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Does anybody have any conjectures as to why this quirk is so common? For an example, see this TED talk by Kevin Slavin.

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The search feature doesn't seem to let me find it very easily, buth this question has definitely come up before (it's something referred to in the linguistics literature as a "double is" construction, which was definitely mentioned at the time, but searching for this doesn't find it...). –  Neil Coffey Aug 4 '11 at 3:47
    
@Neil: Well-remembered; the older version is here. –  PLL Aug 12 '11 at 17:30

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The standard grammatical explanation of this is that it’s a variant of constructions like:

What the reason is is that she’d just returned from Guatemala.

These are quite standardly grammatical, analogous to e.g.

What I know is that capuchins are a kind of monkey.

This construction acts in some respects as a fixed idiom, with slightly different connotations from plain old “The reason is that she’d just returned…”, and as such, it’s started to evolve independently. In particular, it’s developed the variant which omits the what, which occurs frequently enough that descriptive linguists happily accept it as grammatical, though slightly nonstandard.

Those different connotations are subtle; the following is my subjective impression, but if someone can find a proper corpus-based analysis of them, that would be better.

The form “The problem is that I don’t know why he’s angry.” can be the first mention of the fact that there’s a problem; it puts focus on this assertion. Contrastingly, “[What] the problem is, is that I don’t know why he’s angry.” is typically used when the listener/reader is already aware that there’s a problem; it emphasises the delineation of precisely what the problem is, possibly in contrast to other things it could be:

The problem isn’t that they’re stupid. What the problem is, is that they’re overspecialised.

(Mark Liberman also discusses the “The X is, is” construction on Language Log, and partially disagrees with this standard analysis, linking to an alternative proposed explanation. I’ve not read the linked paper, I’m afraid, and the standard analysis makes sense to me, so I’m leaving it at this for now.)

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Some discussion on Linguist list as well: Is, is, What it is is –  aedia λ Aug 3 '11 at 20:54
    
Very insightful. Thanks! –  Matt Montag Aug 3 '11 at 21:25
    
P.S. This has come up before -- I seem to remember answering a very similar question (in a similar way). –  Neil Coffey Aug 4 '11 at 3:46
    
@Neil Coffey: Ah, yes, indeed: english.stackexchange.com/questions/13056/the-thing-is-is-that/… –  PLL Aug 12 '11 at 17:29

There is an interesting study here on spoken repetition that asks, "Are Word Repetitions Really Intended by the Speaker?" Repeated words fall under the category of speech disfluencies, which are:

Spontaneous speech contains various disfluencies such as fillers, self-repairs, and repeated words. These disfluencies seem to reflect problems in speech production. When speakers cannot formulate an entire utterance at once, or when they change their minds about what to say, they may suspend their speech and produce fillers or replace words they have already produced.

The "quirk" of repeating the "is" in spontaneous speech is used to "fill in" or repair a sentence as you are forming it. If you listen to recordings of other speech, there are usually other fillers like repeated words, or "ummm". It is not a quirk that is specific to any one person, but rather it affects most (if not all) spoken word.

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Usually the two ises have a pause between them, so it could just be a reiteration. I'm not certain if it's correct or not (leaning towards incorrect), but I think the brain is just giving itself some time to think of the reason.

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