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I am proofreading a professional, technical text written by someone else. In the text, I encountered, "But, the reality is is a..." My intuition says that this should be rewritten as, "But, the reality is that a..." because it looks like a "double is" or a "double copula"

However, I can't tell for sure if this is a legitimate use of two successive copulae. Does, "But, the reality is..." qualify as a dependent clause? It seems to me that "But,..." does not make the subject dependent. Am I right? Am I wrong?

The sentence with a little more context: "But, the reality is is a company like Spacely Sprockets cannot continue to do old fashioned things..."

(We have already had a discussion about beginning sentences with "but" in professional writing. It appears that the consensus is that it is both appropriate and acceptable here.)

I would like to see a way to clearly identify this statement as something that ought to be changed in the document. Grammar dissection, linking to authoritative works and explanations of grammar mechanics will all help me answer this question. Simple answers like, "it's wrong," don't help me be a better proofreader or editor. I already know it is wrong, but I don't know why it is wrong.

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Related english.stackexchange.com/questions/13056/the-thing-is-is-that –  user19148 Jul 12 '12 at 17:59
How does the sentence continue? –  Barrie England Jul 12 '12 at 17:59
Language Log has done quite a few posts on this emerging syntactic construction. One post containing a number of links is here. –  John Lawler Jul 12 '12 at 18:02
+1 for Spacely Sprockets. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jul 12 '12 at 18:15
@John Lawler: With things like this I sometimes find it tricky to distinguish between what sounds unremarkable to me, and what I actually say myself. I guess in the final analysis that distinction means little or nothing anyway. I can't say for sure if I ever or never say it, but I certainly wouldn't be surprised to hear a recording of myself casually coming out with "What it is is that blah blah". On the other hand, "The point is is that blah blah" sounds decidedly "off" to me. It'd be interesting to compare my current position with 10 years ago (and 10 years hence, God willing! :) –  FumbleFingers Jul 12 '12 at 22:32
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4 Answers

Doubtless some will say NGrams isn't appropriate here, but I think this is interesting...

enter image description here

Obviously many of those instances are "false positives" (particularly, the earlier ones). But the increase in prevalence is quite marked, and glancing through a few pages of the later instances shows that many of them are indeed the construction OP asks about.

Structurally, what seems to be happening is that two separate elements (for example, "the thing is" and "is that") have both become grammaticalised in the mind of the speaker, so they're seen as independent self-contained grammatical items - each containing its own copy of the word "is".

As the chart suggests, it's very much an emerging usage that's gradually extending its scope, so...

"What it is is that blah blah" - seems unremarkable to me.

"The point is is that blah blah" - sounds somewhat "off", but I can live with it.

"The problem with this is is that it sounds weird" - to me, at least, it really does.

Different speakers will draw their own line as to where the construction becomes "unacceptable". Some people may think it makes a difference whether there's a comma between the two instances of "is". But because this is (still?) primarily a spoken usage, and people don't punctuate speech, I think that's largely irrelevant.

Addressing OP's specific question, I'd advise against using the form in "professional" writing for the two reasons mentioned above - it's mainly a spoken rather than written usage, and not everyone will be happy with it in any given context.

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In my original post, the form is not, "what it is is that," The issue did not include "that" nor the dependent marker word "what." IMO, there is no issue with the acceptable "what it is is" construction (albeit, I think it deserves a comma). The issue was the nonstandard "It is is." I was primarily looking for support for telling the writer to rewrite the sentence. –  mawcsco Jul 13 '12 at 0:46
@mawcsco: Ah. So you're one of those who thinks the comma makes a difference? Not to put too fine a point on it, I think any such repetition is far too sloppy for all but the most casual writing. As I said, we're talking about a spoken usage here. –  FumbleFingers Jul 13 '12 at 3:17
@FumbleFingers -- NGram is fine with me. While I gave a try at finding a current grammar justification, the real answer is often in the descriptive, rather than prescriptive, nature of grammar. –  talkaboutquality Jul 13 '12 at 9:32
@talkaboutquality: Well, some people here use NGrams more than I think is justifiable, and some others think they're very likely to be misleading. In this particular case the problem is we're dealing with spoken usage, so I can see NGrams has its limitations. But "false positives" notwithstanding, that increase since the 60s is quite marked, so I reckon it does indeed reflect my gut feel (and Wikipedia's claim) that it's a relatively new usage. But apparently established enough that OP's "writer" is prepared to try and justify it in "professional" writing. –  FumbleFingers Jul 13 '12 at 14:07
@FumbleFingers My comment about commas was merely to say, "if you have to write it, such as in recording spoken conversation, then it ought to have a comma." I certainly don't think this writing is good or even acceptable. But, I have to fight these battles in increments. –  mawcsco Jul 16 '12 at 14:04
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If you write the reality is that a company . . . you will give no ground for complaint.

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Can you provide some support or reason why that would be the case? Can you show, grammatically, why it is more appropriate to phrase it with "that?" I'd like a little more than conjecture. –  mawcsco Jul 12 '12 at 18:31
Subordinate clauses of this nature customarily begin with 'that' (sometimes omitted) not 'is'. –  Barrie England Jul 12 '12 at 18:34
In my post, I linked to an article that suggest that "is is" can legitimately be used in "dependent clauses." However, you said it is not, and use the word "customarily" in your comment. What do you base that on? –  mawcsco Jul 12 '12 at 18:42
The article says it's nonstandard. That is not in itself a negative judgement, but it seems that it's found predominantly in speech. If you use it in formal writing you risk not being taken seriously. –  Barrie England Jul 12 '12 at 18:49
I actually think that in a professional/technical document the whole "The reality is" construction needs to be eliminated. It is not much better than saying, "Everyone knows..." I'd suggest turning it into a statement that provides some support for its argument. "Spacely Sprockets is spending $X/year, nearly 60% of its total profit margin by using antiquated methods as compared to Cogwell's Cogs who is spending a third of that after having moved to the new process. We cannot continue to compete using the existing technology." –  Jim Jul 13 '12 at 1:15
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up vote 2 down vote accepted

I've done some digging and decided to answer the question with more detail than the other answers offered. I'm going to deconstruct the original sentence:

"But, the reality is is a company like Spacely Sprockets cannot continue to do old fashioned things..."

The writer contends that this is merely a double copula and does not need to be changed. However, this statement is not a dependent clause that allows a double copula as indicated in the Wikipedia entry.

  1. This sentence begins with the conjunctive adverb, "but" in place of "however."

  2. The words, "the reality" is the subject of the sentence.

  3. The first "is" serves as the verb (a form of "to be").

In order to identify the beginning of this sentence as a dependent clause, we would look for "dependent marker words" such as "when," "although" or "even." The word, "but" is not a dependent marker word, but instead a "coordinating conjunction."

Since this sentence begins with a coordinating conjunction and not a dependent marker word, this sentence is an "independent clause." Acceptable uses of a double copula will only work in dependent clauses. Therefore, the "double is" should not be used.

The sentence would be better written as:

"But, the reality is that a company like Spacely Sprockets cannot continue to do old fashioned things..."

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I don't really disagree with anything specific here, but you're coming at it from the perspective of what's "grammatically correct", which isn't really the way I see things. I'm more interested in "why do people use this form?", and "what's the long-term usage trend?" –  FumbleFingers Jul 12 '12 at 23:19
@FumbleFingers My whole intention is to improve the professionalism and accuracy of business text. I believe an executive reading, "But, the reality is is a company..." will unconsciously dismiss the writing as unprofessional. However, my argument lacked support and that is what I was looking for. –  mawcsco Jul 13 '12 at 0:49
I don't really understand why you asked the question. As the Wikipedia article you linked to points out, a double copula is a spoken form (even then, only acceptable to some people, in some contexts). If your writer is literate enough to know that term in the first place, he should be perfectly well aware it's nowhere near acceptable in "professional" writing. –  FumbleFingers Jul 13 '12 at 3:28
Anecdote: I am completely unfamiliar with this usage and I would expect most people I know to be as well, considering I don't recall ever having heard it in the wild. If this piece of professional writing came across my desk, I would certainly consider it incorrect and presume it a glaring oversight by copy editors. In fact, even after reading the discussion and comments, I still can't make sense of the sentence fragment. –  horatio Jul 13 '12 at 15:50
@FumbleFingers The conversation went like this: me: "This doesn't read well. I recommend..." him: "People use that all that time and it's perfect acceptable." me: "Well, it is somewhat common in speech, but it really doesn't read well in your white-paper..." him: "Dude, you're supposed to write like you speak so that it's more approachable." me: "I understand that, but that doesn't mean that this is an appropriate application of that concept..." Needless to say, I don't work there anymore. I was looking for some rationale for supporting one of our positions. I found support for my position. –  mawcsco Sep 28 '12 at 14:04
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This blog post identifies two separate cases. One is your example. The post calls it (in the name of two linguists cited there) a "reduplicative copula", gives a psychological explanation, but not justification, and implies that it is at best, unnecessary. The other case it calls a "simple double copula", gives some examples which sound OK (at least they don't bother my ear), and declares it not incorrect. That's one or two steps up from unnecessary or wrong. Read the post -- I think it answers your question.

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This blog post doesn't provide any additional information that the OP Wikipedia didn't already provide. Clearly, "My point is, is that..." is wrong. However, "What my point is is that..." is acceptable. How do I explain to a writer that "But, the reality is is..." belongs to the former case and not the latter? –  mawcsco Jul 12 '12 at 20:21
@mawcsco- if you can change the doubled is to a single is and still have the statement make sense, bearing in mind that the sentence may have the following that elided, then the second is is redundant. –  Jim Jul 13 '12 at 2:52
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