The Thing Is Is

In a Tuesday news conference, Democrat presidential candidate Barack Obama responded to comments made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, on Monday. Wright had said, among other things, “Based on [the] Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything,” including introducing the AIDS virus into the black community as a form of genocide.

Senator Obama’s reaction: “All it was was a bunch of rants that aren’t grounded in truth.”

Why would a well-educated, manifestly articulate public figure such as Barack Obama use the clumsy phrase “All it was was…”?

All it was was is a cousin to the common construction the thing is is. How troublesome such word combinations must be to nonnative English-speakers who are trying to learn the language.

Here’s the thing: The little groupings the thing is and all it was have become, essentially, familiar noun phrases—roughly synonymous with “the crux of the matter” or “what it boils down to.”  So familiar are these colloquialisms that they are easily processed by American minds, as follows:

SUBJECT: All it was
VERB: was
SUBJECT COMPLEMENT (or PREDICATE NOMINATIVE): a bunch of rants….

Senator Obama might better have said, “What it amounted to was a bunch of rants that aren’t grounded in truth.” But speaking under duress and off the cuff, any of us might have used the less graceful syntax.

In fact, in Senator Obama’s position, I, the Writing Queen, might have used less felicitous language, along the lines of, “All it was was a noisome mass of bovine fecal matter.” Or words to that effect.

  • Got a question about grammar, syntax, or bovine fecal matter? Please leave a comment.
  • Purge your writing of bovine fecal matter. See Write Better Right Now at www.LifeIsPoetry.net.

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