Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: what it is is.

what it is is. Sentences with this ungainly construction seem much on the rise, although examples can be found in older sources: o “What the O’Rourke study really is is simply a glorified set of examinations in grammar.” Janet Rankin Aiken, Commonsense Grammar 244 (1936). o “What it is is a judicious mixing of standard English with a large number of ‘Scotchifications.'” Stanley Rundle, “Language and Dialect,” in A Linguistics Reader 86, 88 (Graham Wilson ed., 1967). Notice that neither of those writers put a comma before the second “is.” That’s the way to punctuate it — with nothing at all. Only the second of these more recent examples got the punctuation right: o “Clearly, this is no high-level policy debate. What it is, is [delete the comma] payback time for middle-class voters.” “Shaking the Washington Goody Tree,” Chicago Trib., 18 June 1997, at 20. (A possible revision: “Clearly, this is no high-level policy debate. Instead, it’s payback time for middle-class voters.”) o “The movie is not about stripping, and it’s not likely to be among the top 10 or even 20 sexy movies you’ve ever seen. What it is is very funny, and what it’s about, strangely enough, is self-respect and believing in yourself.” Bob Fischbach, “Nudity Not Main Point of Funny ‘Monty,'” Omaha World-Herald, 15 Sept. 1997, at 35. (A possible revision: . . . “you’ve ever seen. It’s very funny, and strangely enough, it’s about self-respect . . . .”) What happens is that the noun clause (“what it is”) needs a verb (the second “is”). But a better method in many contexts is to avoid the “what”-construction altogether and make the sentence more direct. The suggested revisions show only a few of the myriad ways to do that. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “Effective writers are not tediously lengthy on small points and maddeningly abrupt on major ones. They also must know when they are boring people.” Kenneth S. Rothwell, Questions of Rhetoric and Usage 6 (1971). ====================
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