Obama’s “is is” redux

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Betty Ann Bardell tweets:

Last October, in my LL post “Obama’s ‘is is’,” I considered Bryan Garner’s assertion that President Obama is “addicted to ‘is is.'” After going through the transcripts of Obama’s three debates with Romney, I concluded that it was more of a predilection than an addiction. And that predilection was certainly on display at his press conference today.

The first example came in a carefully worded reply to a question about Syria:

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/~bgzimmer/isis030430a.mp3]

What is true, though, is, is that if I can establish, uh, in a way that, uh
not only the United States but also the international community, uh
feel confident is the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime,
then that is a game-changer because what that, uh, portends is potentially even more devastating attacks on civilians
and it, it raises the strong possibility that those chemical weapons can fall into the wrong hands
uh, and get, uh, disseminated, uh, in ways that would threaten U.S. security or the security of our allies.

The second example was in a discussion of the sequester:

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/~bgzimmer/isis030430b.mp3]

What’s clear is, is that the only way we’re going to lift it is if we do a
bigger deal that meets the test of lowering our deficit
and growing our economy, uh, at the same time.
And that’s going to require, uh
some compromises on the part of both Democrats and Republicans.

In both cases, we have a doubled copula following a WH-clause (“what is true,” “what’s clear”). This pattern also occurred in the debates (“what has to happen is, is that…”, “what the American people understand is, is that…”).

The next three examples all came in response to a question on immigration reform and relations with the Mexican government:

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/~bgzimmer/isis030430c.mp3]

The bottom line, though, is, is that they’ve still got to meet those basic criteria.

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/~bgzimmer/isis030430d.mp3]

We’ve made great strides in the coordination and cooperation between our two governments over the last several years
uh, but my suspicion is, is that things can be improved.

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/~bgzimmer/isis030430e.mp3]

But, overall, what I can say is that, uh
my impression is, is that, uh, the new president is serious about reform.
He’s already made some tough decisions.

Note that Obama does not double the copula in all possible contexts: in the last example, he refrains from “is is” after the WH-clause “what I can say,” but then doubles the copula in the embedded clause.

Finally, Betty Ann Bardell notes an unrelated phenomenon, Obama’s use of “as best as they can” in a discussion of Guantanamo Bay detainments:

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/~bgzimmer/asbestas030430.mp3]

Uh, obviously, the Pentagon, uh, is trying to manage the situation as best as they can.
Uh, but I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this?

For discussion of this construction and its history, see Mark Liberman’s Dec. 2005 post, “Asbestos as she can.” Mark was responding to a question from Nathan Bierma, who then wrote a Chicago Tribune column after consulting with several other linguists and usage experts. Bierma concluded:

So is it all right to say “as best as”? The most conscientious users of Standard English will probably try to avoid it, especially because the alternatives — “as well as” or “the best that” — are so simple. But as best as anyone can tell, “as best as” is an acceptable alternative.

And guess which public figure brought the “as best as” construction to Bierma’s attention? None other than Barack Obama, then a senator, who had this to say in a Nov. 2005 appearance on “The Daily Show“: “Most of the folks really are trying to represent their constituencies as best as they know how.”

(The line comes about 5 minutes into the segment.)


  1. The Ridger said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 7:12 pm

    While “as best as” seems odd to me, Bierma’s conclusion (the alternatives — “as well as” or “the best that” — are so simple) is also odd, because my preferred alternatives – at least in speech – are “the best they can” (no “that”) and “as best they can”.

  2. James said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 7:36 pm

    Me too — I can imagine writing “as best as they can”, but I don’t think I would ever say it. (Of course, people aren’t all that reliable reporting what they would say, and I’m sure I’m no exception to that.)

  3. prasad said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 8:02 pm

    My intuitions are the opposite of James’s. I say ‘as best as’ all the time, but don’t think I’d write it. The expression has a very informal flavor to me. And ‘as best’ without the second ‘as’ sounds weird.

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 8:38 pm

    Prasad +1. This feels like an exclusively oral, spontaneous thing to me.

  5. Chris said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 2:45 am

    For Brits of my generation, “as best I can” is standard English, while “as best as I can” sounds horribly wrong. Googling “as best as they can”, I came across this nice comment:
    the language is changing and when my generation is (mercifully) dead, it will be correct to say “Being that I did as best as I could, my failure was not that big of a deal.”

  6. mollymooly said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 4:49 am

    I have always been unsure whether “I’ll do it as best I can” means “I’ll do my best” or “I’ll do it, and better than anyone else could”.

  7. The Ridger said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

    @mollymooly – to me it means “I’ll do my best, but that won’t be very good”

  8. Paul Brians said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 11:16 am

    From my site:

    Unlike asbestos removal, “as best as” removal is easy, and you don’t have to wear a hazmat suit.

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