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American Speech 77.3 (2002) 305-312
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The Reduplicative Copula Is Is
Michael C. Haley
University of Alaska Anchorage
THE CURRENT PRESIDENT, George W. Bush, may be linguistically atypical of educated speakers in some ways, but he shares one grammatical trait with many others, namely, the nonstandard syntactic construction we will call provisionally, for lack of a better designation, the reduplicative copula, as in the following examples: "What I've said IS IS that . . ." (televised debate with Al Gore, 3 Oct. 2000); and even more incongruously, "My concerns ARE IS that . . ." (Vermont Public Radio, interview at Burlington Airport, 23 Oct. 1999). The second construction we have not observed in any other speaker, but the first is quite commonly heard, as in: "What I can say IS IS that . . ." (Greg Maffei, Microsoft CFO, interviewed on CNN's Moneyline, 10 Nov. 1999); "The truth IS IS that . . ." (Ira Glasser, ACLU director, interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition, 27 Dec. 2000); "The secret truth WAS IS that work was my whole life" (character on the ABC soap opera Once and Again, 9 Nov. 2001); and "The good news IS IS that . . ." (Paula Dobriansky, under secretary of state for global affairs, interviewed on CNN's America's New War, 30 Nov. 2001). Examples such as these could be multiplied manyfold, as this is a widespread feature of contemporary speech (if absent from written English).
As far as we can determine, this syntactic phenomenon, particularly with sentence topic words like problem, was first discussed in print in Shapiro (1993, 12), 1 where the example cited was uttered by Hillary Clinton: "The ratio IS IS that . . ." (excerpt from a speech to the American Hospital Association, CNN's Early Prime news broadcast, 9 Aug. 1993). Shapiro wondered whether the duplication could be some kind of emphasis or a hesitation phenomenon, "a vagary of performance, where the speaker isn't sure what they will assert in the rest of the sentence," and ventured the following commentary (which he no longer finds completely explanatory):
Perhaps we should regard it as a pleonasm, which, of course, is a kind of repetition. But the advantage of changing perspectives becomes clear when we also adopt the corollary position of interpreting copula reduplication as a concomitant of a boundary shift. . . . Perhaps what we have here is the linearization of the redundant existential meaning that inheres in the simultaneous semantic syntagm of every topic word. The nouns problem, reason, and guess [in topic position] contain within their syntagms of signata the meaning of existing—albeit redundantly. The non-standard construction X is is that Y can be interpreted as being the product of the [End Page 305] "unpacking" of the simultaneous syntagm of the topic word X: the once covert existential [sic] copula is linearized immediately following the topic word, a process accompanied by a shift in the boundary of the relevant syntagm. [Shapiro 1993, 12] 2
The only other printed mention of the reduplicative copula we are aware of is in the introduction to Andrew Sihler's (2000, 9) new textbook of historical linguistics:
A very recent development in English is seen in sentences like The problem is is that the payment always arrives late. The innovation seems to consist of redefining The problem is as a sentence, which is the subject of the matrix sentence . . . is that the payment always arrives late. This may somehow be traceable to structures like What the problem is is still unclear, where the syntax is transparent.
It might help to understand the reduplicative copula by placing it in the context of related constructions and considering how it might have arisen.
Consider the following series:
1. What I've said IS IS that . . .
2. My concerns ARE IS that . . .
3. What I can say IS IS that . . .
4. The truth IS IS that . . .
5. The ratio IS IS that . . .
6. The problem IS IS that the payment always arrives late.
7. What the problem IS IS still unclear.
Most of these double-copula constructions have two other syntactic elements in common...