Monday, July 16, 2012

The Truth Is Is That...

The non-grammatical construction in the title is something that I’ve heard here and there for years but that I don’t use. It struck me this week how often I hear it in Obama’s off-the-cuff (non-teleprompter) remarks and other media conversations. What does it mean?

Grammatically, you’ve got a subject with article—the truth—followed by a linking verb—is. Next you’d expect another subject or a description of some kind to be linked to. It could be another noun: “Truth is beauty.” Maybe an adjective: “The truth is beautiful to those who value it.” You might have the subject linked to a phrase: “The truth is that I didn’t really want to come.” But when is it appropriate to link to a second linking verb followed by a phrase? Never. So what does it mean?
Truth is not always the subject in this construction. Similar “is is” constructions include, “The fact is is that…” and “The point is is that…” which Obama used in his claim the other day that successful business owners are not responsible for their own success. (It's in the final few seconds of the clip below.)

I pointed the “is is” construction out to my son Political Sphere the other night. He hadn’t ever noticed it before. Didn’t remember ever hearing it. When I called attention to it in an Obama clip, he said it was like fingernails-on-a-chalkboard wrong. Unfortunately, now he’s going to be noticing it everywhere, which will cause frequent cringing. Sorry about that.
But, again, what does it mean?
I have a ready supply of usage and grammar resource books, as well as basic internet search engines. I can’t find a discussion of the “is is” construction. It is without question ungrammatical. Usage is another thing; that’s about whether it is used, and where and under what circumstances. It may be that it is newer than my books, or that it is considered so non-standard that it doesn’t deserve discussion (I’m guessing the latter).
Political Sphere had an insight from his days of training as a car salesman. Never tell the customer “this is the lowest I can go,” or “the truth is,” or “honestly,” because those things work against the sale. You will not be believed, probably with good reason. A quoted price is never the lowest you can go, because if the customer absolutely insisted that the price be one cent less, you’d go lower; the sale would be worth it. The customer senses that and doesn’t believe you. And when you say “the truth is” or “honestly,” you’re saying, “now at last I’m telling you the truth,” which implies that up until this point you haven’t been truthful or honest. And if that is so, why should the customer believe you suddenly now, just because you say so.
This is what I think is happening with Obama’s verbal “is is” tic. He is saying, “this is now the truth,” as opposed to what he’d said heretofore. And it’s disingenuous; it doesn’t really mean, “this is true.” What it means is, “this is my opinion that I am pushing you to take as fact, backed only by my say so.”
It is something like “um” and other placeholders while a person thinks up what to say. It doesn’t necessarily mean that what follows is a lie, but it does highlight that possibility. It does not engender the intended assurance.
In Obama’s case, since I think he’s pretty much always wrong, I would prefer that he keep using the construction—that he keep assuring us, “Believe me, what I’m saying now is true, because, um, uh, um, because I say it is”—since it brings attention to his mendacity. And becoming aware of what is true is what we want in this election.
I think we probably all have a verbal tic or two, and I try not to judge people too harshly just because everything they say, especially when it’s recorded all day long, isn’t smoothly articulated. But supposedly this person got into office, not on any record of accomplishments (which he lacked), but on the strength of his oratory skill. So, given the high expectations, I ought to be able to expect something better than a steady stream of “is is” and “uh, um, uh.”
On that note, I have this question: Why does Obama pronounce Afghanistan with short a’s, as in “after,” or “apple,” but he pronounces Pakistan with what are called “pure vowels,” something like “pahk-ee-stahn”? That inconsistency has been consistent over several years; he always uses those pronunciations. Why?
Some of my pronunciations are affected by learning languages and/or becoming familiar with a culture. I no longer pronounce the capital of Argentina as “Buenos Ehrees”; I use pure vowels to say, “Buenos Ah-ee-rehs.” It just became natural, and one is as easy as the other, so I use the more accurate one. But I pretty much always say the capital of France as “Pehr-is,” rather than “Pehr-eé.” I’m not French; I don’t speak French, and the American pronunciation is easier and more natural to me.
So I presume, based on Obama’s consistency about Pakistan being pronounced more like a native would, that he has an affinity for the Pakistani nation, language, culture that he does not feel for Afghanistan. He tells of a three-week visit to Pakistan between his Occidental College and Columbia years, following a visit with his mother in Indonesia. Maybe that would be enough. Still, the contrast with the Afghanistan pronunciation is harsh—like fingernails on a blackboard—especially when both countries come up in a single speech.
Or—and this is a strong possibility—everything Obama says sounds to me like fingernails on a blackboard simply because our beliefs are so at odds that I cannot hear him without cringing. I’m in favor of an experiment: he should change his beliefs, learn the philosophies of our founders, appreciate them, and become able to articulate them. If he changes to a pro-Constitutionalist and I still don’t like to hear what he says, then we’ll know it’s just me. But for now, I think he’s the problem.

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