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Is ‘There is no there there’ a normal and very natural expression?

I was amused to find the phrase, ‘There is no there there’ in the article titled, ‘Wrong resume’ in today’s New York Times commenting on Mitt Romney’s proposition for amending the Constitution to require the President to have at least three years business experience before he could become president of the United States.’.

It reads:

“Romney has made business experience the main reason to elect him. Without his business past or his projections of business future, there is no there there. But history shows that time in the money trade is more often than not a prelude to a disastrous presidency. The less experience in business, the better the president.”

I interpreted ‘there is no there there’ means ‘without his business experience, there is no place of success that he enjoys today. Though spell-checker keeps demanding me to delete one of three theres there from the text I’m typing in, I don’t think there’s any grammatical problem with this line. However, it makes me hiccup for unknown reason.

Is this just a pun of words played by the writer? Is it 'cool' or a very normal and natural expression?

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This phrase was coined by Gertrude Stein, as a Google search quickly reveals. – Mark Beadles Jun 2 '12 at 1:28
up vote 5 down vote accepted

The original is from Gertrude Stein in a quote about her birthplace, Oakland CA.

It's not natural but it works. It is not a pun or a play on words, but is just clever by using 'there' in three slightly different senses.

There is no there there

The first instance is simply the existential nonreferential 'there is'.

The second is making a noun out of 'there' by having an adjective modify it 'no there', which is a figurative use of 'there' meaning place, no sense of location.

The third is just the usual adverbial answer to 'where?', at -that- location, referring specifically to Oakland in the quote.

The meaning of the entire sentence is that she didn't find a sense of place, a center, or really anything substantial or important enough to be warranted calling the town of Oakland some place by even a name. She's just belittling her home town.

Now as to the use of the quote in the passage, it is trying to say that the person has no other qualities to recommend him without the business experience.

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Which is completely different than the "Soothing words a nanny might say to a small child, "There There. It'll be alright." – Jim Jun 2 '12 at 2:33
Right answer, thought states only the obvious. Would have been helpful if the context of the quote were included and source cited. +1 All the same. – Kris Feb 23 '13 at 5:48

This phrase famously appeared in Gertrude Stein's book, Everybody’s Autobiography, where it specifically refers to Oakland, CA. Although I've long supposed she referred to the blandness or colorlessness of Oakland, tenderbuttons.com says it refers to the occasion when she wanted to visit her childhood home in Oakland, CA but could not find the house. (Which might amount to the same thing, many of the houses and neighborhoods looking much alike.) Anyhow, the common interpretation of this phrase, so far as I'm aware, is that it says something has no important essence.

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"...Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use ...

"It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing..."

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+1 Perfect answer. This should have come earlier! – Kris Feb 23 '13 at 5:50

It is perfectly normal. It is also lacking in punctuation. The second there needs to be in quotes for it to make sense. To me, the quote is similar to old Will Shakespeare saying "much ado about nothing." The user is simply saying "you are making an issue out of something that is either extremely trivial or does not exist."

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