is is that

TED recently posted a talk by Kevin Slavin entitled “How algorithms shape our world”. The subject matter is interesting, but even more interesting, for me at least, is a pervasive peculiarity in Kevin’s speech: in constructions like “the problem is that” and “what could go wrong is that”, he often (though not always) repeats the verb is, saying instead, “the problem [with that] is is that” (10:08) and “what could go wrong is is that” (4:59).

Other examples from the talk are:

the magic and the horror of that is is that (4:15)

and that’s the thing, is is that (5:31)

and what you see here, or what you don’t really see, normally, is is that (8:54)

and what this map says is is that (13:34)

Curiously, the repetition is missing from other, similar examples, two of which are given below.

the gag is that (6:31)

the thing you might’ve noticed is that (13:48)

Note also that, so far as I can tell, when the optional complementizer that is absent, or in cleft constructions followed by noun phrases or question clauses, is is never repeated.

what he’s done is he’s actually reshaped (0:28)

what you see, that precipice […], is the 2008 financial crisis (0:38)

what you can picture is a bunch of algorithms (4:34)

the question is, […], what was happening (7:04)

what you see is the evidence (7:13)

My initial hypothesis for something like this would normally have been prosodic: there’s a prosodic break between the two is‘s. In fact, I think this is quite common. For example:

What could go wrong is, [pause], is that …

The [pause] could perhaps also be substituted by something like then or of course.

But that’s not what we have here. There is no pause between Kevin’s is‘s; they’re spoken in quick succession. Plus, there’s at least one example where a pause would, I think, be totally impossible:

that’s the thing, is is that (5:31)

*that’s the thing is, [pause], is that

What’s more, Kevin actually does not have the repetition in precisely the place where the prosodic explanation would be likely to put one: he puts a clear pause between is and that in “the gag is that” (6:31).

So it’s as if the repetitive is is functions as a unit. It’d be one thing (peculiar yet understandable) if he did it all the time, but it’s curious that there seems to be some free variation between is that and is is that.

[NB: There is one instance where Kevin seems to have not two, but three(!) is‘s:

and the thing is is is that (8:46)

But maybe I’m just mishearing him. Maybe he’s actually saying something like “and the thing of(?) this(?) is that”, despite the fact that “the thing of this”, instead of, say, “about this”, sounds unnatural to me.

Some evidence that “is is is” may be “of this is” comes from an earlier part of the talk, in which he, I’m pretty sure, says:

the point of this is that (1:02)

Here, “of this” is perfectly natural.]

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