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Mind your language

My husband had become cocooned in bedclothes to my chilly disadvantage last week during that cold snap. So I went in search of something warm to drink and turned on the World Service. World Service news at 4 a.m. features items one never hears of again. My ears pricked up when I heard something that President George Bush said in South Korea.

He was talking about North Korea’s nuclear threat, alarming no doubt. But what interested me was this declaration: ‘The issue really is the light-water reactor. Our position is, is that we’ll consider the light-water reactor at the appropriate time.’

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This is the extraordinary Double Is. When a reader, Mr Keith Norman of Oxford, brought it to my attention a couple of years ago, I could hardly believe it was widespread. But I now notice it so often that it must be ineradicable as a strange new syntactical feature.

The phenomenon was observed by an American, Dwight Bolinger, in 1971, and in 1987 he published a paper called ‘The Remarkable Double Is’ (English Today). Since then, scholarly or pseudo-scholarly study of the question has thriven.

The construction has acquired the name of Isis. This makes discussion of it hard to find in bibliographies and internet indexes because the name is shared by the well-known Egyptian goddess and something to do with computers that I don’t understand.

But in a paper called ‘Prosodic Optimisation by Copula Doubling in Conversational English‘, presented at a conference at the University of Colorado at Boulder, on 9 January 2004, Jason M. Brenier and Laura A. Michaelis put forward a theory that Isis mends a deficiency in the aural pattern of a sentence, into which the speaker has been led by his syntax.

By ‘the copula’ they mean/s. By ‘prosodic’ they refer to the stress pattern (in English speech principally by loudness) that we use. Now, in a sentence such as ‘The problem is that they never wash’, the stress falls on the word is. The word that is unstressed. Sometimes the word that is omitted (‘The problem is they never wash‘).

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Since it is not normal to stress the verb to be, the speaker is tricked into introducing an otiose unstressed is too. At the same time, after the first is there is a pause (which scribes–as in the President Bush example, transcribed on the White House website–tend to mark with a comma). The result is a completely ungrammatical but rhythmically or prosodically regular construction.

That night I went back to bed and fell asleep counting ises.