Friday, March 07, 2008


For almost a week, I've been pondering Safire's column from last week. No, I'm not going to take him to task, even though he misses a point about how English works today, in the mouths of some of its best speakers:
Obama said, “What I said was is that Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests.” (In his curious “was is,” Obama’s juxtaposition of both past and present tenses of the verb “to be” may have been a subtle, implicit reminder of the former president’s unforgettable “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Or the eloquent candidate may have simply misspoken.)
That construction — and variants of it — are widely used today, including by Bush. It's not some high verbal art, not a Clinton reference, and no misspeaking. This "reduplicative copula" gets used in topicalization, and was the subject of a nice article carrying that name by Michael Shapiro & Michael Haley in American Speech (Vol. 77, No. 3, Fall 2002). They quote Bush as using almost the same form, in fact:
What I’ve said is is that . . .
And they give another example from Hillary Clinton, and one with "was is" (and one with "are is" from Bush) and so in, rightly saying that it's "a widespread feature of contemporary speech (if absent from written English)." They say that that is obligatory, and conclude:
In the grammar of speakers who habitually utter (but probably would not write) what looks like a reduplicative copula, subordinator that in nominal dependent clauses after topic words plus is has changed from the simplex that to the complex is that. This development has the effect of expressing (diagrammatizing) the difference in syntactic function between demonstrative and complementizer versions of the same pronoun as a difference in morphological form, which is then its explanation (its teleological raison d’ĂȘtre).
But Safire does get in a graph on theoretical linguistics:
The embrace of the word by political junkies has people in the language dodge wondering, What is this going to do to “transformational grammar”? That’s the monicker given to the revolutionary study by Noam Chomsky a half-century ago of the way the brain’s predisposition to language expresses itself. As the grammarian Robert Funk explains, T.G., as it is known to linguistic insiders, holds that “meaning is generated in the deep structure and then transformed into a variety of surface structures (sentences we actually speak).” As I get it, the transformationalists are figuring out why children acquire their native language so quickly and spontaneously. Syntax is not dictated by mavens laying down rules; it’s issued with the newborn brain itself, along with the capacity to soar, inspire or inflame as well as to argue about the details of usage.
I think most of us today talk about generative rather than transformational grammar, but hey …

If you don't know the band whose album cover is pictured here, you should. What it was was good music.


Anonymous said...

You're letting him off way too easy … check out who Robert Funk is. He wasn't so much a 'grammarian' as a rightwing kook.

Jan said...

Hi Mr. V,

I thought the striking thing there was that Safire lumped in Clinton's "depends upon what the meaning of 'is' is" with the other Isis examples. But obviously there's a grammatical difference between "The thing is, is that ..." and "What the meaning of 'is' [or any other word you mention here] is."

Cheers, Jan
freeman at

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, Anon and Jan.

Yeah, looks like this Funk was not so funky. Good reminder of Safire's research techniques, I suppose: He could have asked plenty of generative linguists or consulted their work.

Yeah, it's odd that Safire lumps these together -- Clinton's famous example was obviously grammatical under any view. When I first read it, I wondered if it was purely political -- Safire reminding readers of that episode during a campaign season. But maybe he really thought Obama was doing that.

The Ridger, FCD said...

You think Safire thinks?