It is what it is is

When readers write in and ask me to air their peeves in this space, I try to oblige.

What I’ll call the double-is has come up at least twice here—and it bothers me as well—so let’s get it out there.

“The problem is is . . .” “The thing is is that . . .”

I began hearing this about 10 years ago and it’s still going strong.

I even hear, “. . . was is . . .”

Now let’s be careful to not put a false ban on the double-is because there are times when it is correct, such as when the first “is” is part of clause; or when “is,” in quotations, is used as a noun.

Correct:  “What the problem is is a lack of understanding.”
Incorrect: “The problem is is a lack of understanding.”

The first one is correct because “what the problem is” is a clause. Think of it this way:  The clause stands for one word. It is the subject of the sentence, and it just happens that the cause ends with the same word as the verb in the sentence. (I suppose you could insert an illegal comma in between the two, but I wouldn’t recommend it.) 

“The problem is is” is incorrect because “the problem ” is the subject and “is” is the verb. Only one verb is needed.

Somewhere along the way, people began to confuse the two, and started packing and extra “is” either for emergencies or, as is often the case, to sound more intelligent. Listen for it.

Or, if a visual would help, watch this explanation:

Now if we could only get the people we know who do this to read this blog, Sigh.


Filed under All Things Wordish

13 responses to “It is what it is is

  1. Deirdre

    “What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.” Notice that the Captain in Cool Hand Luke did not go for the double is. Just sayin’. Thanks for clearing this one up for us.

  2. Mom

    Finally! You have spoken against that damned Double Is! Let’s even
    call that my Mother’s Day present, OK? Thank you.

  3. Mom

    P.S. Now, if we could have an investigation into how/why the country began using “folks” instead of “people.” Inappropriately, too.

    • I confess I have fallen into this one but, since you first brought it up, I’ve been more restrained. The thing with language errors is is 🙂 they creep up on you. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re falling victim.

  4. Jo

    I can’t believe no one has quoted Bill Clinton!!

  5. Thank you for coming up with a post on the double-is. I’ve all but given up explaining this to people, so now, I’ll just point them to your post instead.

  6. What I’d really like to know about English is its punctuation. Never feel certain about that. And it is not in the textbooks.

  7. Chris Thorndike

    Correct: “What the problem is is a lack of understanding.”
    Incorrect: “The problem is is a lack of understanding.”
    Correct or not the use of “is is” sounds very bad. It’s the result of weak vocabulary or just not thinking of how to phrase something simpler, but a bad habit of starting every explanation with the preface, “What it is,” or “The thing is . . .” In the above example it would be simpler and sound better to say, “The problem is a lack of understanding.” The double “is” being entirely unnecessary. I once sat through a 40 hour seminar in which the instructor described every feature beginning with “What it is is . . .” On the third day of class he finally said, “What it is is is . . .” It had to happen. The triple “is.” He was just setting himself up for it. The double “is” didn’t help his instruction at all. It doesn’t add emphasis as intended, but only distraction, defeating its purpose. You can emphasize your head off and still state it simply, without “What it is is.”

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