Tag Archives: syntax



There Are Typos and There Are TYPOS

Words can be misspelled and commas misplaced without doing violence to the meaning of the text. Occasionally one notices an astonishingly inappropriate typo that not only distorts but actually reverses the intended message, as in the following paragraph:

The International Symposium on Focal Therapy and Imaging in Prostate and Kidney Cancer is a joint initiative of the departments of urology at Duke [University], Durham, North Carolina, and AMC, Amsterdam…. The initiative has a purely educational focus [on]… minimally invasive treatment… that destroys the known area(s) of cancer while preventing a man’s continence and potency.… (www.focaltherapy.org)

Either preserving (rather than preventing) was meant, or the writer omitted some important prefixes (incontinence, impotence).

The Thing Is, Is…

Note how Wikipedia defends “legitimate usages of two successive copulae”:

The double copula, also known as the reduplicative copuladouble is or Isis, is the usage of two successive copulae when only one is necessary, largely in spoken English. For example:

My point is, is that…

This should not be confused with legitimate usages of two successive copulae, such as:

What my point is is that…

In the latter sentence, “What my point is” is a dependent clause, and functions as a subject. In the former sentence, “My point” is a complete subject, and requires only one copula.

The double copula is nonstandard in written form. Its increasing occurrence in natural speech, however, is significant, and has affected its rate of commonness in any informal writings contexts.

What happens is, is that someone begins a sentence having no idea how it is going to end. Rather than fumbling around with superfluous clauses (“What my point is is that what on earth was he thinking, wearing a gorilla suit to a wake?”), the speaker could have (with a split second’s forethought) communicated with greater clarity and elegance (“My point is that a gorilla suit doesn’t belong at a wake”).


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

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.