June 29, 2004

A bird in the hand is, is...

On the topic of "...is is..." (following up on Mark Liberman's recent posts, here and here), and while we're in the business of speculating about G. W. Bush's grammar, it seems worth mentioning that GWB is also by far the most pervasive "double is" speaker that I've ever heard. This was first called to my attention during his April 13th prime-time press conference, in which he used the construction 3 times in quick succession, along with a related variant:

  • "The other lesson is, is that this country must go on the offense and stay on the offense"
  • "And my answer to that question is, is that, again I repeat what I said earlier — prior to 9/11 the country really wasn't on a war footing."
  • " And so what I'm telling you is, is that sometimes we use military as a last resort..."
  • "That is an important part of the 9/11 Commission's job, is to analyze what went on and what could have, perhaps, been done differently..."

In fact, he uses this construction so often in his press statements that at times I have wondered whether there's something intentional going on. (Is he stalling for time? do his speechwriters think that the construction sounds folksy? are they reducing the length of his phrases?) A quick survey of statements made by the president during "press availabilities" in the past month shows quite a few occurrences (in a rather small corpus), and the answer seems to be more mundane.

Transcripts from about a month's worth of press statements turned up the following examples:

6/28 "Yes, my sense is, is that there's a hope that we succeed with all the nations sitting around the table. Everybody understands the stakes."
6/24 "But the reason why is, is because her job is to give grant and loan programs for rural development."
6/17 "What I'm telling you is, is that the economy's strong, it's getting stronger."
6/14 "Another problem is, is that people — they feel like it may be too complicated, the procedures may be too complicated to get a drug discount card."
6/10 "What I can tell you is, is that we're going to make sure we fully understand the veracity of the plot line. And so we're looking into it, is the best way I can tell you."
6/10 "The point is, is that we understand that the Iraqi people need help to defend themselves, to rebuild their country — and, most importantly, to hold elections."
6/1 "What did happen is, is that we moved too quickly"
5/25 "The thing about Sid is, is that he is such a loving guy that he wants to help somebody in life."
"My view is, is that we need to empower consumers and doctors."

Some of these examples do seem to involve hesitations or disfluencies (as with the "...is, is that, again to repeat what I said earlier..." example; see also the 6/14 quote), and we might wonder whether they were merely "typos" ("speakos"?). In other cases, though, the sentence is short and otherwise unremarkable: "What did happen is, is that we moved too quickly". They occur in both (apparently) scripted and unscripted utterances (though slightly more often, perhaps, in questions than in the text of a speech), and they are transcribed faithfully in White House press releases. He seems to produce them without prior planning, and there is no effort to edit them out. I suppose we'll never know whether he subconsciously associates this construction with folksy, hypermasculine speech (as Arnold Zwicky suggests for some other features). At the most basic level, however, the answer seems to be that, like so many other speakers, he simply finds them grammatical, and uses them routinely. Maybe if I had a PR machine transcribing my every word for a month, someone would find just as many "...is...is..." constructions in my own speech...

Posted by Adam Albright at June 29, 2004 07:06 PM