Labels Are Not Definitions
My recent positing
constructions in English began, very carefully:
For at least 35 years, English speakers
have been producing sentences with an occurrence of a form of BE
that is not licensed in standard English (SE) and is not a disfluency...
This was designed -- perhaps too subtly, but my posting was an abstract
for a conference paper, so it was necessarily concise -- to exclude
two types of examples: those that are in fact licensed in SE, and those
that are disfluencies. Nevertheless, examples of the Isis subtype
(most of which have is is
or was was
in them), and, especially,
the widespread labeling of Isis as the "double is
", "is is
", "double be
", or "be be"
, phenomenon often cause
people to think that any sentence with is is
or was was
in it is an instance of the
phenomenon. But some are just SE and some are disfluencies.
People have been misled by the labels. The larger lesson is:
Labels Are Not Definitions (Or
Early on in our investigations of the phenomenon, the Stanford/Colorado
research group began to use the label Isis or ISIS (pronounced
/ájsIs/), just to get away from the
possibly misleading "is is
etc. stuff. The label is suggestive, but doesn't look like a
characterization or description of the phenomenon. (This tactic
doesn't always work, but we still think it's better than the
In any case, people come to us with examples of both of the types we
try so carefully to exclude. I'll look at disfluencies first.
The kind of disfluency that can get confused with genuine Isis is a
repetition disfluency: speakers, in the heat of speech production,
pause and repeat some material while they're groping for how to
formulate what they want to say next. Usually these repetitions
are of "little words", like the
, infinitival to
, personal pronouns, and, yes,
forms of the verb BE
. The article the
is an especially frequent
target of repetition disfluency; if you look at carefully transcribed
natural speech, you'll see an awful lot of occurrences of "the,
the". These are inadvertent repetitions, not part of the
speaker's system of English syntax.
The published material on Isis mixes examples that are punctuated with
a comma (suggesting a pause, and a possible disfluency) and those
punctuated without. In collecting our own examples on the fly --
my personal file has 133 examples in it at the moment -- the Isis group
has tried to distinguish the two cases. We are particularly
impressed by examples that are pronounced smoothly and without pause,
like the ones below:
The difference is is that I don't want
Part of the problem is is that they gave me a project and...
The problem is is that you get into...
The first is from an episode of the television show Charmed
, and was surely not a
scripted bit (and was probably not noticed by anyone involved with the
episode). The other two are from a male speaker, a Silicon Valley
type, overheard in the Palo Alto Gordon Biersch restaurant on 11/20/06.
But there are also plenty of repetition disfluencies. (Some
people have suggested that these are, historically, the source of
Isis. But no other such disfluency seems to have been
grammaticalized, and Brenier & Michaelis (2005) -- in the list of
references in my Extris posting -- have argued that Isis has a much
more interesting motivation, involving separate functions for each of
the forms of BE
in Isis.) Eventually, the more
phonetically minded members of the Isis group set about studying how to
distinguish repetition disfluencies from instances of a (non-standard)
syntactic construction Isis. The result was the Coppock et al.
paper cited in my earlier posting (which is, alas, not yet published,
but is, hooray, available on-line here
Ordinary people -- people who aren't into Isis professionally -- don't
distinguish the two phenomena, and they probably notice the
disfluencies much more than the Isis occurences; certainly, my
non-linguist friends are often astonished that I've detected a smooth
Isis production when they didn't. What this means is that the
cases that non-linguists bring to me are just the ones most likely to involve
disfluencies. So it is with two examples offered to me by Edith
The thing is is, is that..
What it is is, it's a...
These look like spectacular triple-is
examples. But note the punctuation. I suspect that the
first one has Isis ("The thing is is") followed by a repetition
disfluency, and that the second starts out as a perfectly well-formed
pseudocleft ("What it is is" -- see below) followed by a repetition, in
this case a partial restart with "it is" repeated in the form
"it's". Neither exemplifies a triple-is
On to examples that are just SE, for instance:
What it was, was football.
What this was, was a
victory for North Carolina's team.
Colleagues who know that I'm a student of "double be
" every so often write and post to
suggest the first of these, an Andy Griffith punchline, as an
example. And a colleague wrote to offer me the second.
These are just ordinary pseudocleft sentences in which the subject
happens to end in a form of BE
, which is then, of
course, followed by a
form of BE
that belongs to the main clause (it's part
construction). (The commas indicate an intonation contour rather
than a pause.) There's nothing even slightly non-standard about
examples; they're in pretty much everybody's syntactic system. In
fact, eliminating one of the occurrences of was
*What it was(,) football.
*What this was(,) a victory for North Carolina's team.
Now we have a way to get Isis examples that have three occurrences of is
in a row, but where the first
two are just part of a pseudocleft sentence, and the third is the extra
What part of it is is is that the
This one's from KFJC's Robert Emmett, host of the Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack Show
on 3/5/05. Emmett is a virtuoso Isis user and has been providing
me with examples for six years now.
(Some people have suggested pseudoclefts that have a form of BE
at the end of the subject and another at the beginning of the predicate
as the historical source of Isis. But such examples are not
especially frequent, and some kind of "double function" account is much
If you take the name "double be
to be not just a label, but actually a definition, you'll be tempted
into seeing repetition disfluencies and entirely standard pseudocleft
sentences to be instances of the phenomenon. But, to hammer it
Labels Are Not Definitions (Or
I make this point every few months. Here's a version of the idea
the English "subjunctive":
I've been providing arbitrary
designations for both phrase properties (Constr:286) and word
properties (Form:I), along with suggestive labels of my own devising or
from CGEL (plain counterfactual, irrealis). It's important to realize
that these suggestive labels play absolutely no role in the description
of the language. If they're well chosen, they allude to some relevant
aspect of syntax or semantics, but the labels are in no way
descriptions, of either the syntax or the semantics.
So there's no substantive issue here. "Irrealis" is a much better name
for Form:I than, say, "cislocative" or, for that matter, "elephant",
but it's at best a hint at the semantics of the constructions in which
And one from a
plural, mass, and collective in English:
I'm going to reject the standard
labels, because they encourage you to think that the grammatical
categories are semantically defined -- with a singular word used to
refer to one thing and a plural to more than one -- while the fact is
that the connection between grammatical categories and meaning is much
more indirect. What I'll do instead is use the labels SG and PL,
which are helpfully suggestive but also evidently novel.
[Later, I introduce C vs. M and COLL vs. ~COLL]
And from a
somewhat woozy VPE examples, where I make the principle
Though the construction is usually
known as Verb Phrase Ellipsis (sometimes Verb Phrase Deletion), the
omitted phrase is not always a VP. In (4), it's an AdjP.
"VPE" isn't a bad name, but it doesn't tell you everything. The
slogan is: Labels Are Not Definitions.
"Nominative" and "accusative" (or
"subject case" and "object case") aren't bad names, but the labels
aren't definitions, and they aren't descriptions.
Still, people are inclined to think that words are tightly bound to
their referents; pigs are so-called because they're, well,
pig-like. Linguists know better, or so we think; we understand
about the arbitrariness of the sign, after all. But when we're
confronted with derivative or complex expressions, pretty much
everybody, linguists included, hopes that the labels are going to be
definitions; just unpack the expression, and you know what it
means. But this is almost never going to be the case -- certainly
not for ordinary-language expressions, and hardly ever even for
Our touching faith in labels as definitions is routinely exploited in
creating new labels or choosing labels from a set of
alternatives. We argue, for example, over whether a particular
set of people should be called Black or African American or something
else, but (even if we agree on who belongs to this set) no choice of
label could possibly bear the burden of picking out just this set of
people. We similarly argue over which of a number of labels to
use for language varieties used by many of the people in this set, and
once again the labels can't do the work of picking out just this
collection of varieties. As with grammatical terminology, the
best we can do is nod in the right direction.
Occasionally, you see real silliness that comes from a naive faith in
the power of labels. Every so often, someone explains to me that
you can't end a sentence with a preposition because the word preposition
means '[a word] placed
before [its object]', and stranded prepositions aren't followed by
their objects. Q.E.D. (Note also the Etymological Fallacy
in this reasoning.)
And you see people desperately hoping that technical terms will mean
what they would mean in ordinary language. Here's a complaint
from Mark Morton in The Lover's
(2003), p. 17:
... some people, such as my first-year
English students, mistakenly call the language of Shakespeare Old
English. It's not. In fact, Shakespeare wrote in Early
Modern English, which is also the language of the King James Bible.
Well, it's a form of English, and it's certainly old, meaning from a
considerable time ago, and these people have probably heard of Old
English, so if anything should deserve this label it's the language of
Shakespeare. But, too bad, the label isn't a definition.
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 22, 2007 02:00 PM