English offers plenty of opportunities for repeating words. A perennial favorite, maxing out at five instances, is “I think that that that that that man used should have been a which.” The sentence cheats a bit, in my view, because like President Clinton’s famous utterance, “It depends what the meaning of is is,” one instance of the word must be set apart as word-qua-word. Still, that that is a common repetition, with is is not far behind. As my colleague Ben Yagoda has pointed out, the repetition of is, grammatically justifiable in a sentence like
What it is is what it is
becomes a much-used redundancy in sentences where an initial What has dropped out, like
The reality is is that it’s worth a lot less — 35.5 million guaranteed. (The sports correspondent Stefan Fatsis, on All Things Considered.)
So far, so idiomatic. Idiomatic, too, are the many clauses that end with a preposition followed by the same word used prepositionally or otherwise, e.g.,
I don’t know which drawer to put the socks in in case you need to find them.
She wanted someone to give the gun to to ensure she wouldn’t use it.
Then I ran across this sentence, in last weekend’s New York Times:
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut, which also has a primary Tuesday, said he was concerned that the fight between Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton could hurt the party’s congressional candidates and candidates for governor if the Democratic contest comes to be seen as fractious and divided as the Republican presidential race.
Huh, I thought. There goes what I thought was the most awkward but least avoidable repetition we had: the initial use of as as a preposition with its object replaced by a comparative as … as expression. The Corpus of Contemporary American English furnishes several examples of what I’m talking about:
One of the reasons I’d become engaged to marry Thomas-the-Toad Chalikis was that my family had made my life an unbearable hell until I agreed to marry somebody. And Thomas-the-Toad emerged as as likely a candidate as any. (Foul Play, Tori Carrington, N.Y.: Forge, 2007)
ZAHN: Your grandfather describes your voice as as beautiful as a bell. JONES: Yeah. (CNN, James Earl Jones Interview, 2005)
This guy is not just “the greatest” in the boxing ring, he is the greatest manipulator of his image, of the public, of the fight game and, frankly, of the media. And it’s — he sees it as as much a part of the sport as he ever saw. (CNN, Paula Zahn, 1999)
And I thought she would be trying to prove herself as a young person just as much as as a woman. (NPR interview with Helen Baxendale, 1998)
I called President Salinas as a friend, as well as as the president of the United States, to express my sorrow. (ABC, Clinton news conference, 1994)
I don’t know how to search for instances where the first as in this construction has been elided (in the New York Times example, not eliding it would have yielded " … if the Democratic contest comes to be seen as as fractious and divided as the Republican presidential race ….”). But I’m certain that I’ve been seeing such elision more and more. Trying to “fix” the as as problem (if it is a problem) by other means doesn’t yield much by way of graceful expression. Should Tori Carrington have written “Thomas-the-Toad emerged as a candidate as likely as any”? Should Zahn have commented to James Earl Jones, “Your grandfather describes your voice as beautiful, like a bell”?
So let’s look again at the New York Times example, with its elision. I don’t feel I’m missing any meaning here. Sure, as I work my way through the sentence, I may expect the phrase “as fractious and divided” to lead elsewhere. But I hit that second as, and all becomes clear. The writer is focusing on a comparison of degree that qualifies how the Connecticut Democratic contest could come to be seen. The first as, in this case, is serving double duty: as a preposition and as an adverb.
I’m content with collapsing as, just as we can manage without two instances of that in my example above, leaving the less fun but perfectly acceptable sentence “I think that that that man used should have been a which.”