Isis (& Wasis) rising

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"Cartoonist On Sikh Superhero Who Fights Prejudice", Tell Me More (NPR) 11/23/2012:

If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I am Celeste Headlee. I'm speaking with Sikh comic artist Vish Singh.

The problem was is that you wrote this op-ed in which you were talking about tolerance and trying to find a way to make people maybe more aware and more tolerant, and the response was negative.

Language Hat took special note of the preterite form of Isis a few years ago ("Is is, was is", 10/21/2009), and we've discussed Isis and Wasis here from time to time:

"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
"Xtreme Isisism", 8/13/2011
"The elusive triple 'is'", 9/25/2011
"Obama's 'is is'",  10/23/2012

As we've noted, there are three stories that can be told about various instances of this kind:

  1. They're mistakes in speech production, such as repetition disfluencies.
  2. They're mistakes in sentence planning.
  3. They're some kind of new construction.

Ideas about sentence-planning errors focus mainly on merging correct sentences of the form

The problem is (that) S

with other correct sentences of the form

What the problem is, is (that) S

or

The problem is, QUESTION (where QUESTION has the form "is … ?")

Stories (1) and (2) are certainly sometimes true, and were surely involved in the birth of  Isis. But Isis and its ilk are too common in otherwise fluent and carefully-phrased speech to be merely performance errors. Also, as you'll see in the comments on Language Hat's post, there are plenty of people who say things like "It just feels right. I don't know why", or "There's nothing wrong with it (because) I might easily use it."

If you explore the links given above, you'll find that there are several different hypotheses about how English grammar might have changed to allow Isis and Wasis into the pantheon of grammaticality. The simplest (or anyway least abstract) idea is just that some people have added the skeleton of this construction to the list of Things You Can Do In English. But there are more subtle theories as as well, for example that the second is is really some kind of complementizer. (See these 2004 slides by Patrick McConvell for an early overview.)

Anyhow, NPR is a good source for examples that tend to suggest hypothesis (3) —  a search for {site:npr.org "thing|problem is is"} turns up 101 examples, and a search for {site:npr.org "thing|problem was is"} turns up 15.

Here's another case, from "'Hot Dog' Meets 'Bun': Famous Food Discoveries", Weekend Edition Sunday 4/29/2012, where David Greene is interviewing Josh Chetwynd, the author of How the Hot Dog Found Its Bun: Accidental Discoveries and Unexpected Inspirations That Shape What We Eat and Drink:

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The best story comes out of St. Louis in the 1880s, and there was a- a  street vendor who was selling – at the time they weren't called hot dogs, they were called either red hots or frankfurters – and while selling them he would give out white gloves, because when someone would buy the red hot, they wouldn't want get their hands scalded or wouldn't want to get too uh greasy. The problem was is that a lot of the patrons were running off with the gloves, and this was really hurting his bottom line.

The critical phrase by itself:

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The problem was is
that a lot of the patrons were running off with the gloves
and this was really hurting his bottom line.



8 Comments

  1. Keith M Ellis said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 9:37 am

    I don't know how to discuss this in proper terminology, so please give me a bit of leeway. But it seems to me that the particular construction "the problem was is…" is intended to represent some kind of subtle information about time. Specifically, the speaker is discussing the "problem" as something timeless, something that is of interest and exists in the abstract in the present, while situating its particular instantiation in the past.

    This might have some bearing on isis, I'm not sure. My intuition is that each verb is a subtly different reference.

  2. Matt G said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

    Since I heard about these "isis" constructions some months ago, I've paid attention to them more in my speech and that of others. I think I don't use the "is is" construction exactly as shown here that often or at all, but I find that I use constructions like "That's the thing is that …" all the time, and it sounds perfectly natural to me, and maybe even wrong without the "extra" "is". In my idiolect, if you don't repeat the "that," you also can't repeat the "is" (e.g., "That's the thing; I don't like potatoes"; ?"That's the thing is I don't like potatoes"). But if you do repeat the "that", you must also repeat the "is" (e.g., "That's the thing is that I don't like potatoes"; *"That's the thing that I don't like potatoes"). It seems to me like some sort of emphasis or focus.

  3. A Reader said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

    Your title is oddly timely – the Isis river (as the Thames is known as it flows through Oxford) is at this very moment in fact rising quite dramatically in the largest flood since 2007.

  4. Aaron Toivo said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

    Another possible contributing factor is our ability in conversational English to drop certain species of unstressed words from sentence-initial position. Wherever things like subject pronouns or articles can be easily inferred, they may be left out: "(I) Went downtown today, and guess what I saw?", say, or "(what) The hell's going on here?" Multi-word deletions are possible too: "((with) the) Way things have been going, I'll be out of a job before long."

    So, rather than error, a similar dropping of "what the" could be a source of many of the "The problem is is …" type examples.

  5. Steve Tripp said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

    I can't document this but I have a strong feeling that I have heard "Isisis .
    "The problem is is, is that …"
    Anyone heard that?

    [(myl) Yes -- "The elusive triple is", 9/25/2011.]

  6. Bobbie said,

    November 25, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

    Why is this written as "ISIS" or " WASIS" rather than IS-IS or WAS-IS?

  7. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 26, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    Extended discussion of Isis and related constructions in this conference handout of mine.

  8. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 26, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    URL for the handout here.

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