More on early “is is”

Background: a posting of mine (“An early “is is”? Probably not”) on the 27th, looking at a 1964 quote (from published fiction) submitted by Jon Lighter to ADS-L:

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

(1) is a quotation from the writer that seems to have Waldron saying:

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

or, possibly,

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

(that is, a spoken sentence like (2a), but with a pause between the two occurrences of is).

JL responded the next day on ADS-L:

1.8 million raw Googlits for “The thing of it is is.”

This is supposed to be evidence about how the sentence from fiction in (1), from over 50 years ago, is to be interpreted: as (2a) — which would be an early example of the vernacular construction Isis, hitherto dated only back to 1971 — or as (2b), an utterly everyday disfluency in speech.

Now to look at the reasoning.

(As before, crucial background comes from a 2/22/07 Language Log posting “Labels Are Not Definitions”. On what Isis is, see the early sections of this handout.)

There was a time before Isis, when there were only two ways to get is immediately followed by is in a sentence: as a disfluency in spoken English (sketched in my previous posting) or in a pseudocleft sentence like What it is is football (adapting an actual example slightly). Isis then arose as a new vernacular construction, an alternative to single-BE constructions. The technical literature on the construction — see the extensive surveys and bibliographies in my Page on the phenomenon — includes proposals for how it arose, as well as discussions of how to separate disfluency examples from Isis examples in speech.

The consensus is that it arose fairly recently and is now widespread. Meanwhile, the relevant sort of disfluency has presumably been around for many centuries — virtually never represented in texts because it’s a phenomenon of speech.

Putting all this together, I judged that (1) was probably a representation in writing of a disfluency (we can’t know for sure, since all of this is in fiction) — a nice early example of a disfluency represented in fiction, in fact, part of the long movement towards representing spoken dialogue more accurately, more realistically, in fiction.

But I carefully said “probably”.  I would have been much more impressed on the Isis side if Peacock had written

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

or

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

or

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

Now for another confounding fact, about all those occurrences on the net of “The thing of it is is”. Alas, an incredibly common typo is the doubling of function words; the occurrence of the the is absolutely astounding, and to to is pretty impressive as well. so lots of is is would be no surprise in rapidly performed, unedited, informal writing on the net. Add to this the fact that writing on the net very often dispenses with commas where they would be called for in careful writing. So many apparent examples can be dismissed.

Still, there surely are plenty of Isis examples in writing these days. But even if there were a million real-Isis  ghits for “The thing of it is is” in print from recent times, that wouldn’t say a  thing about the analysis of examples back in the infancy of Isis.

Addendum. From Larry Horn on ADS-L yesterday:

Too new for Arnold’s bibliography at https://arnoldzwicky.org/linguistics-notes/isis-is-is-double-is/:

Massam, Diane.  2017.  Extra be: The syntax of shared shell-noun constructions in English. Language 93 (1): 121-152.

We have a page on the construction at http://microsyntax.sites.yale.edu/double-is, but it needs updated. [He said, carefully choosing the needs-Ved construction.]

 

 

One Response to “More on early “is is””

  1. Link love: language (69) | Sentence first Says:

    […] The thing is is that ‘is is’ is surprisingly common. […]

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