Language Rules

Definately Fixing Alot Of Americas Grammar 1 Word At A Thyme

The Thing Is That It’s Wrong

with 5 comments

Quick: How many times in the last 23 seconds have you heard someone say, “The thing is is that…” 489? Me too. What the hell does that even mean?

After thinking about it for quite a while, I can’t quite come up with why that extra “is” got there in the first place, but I’m certain that it’s continued to be used purely by convention. I suspect it initially arose as an incorrectly used variation of grammatically-correct sentences such as:

  • How correct this is is clear to see.
  • What the rule is is not as clear.

In each of these examples, the phrases before the second “is” are treated as if they were nouns — noun phrases that happen to end with “is.” (I know there’s some other term for “noun phrase” that I can’t remember off the top of my head, so I’m sticking with it for now.) The “is” within the noun phrase is part of the collective noun and does not function as the verb of the sentence; therefore, another verb, such as “is,” is needed. It happens by coincidence that the last word of the verb phrase and the verb that follows are both the same word. The same thing can also be seen in these examples using different verbs, although they likely don’t come up as often:

  • What the problem was was not clear, but now it may be.
  • Just how unclear it was was itself unclear.

Theoretically, this can be replicated with any verb.

The problem here arises because a phrase like “The thing is…” isn’t able to function as a standalone noun phrase. Rather, “The thing is…” taken as a whole is the noun and the verb all in one package. No extra verb needed, and certainly not the same one twice in a row. Two sentences like

  • The thing is big.
  • The thing is that I am confusing the hell out of you right now.

have identical sentence structures in which “big” and “that I am confusing the hell out of you” are analogous components. Most people would not be compelled to say “The thing is is big,” and the same should go for the latter example, too.

It may be much more clear to see when sentences are rearranged. One of the above examples can be arranged as follows:

  • How correct this is is clear to see.
  • It is clear to see how correct this is.

In this instance, we can immediately tell that “how correct this is” in this case is a complete noun phrase able to stand on its own. When we try to reconstruct an example of an incorrect sentence using “The thing is is…” in exactly the same way, we get this:

  • The thing is is that this is incorrect.
  • It is that this is incorrect the thing is.

Most folks should be able to tell that the second sentence is totally jacked, which immediately tells us that the first sentence, merely a rearrangement of the words, must be incorrect as well, even though it sounds slightly better.

Note: I came across this post discussing the same issue, the terminology of which I don’t entirely understand, that might be worth a read.

Written by benferguson

2006 Sep 1 at 13:13

Posted in grammar

5 Responses

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  1. The thing is: Language written and language spoken are often entirely different animals. Generally (I think), people speak in ‘shorthand’, both verbally and textually (GEEZ, is that a word?) I’m referring to those who are addicted to text messaging, and shorthand terms like TTYL, TTYS, F2F, etc.

    OK, my train of thought has left me at the station. Guess I’ll just wait for the next one….



    2006 Sep 1 at 14:52

  2. Congratulations on your website. I think you can explain the “is is” sequence without resorting to much grammar.

    You can tell that the following sentence is correct, because other sentences can be created by replacing the second “is” with another verb.

    Who he is is not clear.
    Who he is matters very little.

    But “is is that” has no analogies:

    The reason is is that we’re better than they are.
    * The reason is matters [that?] very little.

    Thomas Eccardt

    2006 Sep 8 at 10:00

  3. […] (Here’s another page about this same phenomenon.) […]

  4. Bob Dobolina

    2009 Sep 3 at 18:42

  5. The question is is, is is ever correct when preceded by another is.

    Kirk Hallinan

    2017 Apr 19 at 09:33

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