I was writing something on Reddit, and I was casually checking my writing when I realized I had forced myself into a particularly strange situation.

I was making an argument where I first established a term of art, and then defined what that term of art did not mean as a way to establish what the term of art actually meant.

However, when I went to finish the argument, I got the phrase:

"What X actually is is..."

where X is the subject.

Is this actually correct? Is the word "is" repeated after the phrase? The phrase

"What X actually is..."

doesn't seem correct. It seems like it is missing a verb.

Related-to, but not answered-by, this question. (The answers provide a name, but contradict each other on whether the usage is grammatically-correct, which is the premise of my question.)


What X actually is is a clause that functions as the subject of some such sentence as

/What X actually is/ is this thing that you can only see with a microscope.

Here is another example of a clause functioning as the subject of a sentence:

/The guy who cuts Tom's hair/ lives downtown.

You can use both of them as direct objects of I don't know...

I don't know /what X actually is/

I don't know /the guy who cuts Tom's hair/.

That the word is appears twice in a row in the sentence you ask about may seem disconcerting at first, but it is not unknown.


It seems to be grammatical, according to the following logic:

"What X actually is" is the subject; the second "is" is the verb.

Forget "actually" as unnecessary, and consider this sentence:

What X creates is an image in the mind.

"What X creates" is the subject; the verb is "is".

A comparable sentence would be "What X forms is a circle."

"What X is is an image in the mind" is awkward, hard to parse, but grammatical.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.