Some sentences have a double 'is' in them.

I know that we must have the verb to be in a nominal sentence, but these sentences have a double 'is'.

Can anyone tell me which 'is' acts as the verb to be as part of the nominal sentence - and therefore whats the grammar of the other 'is'?


'What it is is a legal device which confirms the working of a release from debt which would otherwise be invalid.'

(This example was taken from the BNC online language corpus)

Here's two examples that I would hear in Britain:

'Why don't you take the job?'

'Well, what it is is that I hate dealing with customers.'

'What's this strange machine?'

'Well, what it is is a new type of coffee maker.'

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Benyamin Hamidekhoo, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, Brian Hooper, Kris Oct 28 '13 at 13:23

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  • 1
    I think this answer, and the top comment on it, is right up your alley. Edit: and this one. – RegDwigнt Oct 26 '13 at 10:30
  • There are a number of "extra is" constructions: stanford.edu/~zwicky/NWAV06.abst.pdf Is is has some associated semantics, by the way--it generally only appears in assertions. – snailcar Oct 26 '13 at 14:51
  • Note that the two questions linked to in the comments here are somewhat related, but not duplicates. This question deals with sentences where two ‘is’ in a row is grammatically warranted and expected; the others deal with constructions where the doubled ‘is’ is grammatically unnecessary (and jarring to many). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 27 '13 at 18:30

To me, the first 'is' (what it is ) is a responding phrase of the question, and the second 'is' is the verb of the answer.

  • What does this mean? It does not make much sense to me. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 26 '13 at 12:00

Both of them act as the verb ‘to be’ (called a copula or a linking verb, as it basically functions as an equal sign, saying A = B).

There are two clauses in your examples, and the main verb in both of them is ‘to be’. It becomes easier to see this if you switch their order around (leaving out the extra relative clause):

A legal device […] is what it is.

At the top level, there is a main clause:

A (a legal device) = B (what it is)

Inside this, B is itself a clause, a relative one, that functions in the exact same manner:

C (it) = D (what/that which)

In other words, if you write it in a kind of pseudo-mathematical way, you get:

(D = C) = A

– where one equals sign is placed inside the parentheses (the relative clause) and the other out in the ‘main calculation’ (the main clause).

The construction is perhaps easier to parse if you substitute the relative clause with one that contains a different verb:

(What I like) is coffee.

Exactly the same construction (except ‘what’ here is the object of ‘like’ rather than the subject predicative in a copula clause—but that is not important in this case), but you avoid having two identical words next to each other, and thereby confusion.

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