What the Meaning of ‘Is Is’ Is

Redundancy rears its head in many settings.

Redundant is almost always hurled as a negative epithet, but repetition can be an effective rhetorical device. Shorn of all redundancy, Shakespeare’s “most unkindest cut of all” would be pretty vanilla, and the ad slogan “Raid Kills Bugs Dead” would become the ho-hum “Raid Kills Bugs.” Meanwhile, Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” would have to be completely erased because the quotation is nothing but redundancy. (Completely erased is redundant as well—something is either erased or it isn’t. But I felt I needed the emphasis provided by completely.)

Most redundancy, however, truly is regrettable, a product of both laziness (not bothering to prune your prose) and verbal inflation: a boy-who-cried-wolf phenomenon whereby you feel you need to say something multiple times to make your point. It’s tough to prove, but I have little doubt that redundancy is on the upswing, a manifestation of the wordiness and clunkiness that characterizes much writing these days.

An example—in spoken English, certainly—is the recent popularity of the phrase “is is.” A second is is usually (though not always—see the fourth word of this sentence) both redundant and superfluous. I just searched “is is” on National Public Radio’s Web site and was presented with 1,810 hits. Some of the most recent are:

  • And the media loves those hundred-million dollar numbers. The reality is is that it’s worth a lot less—35.5 million guaranteed. (Sports correspondent Stefan Fatsis, on “All Things Considered.”)
  • But the truth is, is it’s no longer insurance if the government says they’re always going to bail you out. (Rep. Ron Paul, on “Talk of the Nation.”)
  • The big difference is, is that right now farmers—and other employees, actually, too—are not required to verify the information. (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Georgia Pabst, on “Tell Me More.”)

And, to go to the other side of the spectrum, here’s a question from Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren that’s not only redundant, it’s not a question:

The second question is, is that The Wall Street Journal is a very sort of elite big corporate-type newspaper, lots of money.

I have started to note, in my students’ work and in all sorts of published writing, the popularity of a sort of stealth redundancy: Something is denoted, and then it’s denoted again by different means, all in the same sentence. In the following examples, the redundant words or phrases are excised:

  • My mouth continued to stay[ed] open.
  • I really appreciate the effort put in by my fellow classmates. (Fellow countrymen, fellow colleagues, and fellow teammates are similar oft-used constructions.)
  • The rules apply to both men and women alike.
  • Like John, Bill is also a rugby player.
  • The play is well-written, but yet it has far too many cliches.

This sort of small-scale belaboring of the point isn’t the most heinous crime against English, but it’s too bad. A word like classmate has a certain heft to it; the fellow chips away at its power and leaves the whole language a tiny bit diminished.

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