LINGUIST List 3.56

Wed 22 Jan 1992

Disc: Is is

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , Double copula
  2. Nancy L. Dray, Is is (3.44)
  3. Steve Harlow, RE: 3.44 Is, is

Message 1: Double copula

Date: Mon, 20 Jan 1992 15:16:35 Double copula
Subject: Double copula

Having just returned from North Queensland with Linguist turned off,
David Nash in Canberra (who sent in a reference to my paper in the
Australian Journal of Linguistics) has just updated me on discussion
of is-is etc. Trust me to be off Linguist just when one of my interests
comes up.

My paper has a lot of examples of Australian double copulas and a few
from American films dating back to the early seventies. This includes
quite a lot of tense mismatch (was is) types as well as tense agreeing
types (was was); and a section on "is that..." following main clauses,
not NP subjects (e.g. I made the point once before, is that ...) - all
types mentioned by Nancy Dray and others I think. I hypothesised that
double copulas preceded and laid the ground for the latter type. I'm
not so sure of this now - it would surely be an empirically testable

I wrote the paper before I found out about Bolinger's work, but we did
correspond about it afterwards. We agreed on some main points of analysis
e.g. that we are dealing with some kind of blend. Bolinger says that
Charles Darwin wrote one of these back about 1850; I haven't checked it
to see if a clerical error may be an alternative explanation. I think
Bolinger may have felt this is one of those things in English grammar
that has been around for some time but becomes virulent and widespread
at certain periods (like now).

I don't accept the confident asserions that the NP be in double copula
constructions is derived in some way from a pseudo-cleft type subject NP
with a copula. The blend has more to do with the two kinds of intonational
realisations of "NP be that clause" - one with high tone copula (usually
fall-rise) and one with low tone copula following high fall-rise on the
subject NP. In the former case, there is a discrepancy between the intonational
and syntactic boundaries, and this in some way causes the blend (with
both types of copula - high and low) to appear.

One point I make in the paper is that the distribution of double copulas
exactly parallels the distribution of cases of non-contraction/non-deletion
of copula in Labov's classic study of Black English copula in Language 1969.
Explanation of this phenomenon would certainly throw some light on double
copula, but I'm not sure if the usual syntactic explanations of non-contraction
cover this case: again intonation must be considered.

I am glad that a number of people are interested in this phenomenon, and
seriously collecting data - when I raised this before on Linguist, a year
or so ago, it evoked little response. It is a case where we can study
syntactic change before our very ears. It is also quite challenging for
linguistic theory - how could we formulate English phrase structure if
this becomes more than just a so-called "performance error" ? Or is there
someone out there who would like to claim that it could never become
categorical for any group of English speakers?

Patrick McConvell, Anthropology, Northern Territory University
PO Box 40146, Casuarina, NT 0811, Australia
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Message 2: Is is (3.44)

Date: Tue, 21 Jan 92 22:34:37 CSIs is (3.44)
From: Nancy L. Dray <>
Subject: Is is (3.44)

Follow-up to my note in Linguist 3.44:
It appears I was too hasty in predicting that "is was" would be
unlikely to occur. Although some factors on which I was focusing
at the time seemed to predict this, I have since learned (from
other people's postings) that "is was" is attested, and, rethinking
this question, I see that other factors could make "is was" possible,
even expected, in certain discourse contexts (I have to get a copy of
Tuggy's paper to see if these are the same factors that he is
considering in predicting "is was" but not "was is"). I would
appreciate receiving additional "is was" examples, if
you-all/guys happen to come across any, so I can try to tease apart
the various possibly relevant factors alluded to above (among them
the possible neutrality of the second "is" with respect to tense, the
frozenness of certain introducers, and the different roles of the
first and second parts in relation to the discourse).

One more afterthought: People have mentioned that "The thing is is"
could be related to/derive from "What the thing is is...". I have found
myself wondering also about a different possible association, viz.,
"The thing that is, is...". For the moment I'll be completely agnostic
about whether and how this might be related (I'm not convinced that
it is), but I throw it into the ring for others to ponder.

Thanks for the responses.


P.S. My colleague Sotaro Kita, just passing by, wonders whether
you can get a plural as the first or second verb in this construction.
E.g., "The difficulties are, are..." or "The difficulties would be,
are..."? Any ideas/data? Thanks.
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Message 3: RE: 3.44 Is, is

Date: Tue, 21 Jan 92 17:13 GMT RE: 3.44 Is, is
From: Steve Harlow <>
Subject: RE: 3.44 Is, is

 1) "Is is" occurs in many places in the U.S., and in that sense it is
 not regional (Philadelphia, Michigan, California, N.Y., D.C., N.C.,
 Kansas City, Colorado, Boston, state of Washington,...).

It is also widespread in the UK. My ex-wife is an inveterate "is is" speaker and
I have a colleague who is pretty nifty with it too (and she's not even a native
speaker of English).

Here is an example produced by John Humpries on the BBC 'Today' programme a
couple of days ago:

"The problem seems to be is that ...."

Steve Harlow
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