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Take My Word!

Repetition of the Izzes Is What It Is Is

May 06, 1987|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

"Woddadizz-iz-izzes hoddya geddout wuncherinn?" That translates to "What it is is, is-is how do you get out, once you're in?" and I promise I didn't make it up. I heard it, or something enough like it to make no substantial difference, on Michael Jackson's radio talk show a few months ago. I made a note. The remarkable part, I think, is the "woddadizz-iz-izzes," but we hear that sort of strange locution frequently, if we listen. I hope others have noticed that is sometimes comes at us in tight little groupings of is-is, is-is-is, and even is-is-isis. My wife often accuses me of listening too carefully, so I might have been listening too carefully again, and perhaps I'm the only one aware of is-is-isis.

(So that no one will think I am a paragon of the attention-paying husband and an example for all other married men to emulate, be it known that these accusations of listening too carefully are far outnumbered by the accusations of not listening at all.)

The aforementioned multiples of is result mostly from the use of the common idiom "the thing," in the sense of "the problem" or "the trouble," as in "The thing is we're broke," meaning "The trouble is we're broke." If, in conversation, "The thing is we're broke" were given the same values and emphases as, for example, "The thing is broken," the multiple izzes wouldn't exist; but when we say "The thing is we're broke," we put a special emphasis on the "is"; we usually phrase it as "The thing is : We're broke," so that the structure of the sentence is quite shattered. In formal terms, "The thing" is the subject, and "is we're broke" is the predicate. Strictly speaking, it should be "The thing is that we're broke," but ellipsis rears its foreshortened little head, the that gets lost, and we find ourselves with an unorthodox, bifurcated announcement, much as if it were, "Problem: We're broke."

Here's where is-is comes in. Thousands, or more likely millions, of us treat "the thing is" as though all three words, and not merely "the thing" were the subject of the sentence, so they say, "The thing is is we're broke," or, to get upbeat for a moment, "The thing is is we don't know what to do with all this money."

I've often heard, "The thing is -is-is. . . ." Word of honor. I can guarantee that if you listen for it, you'll hear it, too. For some reason, I can't help hearing it, and I suppose because I can't help hearing that sort of linguistic anomaly my wife says I listen too carefully. She thinks I prick up my ears to catch quirks no one else would notice. Looking for trouble, she says. I spend a lot of time writing about this sort of trouble, so perhaps I do look for it.

The quadruple-is sneaks in when we substitute "what it is" for "the thing." The two phrases are, in this sense, synonymous; "the thing" and "what it is" are interchangeable. Now we have a sentence whose subject really does end with the verb "is," and the predicate then immediately starts with "is." "(Subject:) What it is (predicate:) is once you get in, how do you get out?" That's perfectly grammatical, though not elegant.

I can't resist digressing to the wonderful comedy routine Andy Griffith did in the '50s called, "What It Was Was Football." That routine was the first thing I ever heard Andy Griffith do. As I recall, in "What It Was Was Football" he seen this bunch a fellers runnin' 'round with this ball in a cow pasture, and it took him some time and a good many hilarious conjectures to figure out that what they was tryin' to do was run from one end of the pasture to the other 'thout steppin' in nothin'. After a while he learned that what it was was football. "What it is is" and "what it was was" are good English. The fun starts when people get stuck in the repetition of izzes.

Those is-repetitions remind me of an aging car's engine trying to get up for the day's work. The first is--the "what-it- is ") is--holds the positive promise that something is coming. The subsequent is-isizzes sound as though the mouth uttering them were just trying to develop the spark to go on with the business of expressing a complete idea.

I rather like the buzzing of the izzes when I hear them. When it comes to conversational Styrofoam, they're a lot easier to take than the "like, ya know, I mean," we're assailed with from time to time, and they carry with them a rather upbeat cheerfulness.

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