Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Two linguistic constructions to look at today, which have been out there a while, but which I only started noticing lately:

1) "The thing is, is..."
Usage examples from Google:
a. "The thing is is that I do not want good looking girls to be around him..."
b. "The thing is, is that I might be moving in two years."
c. "The thing is, is that EVERY drug has some sort of side affect [sic]..."
d. "The thing is, is that they are back in school and there is an increase of children around the schools and on the streets."

Most editors would, wisely enough, point out that none of these sentences need the extra "is." "The thing is, I might be moving in two years." Perfectly good sentence. So why do so many various English speakers do this? As usual, LanguageLog has beat me to an examination. Their suggestion, which strikes me as pretty good, is that people are, in part, modeling such sentences after similar ones in which a wh- word is used. (Note: in the world of Ling, wh- words are who, what, when, where, how and their semantic equivalents, even if they don't actually start with "wh".) For, with wh- words, we get grammatical constructions like:

a. "What the question is, is what is that purpose?"
b. "What the question is, is not mentioned."
c. "What the issue is, is not Al-Qaeda but local war lords."

Wh- constructions are complicated and gave me headaches when it came time to draw trees for them in syntax class (do a Google search on wh- syntax if you doubt me), but the basic thing to notice is that when the subject of your sentence is a wh- clause, as in those above, you do still need a verb for the main sentence, and usually it is a form of "be." When you take the wh- word away, the sentence gets less complicated and you no longer have that subject clause, and thus you no longer need the extra verb. See?

The reinforcing reason why people might say "The thing is, is" is that humans tend to repeat words in speech, when stalling and thinking. Actual transcripts read something like, "I--the--the--issue is--is--is when can we get--when can we find--find help, for all those who--who--who are waiting?" (I made that up, but you can hear it any day, usually with a lot of "uh" thrown in.) "Is" in particular, being such a common, short, and seemingly colorless word, gets a lot of repetition. So, in sum, people hear "is" repeated in speech, and their minds connect it to wh- type constructions, and they begin forming deliberately constructed sentences with the phrase, "The thing is, is...," which in their minds have thus become grammatical. Interesting, no?

2) "I was reading where..."
Usage from Google:
a. "I had just sat down and was reading where Cary Middlecoff won the US Open..."
b. "I was reading where Alexander Yakovlev's father Dmitri was also involved in the 'mess'..."
c. "I was reading where he had sold about $337 million of Qwest stock..."

Doesn't look like any other linguists have cared enough about this construction to write about it yet (or not that I've found, anyway), and indeed it does strike me as mostly colloquial and not hugely widespread. Some of us, including me, will say informally, "I was reading how..." for any of the above style of sentences. "Was reading where" gets 2,610 hits on Google, which includes many that don't fit this pattern--e.g., "I was reading Where the Red Fern Grows." "Was reading how" gets 912 hits, and again with some misleading ones. For formal writing, we would probably all say, "was reading that..."--or rephrase the sentence altogether.

Still, I think there is a parallel construction for "where" that might lead people to use it in the above manner. If you were in the middle of A Christmas Carol, you might say, "I was reading where Marley's ghost visits Scrooge," and that would be somewhat different from the sentences above, since you would be abridging in a way: "I was reading the part where Marley's ghost visits Scrooge" is the full thought. In the above sentences you can't really insert a phrase like that, and make it work, but all of these sentences strike the ear in a similar fashion, which is often enough to spin off a new linguistic construction.

Linguist disclaimer: By pointing these out I'm not saying that people who use them are Stupid or Wrong. Don't feel you need to adjust your speech patterns or apologize for them. Given the way language keeps changing, these phrases could well become part of the "standard English" of the next generation. I am also not advocating the adoption of these phrases; to be honest, I would instinctively edit them out if I were correcting papers. My aim here is merely that of the linguist: to make note of relatively new constructions and try to figure out where they came from.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 6th, 2005 02:22 pm (UTC)
Iiiinteresting. I am generally amused by the broad use of "the thing" for so many different meanings, as seen in "it's the thing now too do such-and-such," and "I have a thing about this actor," or "I am not feeling at all the thing today." And I won't even go into examples of how often "thing" or the diminutive "thingy" stand in for some object the name or function of which the speaker has forgotten or does not understand. Such a versatile word.

I have something of a pet peeve about the second phenomena, "I was reading where..." I always try to be very conscientious about saying something more elaborate to avoid it, such as "I was reading an article that said something about..." or something else equally stuffy-sounding. I'm sure no one else even notices, of course, unless it is to register semi-consciously that I am a little snobby, and always putting on airs with my fancy syntax.

Sep. 6th, 2005 02:51 pm (UTC)
Hehe - I have definitely teased people for using "thing(y)" as their descriptive noun of choice. Now that you mention it, "thing" isn't very useful in our study phrase here. "Problem" is usually what they're getting at - "the problem is, (is)..."

I like being colloquial and slangy sometimes, since it's fun and colorful; but in "proper" writing - and speech too in some settings - I try to be more precise. Your substitution of "I was reading an article that addressed X" for "I was reading where" seems to help serve that purpose. Lately I've been noticing the same problem with indefinite words like "this" - "This can lead to..." "We can address this by..." Too often it isn't clear what "this" refers to, so if I spot it in something I'm editing, I try to put in a more concrete noun phrase instead.
Sep. 6th, 2005 02:32 pm (UTC)
Interesting post...as you observe, there seems to be a Cognitive context switch in thought formation which manifests itself in the enscripturation process. Thus, 'The thing is' sets the focus (I'm positing a concern I have for your review)and is then followed (by position in the flow) by the concern.

Compiler parsing and syntax works (well, sort of...) the same way; they're less forgiving than even English teachers, of course, which is part of why folks (most of them) don't find computer programming an attractive pastime :)
Sep. 6th, 2005 02:55 pm (UTC)
I'm virtually clueless with programming, and our Linguistics department (UC Davis) didn't have a computational ling program set up while I was there, which I've always rather regretted. But the profs did sometimes try to address the challenges involved in "teaching" a computer to use and understand a human language. I came out of such discussions pretty well convinced that it will be decades before any computer can truly pass as a human in conversation - largely because we don't entirely know what our own minds are doing when we process language. "What do we know when we know a language?" is the main theme of Ling, and the question has only been fractionally answered so far.
Sep. 6th, 2005 05:28 pm (UTC)
Indeed, Paul Dourish (one of my Profs) believes that we only ultimately know what is meant (semantically) by the action that is taken, not by the words used alone. It's interesing to Ubiquitous Computing types...how to get semantics figured out to the level of detail necessary to move into the 'Third Wave of Computing'. I have a short paper on this that no one in the family wants to read...maybe I can inflict it on you sometime.

Sep. 7th, 2005 01:43 pm (UTC)
I want to read it! Or rather I want to have read it. I have it printed out in a folder with a big paper on the meaning of happiness sitting on my desk, waiting to be read, right this very minute. I just...um...forget about it. Frequently. At least it's somewhat more recent than the happiness paper. That things been around almost as long as my marriage.
Sep. 7th, 2005 02:44 pm (UTC)
I'll give it a try. :) Though with my pregnant brain, I might have less of a chance of grasping it than usual.

Semantics really does seem to be the stumbling block in language processing for computers...as lovably illustrated by the Babelfish translator page.
Sep. 6th, 2005 03:52 pm (UTC)
I would never ever write that. It looks so goshdarn wrong. I might say it, though, for the repetition reasons you specify.
Sep. 7th, 2005 02:45 pm (UTC)
Do you ever hear it spoken, deliberately and for non-repetition reasons? It occurs to me it might be a U.S. pattern.
Sep. 7th, 2005 06:19 am (UTC)
I have a paper somewhere I found while I was in college which discusses the local grammer and syntax here in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I shall try to put my hands on it for you. It is (intentionally) amusing.
Sep. 7th, 2005 02:46 pm (UTC)
Cool. Dialect studies are always fun. :)
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )