An early “is is”? Probably not.

Jon Lighter on ADS-L yesterday, offering “An early “is is”:

1964 Jere Peacock To Drill and Die  (N.Y.: Bantam) 257:

[(1)] “The thing of it is,” Waldron said … “is that this order was set up for you personally.”

The earliest example of Isis on record up to this point is from Dwight Bolinger in 1971 (details in a 2007 handout of mine, “Extris, extris”); 1964 would be an antedating, but not a remarkable one. Still, I’m dubious that  (1) is a report of Waldron saying:

(2) The thing of it is is that this order was set up for you personally.

More likely it’s a report of:

(3) The thing of it is, …is that this order was set up for you personally.

The crucial background: from a 2/22/07 Language Log posting “Labels Are Not Definitions”;

Early on in our investigations of the phenomenon, the Stanford/Colorado research group began to use the label Isis or ISIS (pronounced /ájsɪs/), just to get away from the possibly misleading “is is” etc. stuff. The label is suggestive, but doesn’t look like a characterization or description of the phenomenon. (This tactic doesn’t always work, but we still think it’s better than the alternatives.)

In any case, people come to us with examples of both of the types we try so carefully to exclude.

The kind of disfluency that can get confused with genuine Isis is a repetition disfluency: speakers, in the heat of speech production, pause and repeat some material while they’re groping for how to formulate what they want to say next.  Usually these repetitions are of “little words”, like the, a, infinitival to, personal pronouns, and, yes, forms of the verb BE.  The article the is an especially frequent target of repetition disfluency; if you look at carefully transcribed natural speech, you’ll see an awful lot of occurrences of “the, the”.  These are inadvertent repetitions, not part of the speaker’s system of English syntax.

… [And then there are] just ordinary pseudocleft sentences in which the subject clause happens to end in a form of BE, which is then, of course, followed by a form of BE that belongs to the main clause (it’s part of the construction).  [for example, “What it was, was football”]

… If you take the name “double be” to be not just a label, but actually a definition, you’ll be tempted into seeing repetition disfluencies and entirely standard pseudocleft sentences to be instances of the phenomenon. But, to hammer it home again: Labels Are Not Definitions (Or Descriptions)

In (3) we’ve got a speaker who pauses on is — groping for words, momentarily losing attention, getting interrupted, reconsidering how to frame the idea, whatever — and then presses on, but re-starts the VP, rather than just letting the unaccented is dangle at the end of the initial material.

The point of the “little words” stuff is that right after a function word comes a decision point in framing a continuation, with a great many possibilities vying for attention, so this is a natural pause point. But then there’s the unaccented function word to deal with. So we get the function word, the pause, and then the function word repeated in a re-start.



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