When Are Double Words OK?
Are “is is” and “had had” acceptable?
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“Is” Is a Special Case?
Another odd doubling up occurs with the verb “to be.” This phenomenon is sometimes called the “double is,” although you can double up other forms of “to be.” You’ve probably heard of the song “Que será será,” which is Spanish for “Whatever will be will be.” In this song, “will be,” a future form, is repeated.
The double “is” has been part of American speech since at least the 1980s, but “it isn’t an expression for careful speakers,” says grammar authority Bryan Garner (2). You’ll often hear it when a sentence begins with “The problem is” and “The question is” (1). In such cases, another “is” would be incorrect. For example, in the sentence “The problem is is that it’s raining,” the subject of the sentence is “the problem”; therefore, we need only one “is.” We probably say such ungrammatical sentences because we’re stalling as we think of what to say next. Thinking longer before you speak is a better idea.
There is, however, a case when two “is” verbs in a row is grammatical. Well, at least I think so. One source I consulted agrees with me (3), but one does not (2). Sometimes you might hear a sentence such as “What he is is a complete jerk.” I believe this is grammatically correct, though a bit wordy. We use such sentences when we want to emphasize our point. If we use the same grammatical structure but not the double “is,” I think we can see that the double “is” sentence is grammatical: “What she wants is a bigger chocolate bar.” Here, “What he is” and “What she wants” are both the subjects, so we need to follow the subject with a verb. In the first case, the verb “is” turns out to be next to another “is”; in the second, the verb “wants” is next to the “is.” If you want to be a more careful speaker, you should probably reword such sentences: “He is a complete jerk” is more concise but less emphatic.
That’s about it for doubled words. Remember that words sometimes get doubled in the normal course of creating a sentence. It’s also possible to double up “had” if you’re using the past perfect tense. These constructions might be slightly awkward, so if you don’t like them, go ahead and reword your sentence. As for the double “is,” although you’ll probably let an occasional double “is” slip out every once in a while, it’s probably better to avoid this construction when possible.
This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
1. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, pp. 667-8.
2. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 469.. Accessed Sept. 26, 2008.