A sentence is the subject is what's happening

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Today's Frazz:


  1. Tom Saylor said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 6:56 am

    If you just wrap the sentence in quotation marks, all is well:

    "This is a great big smile" is my official story.

    The NP my official story naturally refers to a linguistic entity. That approach doesn't work with the predicate is what's happening because what's happening doesn't (ordinarily) refer to a linguistic entity.

  2. Adam Roberts said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 7:23 am

    I've several times heard 'x, is what it is' formations in reply to the question 'what is it?' For example: 'What's that on your tie?' 'It's an Escher pattern, is what it is.'

  3. Thorin said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 10:11 am

    I've used that type of formation around people from England to South Carolina, and Louisiana to Oregon, and I've been told it sounds weird. It led me to think at one point that it could just be a Michigan/Midwest thing, since I'm from Grand Rapids. And now I come to find out the author of this comic is from Lansing and worked as a journalist in Grand Rapids.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    Some people object to the grammar of some things I say. I often use sentences as subjects, is the problem. (I'm from Cleveland.)

  5. empty said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

    A stickler might ask for an added "that" to convert the thing into a NP. ("That this is a great big smile is my official story.") Come to think of it, the same stickler might ask for the same sort of modification of the two direct objects of "tells". ("… tells me that you rode …", "tells me that you had …")

  6. David Morris said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 5:59 pm

    "My official story is this is a great big smile" is fine (for me), and copula sentences of this type can usually be switched around. I would probably add 'that' in that.

    And any comment about the comma?

  7. Meirav M. (Berale) said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 6:00 pm

    I agree that's what's happening – a sentence being used as a subject in another sentence – but do people really talk like this? I'd expect him to say:

    "This is a great big smile – that's my official story."

  8. John Swindle said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 6:43 pm

    It's a very helpful comma, is what it is.

  9. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 8:15 pm

    This usage seems very Pynchonian to me. The only one I can find currently is:

    But a hardon, that's either there, or it isn't. Binary, elegant. The job of observing it can even be done by a student.
    Unconditioned stimulus = stroking penis with antiseptic cotton swab.
    Unconditioned response = hardon.
    Conditioned stimulus = x.
    Conditioned response = hardon whenever x is present, stroking is no longer necessary, all you need is that x.
    Uh, x? well, what's x? Why, it's the famous "Mystery Stimulus" that's fascinated generations of behavioral-psychology students, is what it is.

    GR p84

  10. Usually Dainichi said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 3:03 am

    @Tom Saylor said: If you just wrap the sentence in quotation marks, all is well

    Yes, but I don't think this is just missing quotation marks. Which of the following can "his official story is that he shot the sheriff" be expressed as?

    1. I shot the sheriff, is his official story.
    2. He shot the sheriff, is his official story.

    I'm not a native English speaker, so I can't quite tell, but I suspect 2 is grammatical (for people where the original sentence under discussion is grammatical), so that cannot be direct quotation. Some kind of indirect quotation, maybe.

    @Adam Roberts: 'It's an Escher pattern, is what it is.'

    Not sure that this is the same phenomenon. At least this is almost definitely not a case of a sentence as a subject. If "It's an Escher pattern" were indeed the subject of this inverted pseudo-cleft, we should be able to transform it to "it is 'it's an Escher pattern'", which seems suspect.

  11. Sandy Nicholson said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 5:23 am

    @Usually Dainichi: Surely if ‘It’s an Escher pattern, is what it is’ is an inverted pseudocleft (which it surely is), then the corresponding (non-inverted) pseudocleft (which is acceptable for me) is ‘What it is, is it’s an Escher pattern’.

    What this seems to have in common with the original ‘This is a great big smile, is my official story’ (or its inverse, ‘My official story is, this is a great big smile’) is that both patterns, unlike ordinary it-clefts, for instance, have on one side of the copula a (possibly elliptical) answer to an implied question on the other side of the copula. It’s not clear to me what conditions license this kind of copular construction in general, though. Question–answer structures are involved somehow, is my tentative explanation.

  12. Sili said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 9:51 am

    I guess this belongs in the attachment ambiguity post, but I'll categorise it under the comics:

    "[W]e're sending you back in time to kill Hitler as a baby."

  13. Meirav M. (Berale) said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 9:55 am

    1. I take back my comment that people don't talk like that – someone from North Carolina has just told me that where she lives, it's very normal usage. Often the ending would be "is the thing", e.g.
    He wasn't being rude when he declined our invitation. He'd already eaten, is the thing.

    which strikes me as an alternative phrasing to "that's the thing" – so the "that" is omitted.

    2. I think @Usually Dainichi makes a good point about the sentence-acting-as-subject not always being a quotation, so quotation marks won't always work. My inner pedant really wants quotation marks to work for this, but since this seems very casual usage in informal speech, I think it makes sense that the punctuation is a bit casual and informal.

  14. Sandy Nicholson said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 10:10 am

    The funny thing is, while I was away from my desk I thought of this very construction as possibly being another one of those question–answer uses of the copula. But @Meirav M. (Berale) beat me to it, is the thing. (OK, I wouldn’t normally say or write a sentence like that second one, but I don’t have a big problem with it – and my first sentence is perfectly ordinary, I think.)

  15. Scott said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 1:17 pm

    I'm from Michigan as well, and this kind of expression is common. A lot of the time the tag part is pretty redundant:

    "It's a great big smile, is what it is."
    "I would ride a bike, is what I would do."

  16. JS said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

    In Hawaii they say "[sentence] that's why" — maybe first a feature of Hawaiian Creole English?

  17. Viseguy said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 6:19 pm

    I had a colleague who used to say, "So the question becomes, is [state new question here]". I always had trouble parsing it. I had a strong sense that "is" was not meant to be simply in apposition with "becomes". It's not quite sentence-as-subject as in the Frazz comic, but it may be an idiosyncratic variation on it.

  18. David Morris said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 7:07 am

    @John: Thank you, is my only response.

  19. Bloix said,

    March 22, 2016 @ 8:52 am

    The current edition of the Haverford College alumni magazine has an article about an alum who is teaching in an urban middle school. A student is quoted as saying:
    "Him thinking we are up to the challenge makes us believe that we are."
    This seems perfectly grammatical to me, but I can't figure out why.

  20. David N. Evans said,

    March 22, 2016 @ 9:06 pm

    A sentence is the subject, is what's happening, is what they said.

  21. Bloix said,

    March 23, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

    Maybe the student said,
    "He thinks we are up to the challenge, is what makes us believe that we are."
    And the editor tidied it up.
    The way it's quoted seems awfully grown up to me.

  22. Nathan Myers said,

    March 27, 2016 @ 1:07 pm

    Is the subject of this sentence is the subject of this sentence.

    Cf. "Quining"

    In Hawaii they say "ass why", but it probably means "that's why".

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