LINGUIST List 15.427

Mon Feb 2 2004

Sum: English Double Copula

Editor for this issue: Steve Moran <>


  1. Patrick McConvell, English double copula, new extension: summary

Message 1: English double copula, new extension: summary

Date: Mon, 02 Feb 2004 13:05:11 +1100
From: Patrick McConvell <>
Subject: English double copula, new extension: summary

I posted a query on LINGUIST (Linguist 15.150) on 13 January 2004
asking if anyone had heard a double copula used in a sentence like

'The headline is is kinda cute'

This is a sentence which I heard on Canberra radio recently. I
surmised that this is an extension of the double-be construction,which
is found in more restricted contexts ('the thing is is
that...[clause]' etc (McConvell 1988, Tuggy 1996, Massam 1999), to
general use in copular sentences.

I received messages from William Fletcher, Clyde Hankey, Joseph
Hilferty, David Lee and Kim Schulte, and also entered into discussion
with Sebastian Ross-Hagebaum (Rice U.) and Laura Michaelis (Colorado
U.) as a result of seeing a paper on the upcoming Berkeley Linguistic
Society program on the related construction of the type 'that's the
thing is that [clause]' (Ross-Hagebaum 2004 cf. also Brenier &
Michaelis 2004 , also discussed in McConvell 1988).

Nobody reported having heard this new extension personally or heard
tell of it, but I was assisted by David Lee (U. Michigan) and Bill
Fletcher (US Naval Academy) to look at the two English speech corpora
(viewed via Bill's front-end )
(British) respectively. Both of these have, as well as the 'classic'
'the thing is is that' type, lower but apparently significant numbers
of the new extension type, perhaps mostly among younger speakers. The
MICASE corpus has examples of be-be-predicate NP and well as
be-be-predicate adjective e.g.

'Crime policy is is a very political and emotional issue' Junior
Faculty male 24-30

These examples need to be checked to make sure they are not hesitation
repetition, but David Lee assures me that the transcribers of MICASE
were trained to distinguish the true double copula from
hesitation/repair. The two phenomena are audibly quite different, and
some features are mentioned in my 1988 article, but a good phonetic
study and some standard recommendations for transcription would be

Depending on how reliable corpora are in correctly distinguishing the
true double-be's, it might be possible to trace the diffusion of both
the initial 'classic' form, and other extensions including this most
radical one, using the data from corpora and some form of Labovian
variationism. I hope to discuss this in a paper to the Australian
Linguistic Society conference in Sydney in July this year.

Most other comments received concerned the syntactic analysis of the
'classic' double-be and the 'that's the thing is that [clause]'
construction which I regard as another extension of classic double-be.
In line with a suggestion made in McConvell (1988) a number of people
are exploring the relevance of construction grammar to this phenomenon
(e.g.Hilferty 2003), and the disjunction between information
structure/prosody and syntactic structure which seems to lie behind
the emergence of it. Kim Schulte (U. Exeter) suggested that the
second 'is' in 'is-is' may be merging with the third singular present
-(e)s . I don't think this is happening yet, and there are still
plenty of double-be's which are not 'is-is' (was-was, was-is etc)
although whether this is true of the new extension has yet to be
checked. The thing is, though, (is) once the genie is out of the lamp
it's hard to put him back, and he starts to cause further changes, as
this new extension seems to show.


Brenier, Jason and Laura Michaelis. 2004. Prosodic optimization via
copula doubling in English. Paper at LSA conference, Boston.

Hilferty, Joseph .2003. In Defense of Grammatical constructions.
Doctoral dissertation. University of Barcelona

McConvell, Patrick. 1988. To be or double be: current change in the
English copula. Australian Journal of Linguistics 8.2:287-305.

Massam, Diane. 1999. Thing Is Constructions: The Thing Is, Is What's
the Right Analysis? English Language and Linguistics 3: 335-352.

Ross-Hagebaum, Sebastian 2004. "And that's my big area of interest in
linguistics is discourse" - The forms and functions of the English
that's X is Y-construction.Paper to BLS 2004.

Tuggy, David. 1996. The Thing Is Is That People Talk That Way. The
Question Is Is Why? In: Eugene H. Casad (ed.), Cognitive Linguistics
in the Redwoods: The Expansion of a New Paradigm in Linguistics,
713-752. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Dr. Patrick McConvell
Research Fellow, Language & Society
GPO Box 553
Canberra ACT 2601
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