The Redundant ‘Is’ Isn’t Redundant

Use commenters have a thing about redundancy. Language is full of them, and they tend to be noticeable. Some, such as “joining together” or “free gift” or “ancient adage,” have become so entrenched idioms that they are overlooked more often than membrane-scratching idioms. atrium, such as “the reason is because”.

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The speech, however long, is what it is.

Because redundancy occurs more commonly in speech than in writing, more notable examples come from individuals who give a lot of speech as part of their work.

In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to students at a Louisiana elementary school (see transcript here) and said the following:

So I’m very excited about it and I think it’s very possible. And the point is, if your kids see you doing it – your grandparents, uncles, teachers – they’ll join in. So let’s make this something we’re all trying to do together.

Note that Mrs. Obama used repeatedly To be. She said “and the thing is,” then paused, and said To be again.

The repetition of To be in sentences is a phenomenon that some linguists and commentators have noticed. Many people consider copying to be sloppy and unnecessary, even though it happens more often than we think. At The Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog Lingua Franca, Ben Yagoda finds several examples from radio recordings:

But the truth is, it’s no longer insurance if the government says it will always bail you out. Congressman Ron Paul, “Talk of the Nation”

The big difference is that now farmers—and other employees—are not required to verify information. Georgia Pabst, “Tell Me More.”

It is worth noting that, as used by Mrs. Obama, each of these examples begins with an opening phrase (“the fact is”, “the truth is”) that seems to place it in relation to something said earlier, like an alignment.

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Speakers consider such phrases to have the function of “resetting” the sentence, establishing a point of contrast that follows. And although each of these phrases already contains a function To bethe speaker still repeats To be as a way to put the sentence back into motion.

There are other cases where we find redundant To be. A common example repeats To be after a phrase like “what is it.” This usage also occurs mainly in spoken English:

What is it as a stepping stone to full retail legalization. This is clearly a way for the cannabis industry to get a foothold in Vermont. Kevin Sabet, quoted in US News & World Report11 May 2017

You are right, this is not just a Trump phenomenon, it is clearly an international phenomenon. And I think the world is changing very, very quickly. Bernie Sanders, quoted in Boston Review (podcast), April 4, 2017

You scoop your hand up and it’s all foam. Josh Temple, quoted in CBC NewsJune 6, 2017

But it also sees print usage:

Most of what it is is a catchphrase. An extremely loud, extremely annoying, extremely funny (currently) catchphrase. Liam Mathews, TV User ManualMay 22, 2017

Sometimes writers use commas to separate the first To be second word:

It’s not sexist, it’s not unfair, it’s not arbitrary. What it is, is nobody’s business but United’s. Christine Negroni, ForbesMarch 27, 2017

These speakers and writers treat “what it is”, “all it is” and similar noun phrases that then require their own verb. Let’s see what happens to Senator Sanders’ quote if we remove the second sentence To be:

And I think the world is changing very, very quickly.

The sentence makes no sense without that second To be. So what’s going on here?

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It helps to consider what we normally expect from To be when we come across it in a sentence.

Take these examples:

Blue sky.

His brother is in high school.

My neighbor is a painter.

In these very typical uses, the verb To be act as what is called a copulate. Related to the word couple and also called a linking verba copula does the job of associating the subject with its complement.

In the construction of “what is the changing world,” second To be is performing the copula function of the sentence, connecting one noun phrase (“what it is”) with another (“that the world is changing”).

So that’s what first To be doing? You can say it also acts as a copula, but its job is for joining What And It. With that first To be commit to that work, you need second To be to join two parts of a sentence.

And so, while the result is not formal English and may cause you to do some mental recalculation, this example is repeated over and over. To be actually grammatically meaningful.

Interestingly, the most famous repeated use To be not superfluous at all. When President Bill Clinton uttered the phrase, “It depends what the word ‘is’ means,” before a grand jury in 1998, the quote was repeated over and over. To be leading many to see it as a sloppy and crazy use, almost existentially meaningless.

Instead, Clinton simply used To be in two different ways consecutively. Firstly To be simply refer to the word as one word, a usage that would be italicized if it were presented in print (as we have done many times in our articles on this site). That thing To be basically functions as a noun, the object of the preposition belong to. Second letter To be then according to its normal function as a copula connected with the pronoun What with noun means.

Categories: Usage Notes

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