The Thing Is, Is...

sneak peak: a confused observation of a recent linguistic phenomenon - "the thing is, is that..."

The Thing Is, Is..., imogen molly blog,

I'm a word nerd, I studied words at uni, please indulge me a linguisticy post. Because people, I have noticed something weird.

There's a new turn of phrase in town, and it is confusing me. Apparently it is no longer enough to say something like: "The thing is, I really don't like cabbage." Nope. Instead, people are now saying: "The thing is, is that I really don't like cabbage."

Except sadly everyone is not saying that exact sentence because cabbage is still being used much too widely for my liking. Anyway, that's not the point.

Let's open this up a bit to see what's actually happening.

As a forewarning, I may be wrong on this because it is a year and a half since I left uni, and if school summer holidays were anything to go by then I've probably forgotten everything. Saying that, at first glance it looks like this sentence structure has two subjects, depending on how much you break it down.

We can, for example, split it into two in a very high-level sense:

[the thing is] - [I really don't like cabbage]
subject clause / object clause

and then also:

[I] - [really] - [don't] - [like] - [cabbage]
subject / intensifier / do-support negation / verb / object

as well as:

[the] - [thing] - [is]
determiner / subject / verb

At first glance, it looks like thing is being interpreted as not enough on its own as the subject of its clause, and is instead being used in conjunction with is, making the whole of thing is a subject in itself. The structure of that would look more like:

[the] - [thing-is] - [is]
determiner / subject / verb

This is usually paired with a that afterwards ("the thing is is that [I am starting to confuse myself]"), which I imagine could be because on some subconscious (or conscious) level, people realise that 'is is' is (so many ises) a weird sentence structure. Therefore, they have to speed through the second is, and dilute it with a that. Say it out loud and you'll see what I mean by speeding through.

I do wonder if it might be because we don't want to pause while we're talking. Saying "The thing is, [blah]" requires a slight pause at the comma, whereas "The thing is is that [blah]" does not, and perhaps therefore makes it sound better. Because people are filling every possible gap with words, and therefore giving the impression of having a lot to say and not having to stop to think about it, it's possible that on some subconscious level they feel they will be more respected or seem like what they're saying will carry more weight.

I initially thought it was only happening with 'the thing is', but then I heard someone say "the problem is, is that..." so that theory was scuppered. However, try replacing it with something following the same general idea and serving the same purpose, but structured in a slightly different way - for example, "what I mean to say is...". For now, at least, the weird structure doesn't seem to come quite so easily in that case (not that I feel it comes particularly easily at all, but hey ho).

I would actually be really interested to know more about the reasons for this, so if anyone has graduated more recently than me or has a higher level of linguistic education or has just retained some more of their knowledge of syntactic trees, language change, semantic shift and other such exciting things we spent our days thinking about for all that time, then please do help solve the mystery.

- post #9 of 21 in the 21-day challenge -


  1. Ah ha! Now you have piqued my interest. This is indeed all very confusing, not to mention clumsy. You know it's incorrect when a foreigner asks you to explain how it all works. In my experience they have been taught English grammar properly and are consequently hugely confused by our own undermining of our language. Personally I think that it is just a habit, much like the drivel of business speak that we all now ape; thinking out of the box, blue sky thinking, moving forward, pivot, feature rich and so on.

    My personal bug-bear? Off of. As in "I took the book off of the shelf"

    Come the revolution that offence will certainly get you thrown in jail for a long time.

    1. Very confusing and very clumsy, and pretty recent too I think which is interesting! Definitely, my friends who aren't L2 English have a way better grip on English grammar and tenses and things than we ever learn at school... and thank you for the business-speak point, you inspired my corporate jargon post!

      'Off of' is annoying, and I don't like 'would of' instead of 'would have', and the classic 'I was sat' instead of 'I was sitting/I sat'. Oh the joys!

  2. The thing is, is the problem is, is that it's not clear which words should be taken off of the phrase to leave a grammatically correct sentence.

    1. Got it in one. Also from now on my insult of choice is going to be 'piss off (of)'.

  3. I think that the way it came about is, is that people were saying

    "What the thing is, is that..."

    And then they dropped the "What"


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