The double is
Question: “Thank you for attempting to restore a tiny corner of our language culture. I fear that our language is being lost to lazy meatheads. Your column in Current gives me hope.
In the interest of addressing butchered English, I bring to your attention ‘the double is.’ ‘The double is’ most commonly occurs when inartful people flail at beginning a sentence and try to grasp at a parenthetical expression, resulting in, “The thing is is that …” Another frequent variation would be, “What it is is that … ” The combination of the parenthetical expression and the actual sentence results in two sequential ‘is-es.” Other examples abound.
Please consider providing the readers with your thoughts on the ‘double is.’ Thank you.” (Mike Shaver)
Answer: I think you’ve gotten us most of the way there already, Mike, but I’d be happy to elaborate a bit further.
I found a very interesting article published by Cambridge Journals tracking the rise of the “double is,” or “double copula,” out of America in the 1970s and 1980s. The author, Dwight Bolinger, claimed that “is is has slipped past the wardens of correct usage” and was becoming popular at all levels. This, written in 1987, seems to have been a prescient statement.
Getting down to brass tacks, though: The double copula is always nonstandard, and is grammatically incorrect if used following an independent clause.
Let’s look at a quick example of an independent and dependent clause with a double copula. Independent clause: “The truth is, is that I’m tired.” We can clearly see in writing that a double “is” serves no useful purpose in an independent clause. Why this has become a convention for some English speakers, I have no idea.
Now a dependent clause: “What the truth is is that I’m tired.” Here, “what the truth is” forms a dependent clause serving as the subject of the sentence. The clause encapsulates the first “is,” necessitating a second verb. While this is a nonstandard form, the argument could be made that the double copula is used as an intensifier, or parenthetically to refer to a previous statement (Maybe something like, “What is the truth behind going to bed so early?”). It isn’t grammatically incorrect, per se, but it is awkward and can often feel as though a speaker is stumbling through a sentence, as you’ve pointed out.
My advice: Avoid the “double is” unless you’re writing dialogue for a show about organized crime. It does have a certain Tony Soprano feel to it, does it not?