'It Is What It Is' and Other Tautologies
Repetition can help create emphasis (as in "No means no"), nonchalance, resignation (as in "It is what it is"), or even obligation.
A couple times a week, I hear someone remark “It is what it is,” accompanied by a weary sigh. I always puzzle over the expression a little bit, thinking What else could it be? “It is what it is” is a literal tautology, an apparently needless repetition intended to convey something more. Overused, it has become a cliché, reflecting a too-easy acceptance of bad situations.
“It is what it is” is not alone. Tautologies abound, from “What will be will be” (and the Spanish version “Que será será”) to the assertive “I am what I am” (and the Biblical “I am that I am” translating the Hebrew "Ehyeh asher ehyeh"). There’s Yogi Berra’s “It ain’t over till it’s over.” And there’s “A man got to do what a man got to do” from “The Grapes of Wrath,” later morphed to “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
These clausal tautologies often share a grammatical form: the subject-predicate pair is repeated within the subject (“What will be will be,” “A man got to do what a man got to do”) or within the predicate (“It is what it is,” “I am what I am”). By stating the obvious in an obvious way, such expressions force us to look beyond the literal for meaning. Hearers infer inevitability and acceptance or, in some instances, hope and grit.
Clause tautologies are not the only kind. Noun tautologies assert that something—some noun—is itself: “food is food,” “tires are tires,” “war is war,” “a win is a win.” The grammar denies the existence of difference within a category, seeming to say that all foods (all tires, wars, wins, etc.) are the same. The denial of difference can sometimes evoke an obligation, as in “a promise is a promise,” meaning that all promises should be honored. Noun tautologies can also be expressed with the verb “means” emphasizing the need to take a word literally, as in “No means no” or “Brexit means Brexit.”
When noun tautolgies are set in the future tense or in the past, additional nuance arises. We see this in “Boys will be boys” or “I remember when books were books.” The first points to some extreme aspect of male behavior, attributing it to immaturity and implying its inevitability. The second points to a missing but idealized quality of books, such as physicality or literary quality.
Tautologies can also be used in conditional sentences with “if.” Here both meanings are possible, either the cancellation or emphasis of difference. “If he’s mad, he’s mad” can imply a nonchalance about someone’s anger: “If he’s mad, he’s mad. There’s nothing I can do about it." Or it might, with a slightly different intonation (and stress on the second “mad”), indicate extreme anger: “He doesn’t often get angry so if he’s mad, he’s mad.”
Likewise “If it’s late, it’s late” can imply nonchalance (on the part of a student: “If it’s late, it’s late. Who cares?”) or reinforcement of the obligation (on the part of the professor: “If it’s late it’s late, even by a minute”). And if a deadline-enforcer says “If it’s late, it’s late,” the response might be “But it’s not late late.” Here repetition indicates that the canonical meaning of “late” it intended. “It’s not late late, it’s just a little late.”
This usage is here to stay. Billy Collins’s poem “After the Funeral” begins with the line “When you told me you needed a drink-drink and not just a drink like a drink of water, …” and a recent “New Yorker” cartoon by Emily Flake is captioned “I mean, I guess we take your insurance, but we don’t, like, take-take your insurance.”
Well, that’s that.
I’m sure you agree that enough is enough.
Edwin L. Battistella teaches linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. He is the author of "Do You Make These Mistakes in English?" (OUP, 2009), "Bad Language" (OUP, 2005), and "The Logic of Markedness" (OUP, 1996). This post originally appeared on the OUP Blog.
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