Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What Isis is is not clear

And the post title is not Isis.

Extris or Isis formation is an incompletely understood phenomenon in English speech. The history of the form and the influencing structures are not yet fully revealed. Further confusion comes from the impression that two adjacent identical copula verbs are sufficient (or necessary) to identify the type.

This latter confusion has been addressed by both Arnold Zwicky and Mark Liberman in the posts I linked to above. (If there was no line break between that last sentence would I have to say "linked to atop"?) To make the distinction quickly I'll just say that the following are examples of Isis formation:

  1. "what's funny is, is they're about the same person."

  2. "The only thing is, is that nobody has noticed it yet!!"

  3. "Now I feel that I must do something to help the cause and I feel the best way is, is to encourage everyone who reads this review to pick up the book and know the truth of the immense suffering of this peace-loving country that China is destroying."

  4. "[so] my other question would be is...": (A call-in commenter on C-SPAN's Washington Journal)

  5. "But the problem is, Charlie, is the U.S...": (Morgan Stanley's Stephen Roach--interviewed by Charlie Rose) Split Isis. Nice.

The following are not Isis, but standard English forms:
  1. "They proudly call themselves egotists, when what they are is egomaniacs and megalomaniacs."

  2. "But what it is is a rousing good read."

  3. "What's weird is, is this new?": the second "is" is part of a question. Think of that question as the answer to another question 'What is weird?'

  4. "the second 'is' is part of a question.": I had to include this one right?

The first two are standard pseudocleft sentences. Imagine them without one of the copula verbs: *what they are(,)egomaniacs or *What it is(,)a rousing good read.

Also dodging the Isis label are performance errors like stutters and other disfluent repetitions.

Listen closely around 4:36 into the following video

Conchata Ferrell says "See my problem is is that I'm a giver." Some questions here: Did the writers put that into the script or did Conchata Ferrell just utter it as a natural form because the script is just loosely followed and not strictly obeyed? Did she deliberately choose the form as a characterization of Berta? If so, what does she believe the form implies about the Berta's character?

Zwicky provides an example from the show Charmed: "The difference is is that I don't want him to find you." He writes that it "was surely not a scripted bit," but I say it is hard to know. He also suggests that it "was probably not noticed by anyone involved with the episode." True. These things easily go unnoticed.

The TV.com guide to this episode of Two and a Half Men quotes Berta's line as "See, my problem is that I'm a giver." Is this an oversight or a correction? We may never know. But I just asked Buffy to quote the clip and she said "See my problem is that I'm a giver." Of course Ferrell utters the line very quickly and I can imagine that Buffy noticed the trip and discounted it as disfluency. I'll ask her.

Nope. She says she didn't notice it at all. "But she talked so weird" she says.


  1. I'd been thinking about this very phenomenon just last week and am so glad to learn there's a word for it. (Somehow I'd missed the original Language Log posts.) Thank you! I think "extris" or "isis" is destined to be a Word of the Week over at Away With Words.

    P.S. I hope you appreciate the Triplis in the previous sentence.

  2. On a slightly unrelated topic, have you ever heard of this? You're supposed to put punctuation marks in to make the following into perfectly grammatical English:

    While John had had had Tim had had had had had had had had a better sound to it

    Let me know if/when you give up.

  3. Nancy: Triplis--nice.

    Elizabeth: So far my solutions require a very generous and 'stretched' reading. But I'm working on it.

    I've seen some other puzzles like this one. It's fun trying to come up with good unpunctuated sentences.

  4. This is pretty interesting -- but my first impulse is to say that isis is just "disfluency" or whatever you might call it. But then, do you study spoken language or written language? I can't remember. And I'm not smart enough to figure out whether that's a relevant question...

  5. It's not just relevant--it's a vital question. If it was disfluency then any syntactic analysis could only go as far as suggesting "likely" disfluencies.

    Some treatments of the form suggest (or just pursue) the explanation that disfluency has influenced the construction--but that it has recently become a fluent form.

    Arnold Zwicky in one of the posts that I mentioned earlier provides a link to this paper that nicely addresses just this question.

    The conclusion of the paper relies on the evidence that "ISIS construction doesn't sound like a disfluency"--but I'm more interested in some of the paper's earlier evidence that suggests patterns of Isis that can't be explained by mere performance errors.

    Errors tend to jump in wherever they want and Isis is more common in only certain constructions.

    Also consider that if you heard someone say "the thing is, is that I'm really hungry" you would be much more likely to miss it than if you heard "the lasagna is is almost done."

    There must be a structural reason for this no?
    (BTW: Notice that Isis or ISIS is pronounced like the name of the Egyptian goddess.)

  6. ...or is it the other way around? (insert Twilight Zone theme music)

  7. Okay Elizabeth--this requires two indulgences: A) that I'm allowed to change capitalization; second) that John and Tim are writers discussing verb tense.

    While John had had "had", Tim had had, "had had." "Had had" had had a better sound to it.

  8. As I said on my blog also, yes. I bow down in reverent awe.


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