Pet Peeves


Copyright 2002 by Jon Bondy, All Rights Reserved.

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Jon Bondy,


No one would accuse me of being literate.  Quite the contrary;.my interest in culture is limited to heavy rock and soft cheese.  I do read non-fiction, but only as a sedative, at night, before I go to sleep.  That said, it almost physically hurts me when people speak poorly.  I can forgive the uneducated their foibles: after all, it ain’t they’s fault.  It is when those who should know better act brain dead: that’s when I get upset.

When it comes to speech, I am a minimalist.  Strip off all unnecessary words, get to the essence.  This is important in technical writing, anathema to professional writing in the “social sciences”, and always useful when one wants to understand what is really being said.  A friend of mine put it best, back in high school: she wished to ban all “repetitious redundancies”.

A few years ago I discovered the phenomenon of the “Is Is”.  Ask your self this: can you use the phrase “is is” in a sentence?  Not if you know what you’re doing, you can’t, but many of my educated friends, and even the newsreaders from NPR say “is is” frequently.

It’s not easy to do, so you have to employ a trick.  Here’s how.  You say “The problem in the mid-east is is that Sharon and Arafat hate each other.”  Simple.  Well, simple minded.

Once you realize that the “Is Is” is out there, lurking [like how I snuck three “is”s in a row there?], and you start to listen for it, you will hear it all of the time.  And it may make you want to grit your teeth each time.  Well, only if you have some taste.

The problem is [is?] that many people have convinced themselves that the phrase “the problem is” is in fact a noun. [Say that sentence a few times!]  How did they do that?  I don’t know: maybe the aliens have landed.  I have pointed this grammatical aberration to more than one of my educated friends. One thanked me and a week later was saying it again; another became enraged that I would question his speech, never taking the time to understand what I was saying.  Must be my cologne.

Having begun to hear the “Is Is”s (pronounced “is is is”, of course!), it will not surprise you when you start to hear the “Is Was”.  “The problem is was that she did not get up on time.”  Seriously.  You will hear that.  And there have been reports of “Was Is”, too. 

I actually heard WBEZ’s Peter Sagal say “What happened was is…” on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” the other day.  Peter is good for one of these just about every week.  And Lynne Rossetto Kasper recently said “What these are are…” on her MPR program “The Splendid Table”.  And, also on NPR, I recently heard “What it isn’t, it isn’t…”!

Perhaps some day, given sufficient government research dollars, a “Was Will Be” or a “Will Be Was” will be heard in a highly guarded secret laboratory out in the desert [like that “will be was will be”?].

In a touching homage to our black brothers, this pattern has expanded in a different direction.  What it is is that other phrases that end with “is’ (such as “what it is”) are also obtaining extraneous “is”s.  This may not be an accident.  I once had a black guy hand write a note to me, which started out with “What it is:” alone on the top line.  He obviously thought of it as a salutation.  Maybe the origin of the “is is” lies here.  In any event, I’ve heard “All I can tell you is is…”, “The reality is is…”, and “What it is is…” on NPR in just a few days.   NPR’s Nina Totenberg committed a “What it is is” just today, as did Howard Stern (big surprise?).

The more fundamental problem with people who speak this way concerns brevity, or the lack thereof.  If you say “The problem is that Mary overslept”, you have wasted four words.   You could have said “Mary overslept” more quickly and more easily, but you instead chose to do it in a long-winded fashion.  Add the extra “is”, and it becomes even more verbose.  Were people to stop prefacing every other sentence with “the problem is”, then the dreaded “Is Is” would be exterminated.  The other stock phrases given above are similarly unnecessary.

My theory is that people need time to think and compose sentences.  Some of us say “like” all of the time; others say “uh” while we think.  Others, apparently, say ‘The problem is” as a mechanical preface, so they can work on the actual sentence they are about to say while they utter their mantra.  Perhaps they throw in the extra “is” as a way of further deferring the inevitable, the creation of an original sentence.  If this theory is true, there should be a correlation between use of “the problem is [is]” and those of meager mental capabilities.  Only time and diligent research will reveal what is at the bottom of this grammatical pit.  I eagerly await the first “is is is”.

My feelings about brevity are at the root of my aversion to “got”.  When someone says “You have got to see that movie”, they are really saying “You have to see that movie”.  The “got” is purely for show, a frill, another waste of time and good ink.  Popular, though.

So, you can imagine how fond I am of Radio Shack’s slogan, “You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers”.  Really. How about “You have questions, we have answers”?  Too literate: it would offend the Great Unwashed to whom Radio Shack caters.

Where will all of this end?  Will the language continue to sprout superfluous words, like huge hairy warts, until all content is hidden under their ugly shadows?  Perhaps.  But there are other forces at work, forces helping to eliminate syllables that some feel are in fact unnecessary.  Bear with me.  Or bare with me, if you must.

With the advent of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the word “terrorist” itself became commonplace.  Unfortunately for us, the first person to utter that word was John Ashcroft.  I say unfortunate because he is either too important to say all of the syllables, or he is simply in too much of a hurry.  I would never say that he is too stupid or illiterate: that would be insulting. 

Perhaps there has been a secret government proclamation explaining that, with the US at war, we no longer have the luxury of saying all of the syllables in  “terrorist”.  In any event, the word “terrist” was born.  Other variants include “terris” and “terroris”.  Terry Gross says “Terroris”, and Anne Bozell says “Terrist”, so if you are in the habit of using one of these new, novel words, you are in good company.  Wrong, but in good company.

I was astonished at how quickly public figures began to mispronounce the word.  Even those who’s on-air syntax is exact stumble on this one.  It is almost as if people feel that saying it correctly would reflect poorly on Ashcroft, and in a time of war, that would make them feel less than patriotic.  We must all pull together.  If Ashcroft says “terrist”, then it would be disloyal to do otherwise.

Or, perhaps, we have discovered the tip of a linguistic iceberg, a kind of conservation of syllables in English.  As one set of dunces adds extra “is”s, another set of Republicans  removes syllables from other words.  And the media just copy the current trends.

That’s the best theory I can come up with.  And, as I’m sure you are aware by now, that is is not a very good theory at all; my tongue is was in my cheek the entire time I was writing this…