Wednesday, October 31, 2007

what it is is

Haven’t written much about language here. Not that I don’t have plenty of opinions on the matter (look at my Blogger profile, and you’ll see I have language listed among my interests). I just haven’t felt any prompting to do so. And now that I do, and I begin thinking about all the related minutiae I could bring up, I realize that I must restrict myself to the one phrase that made me think of writing this. Else this entry would vastly balloon; after all, the subject of language and grammar has filled more than one book (most of these links are to classic or recent popular texts I have enjoyed).

The phrase that has piqued my pen is “What it is is”. I only recently began noticing this phrase. I don’t think it’s old, and I don’t think I’ve heard it used by anyone under 40, but I’ve been hearing it all over the place: in daily conversation, in lectures, in radio interviews. I figured someone else must have noticed this phrase and thought about it, so I did a quick Google search. Most of the links that came up are merely appearances of the phrase in one context or another. The first one, however, is a message from a linguists’ listserv. My favorite example contained there is a quote from a Crossfire transcript:
S: … isn’t the Bush policy a continuation of the Clinton administration's policy vis-à-vis Iraq?
B: No, what it is is it’s jacking it up on steroids and taking us into a war that I think we can win without putting our troops in harm’s way.
That response is jacked up on steroids, at least vis-à-vis “it”s and “is”s.

I was also planning to mention at the beginning of this post that I’m not trying to be William Safire (note: the biography should be updated; he is no longer a political columnist for the Times). When I did the search, however, I found a column of his on a closely related (but syntactically complete) phrase: “It is what it is.” He commented on the meaning, function, and curiously tautological structure of that phrase. I shall do similarly.

Part of what intrigues me about the phrase is that it’s filler, without actually being incorrect (as far as I can tell). “What it is” is a complete clause, capable of acting as a noun, although its use as an object is much more established than its use as a subject (e.g., “We want to know what it is.”) Hence it can certainly fill the role of giving the verb something to hang on to, but it does so more verbosely than strictly necessary (e.g., “Let me tell you about mathematics. What it is is the study of numbers and patterns”, instead of just “It is the study of numbers and patterns.”)

As for being “correct”, I place this property in relation to another phrase that jumps out at me: “The reason is because”. This phrase has generated a lot more ire and commentary. This is due to the flat-out grammatical incorrectness of the phrase. I don’t want to harp on the reasons here: those interested can go look at the links from the search. (It’s a conversation that’s been going on since the early part of last century, at least, based on the texts among those links.)

Now, I’m less of a grammatical prescriptivist than I might once have been. I hold that the function of language is to communicate, and so “good” and “bad” grammar are established on the basis of how well they aid communication. But communication, in some sense, can only happen by convention, and so we must allow for the conventions of meaning, both in denotation and connotation. My favorite example along these lines is “hopefully”. Look at that word. The “-ly” ending should tell you straight off that it’s an adverb. Its most frequent use nowadays, however, is as a replacement for the phrase “I hope that” or “it is to be hoped that” (e.g., “We’re planning on having a picnic tomorrow. Hopefully, it won‘t rain.” How could “it” (whatever is doing the raining, another interesting convention of language) do anything in a hopeful manner, whether raining, not raining, or otherwise?) And I’m perfectly happy to use the word this way, and to enjoy hearing others use it this way.

“Because”, on the other hand, is a logical connector. It has always been a logical connector between two otherwise independent clauses. “Hopefully”, in my previous example, has the benefit of sitting slightly outside the main syntax of the sentence. Putting “because” in the unfortunate position of being a relative pronoun (which is what “that” would be in its place) muddles the structure of the whole sentence. Is the meaning obscured? Not in the slightest. So I can’t get too upset with it, but I avoid it nonetheless.

I avoid “what it is is”, too, but mostly because I’m amused by it and not sure where I stand on its rhetorical effectiveness. Let me finish by comparing it to certain structures in French. (When I learn that some superficially awkward or suspect construction has corroboration or analogue in French, I tend to relax about it.*) One of the first general constructions one learns in French class is how to ask what something is: “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” or, more generally, “Qu’est-ce que… ?”. Translated verbatim, the first of these means “What is it that it is?” The latter appears in questions such the following, which one might hear upon entering a store or restaurant: “Qu’est-ce que vous désirez?” (“What is it that you desire?”). This last inquiry could be phrased more tersely as “Que désirez-vous?” (“What do you desire?”) without sounding right-out rude, but as a college professor of mine pointed out, it would seem affected or pretentious to ask “Qu’est-ce?” (“What is it?”). The phrase est-ce que (“is it that”) is the boon of French students everywhere who can’t remember how to invert subject and object in a question: it’s much easier to ask “Est-ce qu’il y a des devoirs?” for “Is there any homework?” instead of “Y a-t-il des devoirs?” Nor do I think anyone would bat an eye at a sentence beginning “Ce que c’est, c’est…” (“That which it is, it is…”). With French calling ceaselessly upon these phrases, which if consistently translated would sound like so much filler, we can certainly forgive the English equivalent.

It doesn’t seem that there’s actually anything to forgive. “What it is is…” is not only syntactically correct, it calls the listener’s attention to the fact that the speaker is trying to give an accurate representation or account of the topic at hand. In that sense, it’s almost a 21st century “verily”. And who can fault the return of that rhetorically necessary sentiment?

* For example, I think the French get right the use of personal pronouns in predicates of sentences. Louis XIV’s immortal “L’état, c’est moi”—translated verbatim as “The state, that’s me” and more justly as “I am the state”—exemplifies this phenomenon. The French say “c’est moi”, while we have somehow convinced ourselves that we should say “That is I”, because the verb “is” for some inscrutable reason means “I” should be in the nominative case. It would be just as reasonable to argue ourselves into saying “That am I” and properly make the verb match that presumptively nominative “I”. (Because that is clearly unreasonable, it follows by some logical principle/fallacy for which I have no name at this time that is unreasonable for us to say “That is I.”) It could not possibly be right to say “C’est je”—that sentence, if it can be called such, sounds incredibly tortured. Perhaps this difference between French and English in what is “standard” is due to our calling “me” a strictly object form of the pronoun, while the French call “moi” a pronom tonique, capable of multiple functions (including, to mention another grammatical structure we should allow in English yet still try to ban, placing greater emphasis on a subject: “Lui, il est sympa”—“Him, he’s nice”).

1 comment:

Becky said...

My personal pet peeve (on these lines) is "the reason why". Just say "the reason is"!

Some of these problems just come from a lack of style education in grammar lessons, I think. Then again, our grammar is so bad in this country, that may not be our problem . . .