    Although possibly in some instances it’s a device that has become a tic, I don’t get the impression that he’d be unable to stop if he didn’t find it useful.

  12. Arnold Zwicky said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 5:35 pm

    More extensive discussion of Isis and a collection of related phenomena, with bibliography, a bit of history, and some consideration of dysfluencies, in a detailed handout for my paper “Extris, extris” at the 2007 Stanford SemFest, here.

  13. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 23, 2012 @ 8:44 pm

    So how do these constructions get named, anyway? At what point in the process of description do the linguists who work on these things feed the need to assign a name? Is there generally universal agreement about what these names refer to, in the way that there is for biological nomenclature?

  14. robert said,

    October 24, 2012 @ 5:05 am

    Offhand, I’d expect English speaker to try to avoid saying the same word twice in a row, which makes using ‘is’ as verbal filler surprising. On top of this, using actual words as verbal filler makes it harder for the listener to ignore them – since they first have to decide whether they’re part of the sentence – so I would expect using ‘is’ like this to be doubly disfavoured.

    What is the relative frequency of the various forms of monosyllable verbal filler? (Only monosyllabic because Content-free phrases, like ‘the fact is that’, seem like a different, though related, phenomenon.)

    For that matter, how strongly do people avoid doubling words up? I had a quick look at the google ngram for “what that is is” ,”what that was is”, “what that does is”, “what that did is”, which shows substantial periods when the doubled version was more common,.

  15. Bob Lieblich said,

    October 24, 2012 @ 8:29 am

    One that I’ve noticed over the past quarter century or so is “feel like” as a quasi verb phrase, as in “I feel like that we’ve done everything we need to.” I haven’t researched it, but in my experience it’s particularly common among Southern Americans. The “that” is a necessary part of the locution, and it obviously assumes the allowability of “like” as a conjunction (which is fine with me).

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 24, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

    @Mr Fnortner: “The reason being is” is not terribly uncommon in my experience. I hear it the way you do.

    @Bob Lieblich: Always good to see you. I wonder whether that construction is actually an attempt to avoid using “like” as a conjunction.

  17. Edward Vanderpump said,

    October 26, 2012 @ 6:20 am

    Bill Clinton was, as you say, Alex, doing something different and perhaps encouraging intelligent debate on the verb to be, what is is. Hope “what it is is” doesn’t get stogmatised or hypercorrected. I’m reminded of the much maligned “known vs unknown unknowns”, perhaps the most intelligent thing that particular director of the war against terror ever said.

  18. Edward Vanderpump said,

    October 26, 2012 @ 6:21 am

    “Stogmatised” a new coining of mine, a sort of portmanteau suggesting stigmatised by dogma.

  19. Edward Vanderpump said,

    October 26, 2012 @ 6:27 am

    The examples Robert gives are what I would call (or would call if I wasn’t scared of being called a prescriptivist) “uses previously considered correct”, or just standard English, as in “What it is is an example of …”, where “What it is” is the subject of the main verb is. With me?

  20. Eneri Rose said,

    October 26, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    I laughed when President Obama said:
    “Governor, the problem is, is that
    on a whole range of issues
    whether it’s the Middle East
    whether it’s Afghanistan
    whether it’s Iraq
    whether it’s now, uh, Iran
    you’ve been all over the map.”

    Foreign policy is inherently all over the map.

  21. ben said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 2:02 am

    Offhand, I’d expect English speaker to try to avoid saying the same word twice in a row, which makes using ‘is’ as verbal filler surprising.

    No one does this on purpose. It’s just an error born of spending time with people who speak English carelessly. It started with, “The thing is, is that….”, and now people like Obama seem to say it constantly.

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