What it is is a travesty.
That’s a bad sentence. No question. Most editors would recast it as simply “It is a travesty” and not give it another thought. But what if it was in a quotation? Or what if, for some reason, the editor wasn’t at liberty to revise with such a heavy hand?
How would you deal with “is is”?
It’s a real conundrum: “Sentences with this ungainly construction seem much on the rise, although samples can be found in older sources,” notes Garner’s Modern American Usage.
Here are two such examples Garner’s dug up from real-world usage. “What the O’Rourke study really is is simply a glorified set of examinations in grammar.” “What it is is a judicious mixing of standard English with a large number of ‘Scotchifications.’”
And here’s another that may seem the same but is structurally different: “What I meant is is that …”
Again, no one argues that these are terrible. But are they ungrammatical? And shouldn’t there be a comma in there? Let’s start with the first question.
Often, “is is” is grammatical. The first three examples I cite here are all syntactically sound. But that last one is not. And to understand the difference, you must think in terms of subject and verb.
Can you spot the subject of the sentence “What it is is a travesty,” keeping in mind that a whole clause can be the subject of a sentence? The subject isn’t “what” all by itself. If it were, it would likely be followed immediately by a verb: “What is enlightenment?” But this “what” is followed by the pronoun “it,” telling you that the subject of this sentence is more complicated than a single word.
The subject of the sentence is three words: “what it is.” It’s a clause, containing its own verb. But like many clauses it can work similarly to a noun.
See, for example, how “what it is” functions as an object in “I know what it is.” Here it’s the object of the verb “know.” So the clause is doing the same job a noun could do: “I know Kelly.” You won’t be surprised to learn these are called noun clauses.
Just as a noun clause can be the object of a verb like “know,” it can be the subject of a sentence. And like all subjects, it can get its own verb. In our example sentence, that verb is “is”: What it is is. That’s why it’s grammatically sound.
But what about the comma question? Should there be one between the “ises”? Well, there you’ll find some controversy. Simple rules of commas say not to put one between a subject and a verb. There’s no comma in “The dog chased the car,” so it makes sense to not put one in “What it is is a travesty.”
But like all punctuation rules, this one can be broken for clarity’s sake. That’s why experts disagree on whether to include that comma. Garner’s says no comma. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, another well-respected guide, says you can use one for clarity.
“Is” isn’t the only word that sometimes repeats. Joe had had too much pizza. Mary brings with her her expertise. Note that that didn’t happen. I’ll be in in a minute. If you do do your hair tonight …
Unlike our “is is” sentence, these repeated words aren’t the result of a noun clause that contains a verb. They happen for many different reasons. “Chance repetition of words is a natural feature of the language,” Fowler’s notes.
But be sure the repeat makes sense. In “What I meant is is that,” what you’re seeing is not a quirk of the language but an error called the reduplicative copula. “This is not the type of double that is sometimes grammatically required,” Garner’s warns. “Rather, the second ‘is’ is grammatically superfluous.”