Tuesday, May 24, 2005

English Usages

editor's note: Kathy is taking the day off.

It's me, Sheff's special friend, again. What up, dudes? Last time I guest-blogged, I got flack for being too academic, so today I'm gonna try a whole nother thing. But the thing is, is I just can't fight my nature.

According to Fowler's Modern English Usage, 3rd ed., the remarkable 'double is' ("the thing is, is that...,") was first noticed in American English in 1971. Various theories have been advanced to explain its origin, but one good one has to do with different uses of the word 'is' and the confusion resulting from certain ambiguous contexts, such as the 'garden path sentence.' These are sentences that lead you in one direction grammatically, then end up somewhere else. For example, the perfectly grammatical but confusing sentence: "The man who hunts ducks out on weekends." When I say something like, "you know what's funny is my hair looks like Phil Specter's," you might hear a comma after 'funny' instead of after 'know,' which makes the sentence ungrammatical and changes the function of the word 'is' (it becomes a focus particle instead of a copula).

I love the phrase 'a whole nother' because it is one of the rare examples in English of tmesis. Tmesis is the splitting up of the parts of a compound word; it is common in Greek poetry, where it is usually employed to meet metrical constraints. Other examples of tmesis in English are 'abso-fucking-lutely' and 'in-fucking-credible.'

18 Added Something:

Blogger Dirty Dan Sin quipped...

Here's one for you. How do you feel when you are standing in line and the person behind the counter yells, "I can help who's next!"

Tuesday, May 24, 2005 10:17:00 AM  
Anonymous supermosca quipped...

All I have to say is abso-fucking-credible. Doesn't really work, I know.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005 10:28:00 AM  
Anonymous busyMonster quipped...

i think more should be said about the incredible double "is". i've always been fascinated by it.
i think of it sort of thusly: you want a dramatic pause to strengthen your statement. but where to put it? if you say "the thing..." the listener may start to wonder whether you are starting a sentance about the john carpenter movie or the fantastic 4 member. whereas if you say "the thing is..." they know that that is code for "the following will reference some aspect of what we were just discussing that i find worth remarking on." unfortunately, the pause inserts a comma which make the sentance ungrammatical (as ssf already pointed out). the extra "is" solves this problem by being code for "ok, we can't continue grammatically with that comma there, so we are going to back up to the word before the comma (the "is") and continue from there in an unbroken flow."

Tuesday, May 24, 2005 1:29:00 PM  
Anonymous JMA quipped...

Don't forget, Bill Clinton said, "That depends on what the definition of is is."

Tuesday, May 24, 2005 2:01:00 PM  
Anonymous eli quipped...

dirty dan: that sentence is a bit elliptical ("i can help the person who's next" would be the complete version), but i think it's still grammatical. the relative pronoun allows us to supply the missing object of the main clause. busymonster: that's almost right; but it's important to note that one does not always pause between the first and second 'is.' still, you're right that the second 'is' is not a copula, but rather serves to focus the sentence. jma: the presocratic philosopher, parmenides, is generally considered the first to question the meaning of the verb 'to be' and is thus the father of ontology (as well as a big influence on clinton).

Tuesday, May 24, 2005 2:28:00 PM  
Anonymous indra the ninja quipped...

First of all, when I read Dan's comment, at first I thought it said, 'How do you feel when you're standing in line and the person BEHIND you yells, "I can help who's next" '... behind you. We should all try that.

How about the word 'read', undifferentiated as a present or a past verb form.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005 3:44:00 PM  
Blogger Dirty Dan Sin quipped...

I usually assume that the clerk is abbreviating, 'I can help whomever is next.'

My favorite enemy of 'to be' would have to be 'Count' Alfred Korzybski.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005 3:44:00 PM  
Blogger Dirty Dan Sin quipped...

Oh, and my favorite baddies are when I say:

I said to myself, said,"Whatever I said."
That crazy thing I picked up in an old Prince song called Head that I love too too much.

Also, I like to use 'too' twice in a row for emphasis.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005 3:50:00 PM  
Anonymous TNA quipped...

I should know more about grammar than I do, but all I remember from high school is that my english teacher's name was Mr. English. He was cowboy poet and would call on us using our last names.

Oh, and since moving to Texas two years ago I've incorporated y'all in daily usage because I find it so useful.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005 9:39:00 PM  
Blogger Kathy quipped...

See how fun it is being Eli's special friend? While blogger was down we discussed garden path sentences. At first I couldn't figure out how to make one up, and I'm still a little unclear. Elias suggested, "The French fry tasty food." I countered, "Freedom fries while the poor suffer."

Anyway, thanks again lollie for the schooling. You know 10 times as much as I in English alone. Plus, your use of the word ontology in the comments just upped the highbrowness of my blog by infinite measures.


Tuesday, May 24, 2005 9:43:00 PM  
Anonymous mother of Kathy's special friend quipped...

To elaborate on my comment about Bill Clinton, which someone kindly posted for me - That's the kind of linguistic subtlety we just don't see anymore. Now we have a so-called president who can't even speak English and his supporters who seriously think that the world was created 5000 years ago in 6 days. Remember the good old days when Monica Lewinsky was our only national problem?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005 4:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous quipped...

I'm so confused --
maybe this lingo is just bad grammar and valley talk - I'm sure that the double "is" orignated in the San Fernando Valley or possibly some pretentious academic circles.
I studied English and took analytical Grammar - I think the use of the phrase "The thing is, is that . . . is just plane laziness. It's just too long to say, "I see your point of view, but" . . . or Have you considered or "the problem with your comment/theory/bologny is . . ." Yes, is just pointless (slang?) - stop romanticizing it and comparing to legitimate classical poetic license.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005 9:34:00 AM  
Anonymous eli quipped...

Anonymous: while i don't really think there's anything particularly poetic or classical about the 'double is,' i do think it serves some semantic function. You offer the phrase, "the problem with your comment is...", as a less lazy version of "the thing is is..." But we would be totally unsurprised to hear "the problem with your comment is..." followed by another 'is.' How can the insertion of an extra, unnecessary word be attributed to laziness? However, if you start each of those 'double is' phrases with a 'what,' then you render them grammatical ("what the thing is is..."), so you could say that we are being lazy by ommitting the necessary relative pronoun. But nobody ever says, "what the thing is is...," so maybe it's not laziness that prohibits us, but a desire not to sound strange. Also, what about a sentence like, "that's what i mean is that you're always correcting my grammar," where we have an extraneous 'is' that cannot be made grammatical by tacking on a 'what'? Thus, the theory that 'is' is here serving to provide focus to an appositional phrase (the same sort of focus achieved by changing a sentence like "I want that book," into a pseudocleft: "what i want is that book").

Wednesday, May 25, 2005 11:14:00 AM  
Anonymous busyMonster quipped...

"...'is' is here serving to provide focus to an appositional phrase..."

there it is in a nutshell. why didn't you just say that in the first place? and no. "it becomes a focus particle instead of a copula" is not nearly so clear.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005 3:45:00 PM  
Anonymous ed sheff quipped...

didn't Emerson start the whole "is, is" thing with his 1841 essay, Self-Reliance:

"...Time and space are but physiological colors which the eye makes, but the soul is light: where it is, is day; where it was, is night; and history is an impertinence and injury if it be anything more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming."

that's some heavy shit.

any way, the American Beats picked up on this "is" talk and writers like Lew Welch and Gary Snyder--writing like they talked it, frequently "is, ised."

Wednesday, May 25, 2005 6:49:00 PM  
Anonymous busyMonster quipped...

i'm pretty sure you know this ed, but i have to say it; emerson's "is, is" is a totally different and perfectly grammatical phenomenon (as is my cool triple "is" above).
the other thing i have to say is that i find that quote perfectly delightful and it makes me want to read the guy.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005 10:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous quipped...

I'm still confused: The thing is, is that you are making my head spin with all this is talk.

Anyway verbosity killed the cat.

T'is' or not to 'is' that is the question.

Thursday, May 26, 2005 9:28:00 AM  
Anonymous eli quipped...

i just want to point out the continuity between this post and my previous one regarding time. ed's rather kantian emerson quote would have fit in perfectly in the last post, since it's about time and space; and in the last post, ant offered a fantastic groucho marx quote that is just as relevant to this post, since it is a lovely garden path sentence: 'time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like bananas.'

Thursday, May 26, 2005 12:52:00 PM  

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