Saturday, June 16, 2012

The problem is is...

I suppose all English majors have their grammatical pet peeves. Mine is the double copula. (No, it's not something dirty. Look it up.) The situation is is that this monstrosity has been steadily creeping into conversational English over the last twenty years or so. And the problem is is that lately, much to my horror, I have been hearing it more and more frequently in scripted dialogue. (I hear it all the time in one of my favorite programs, Community, which—aside from that damnable double "is"—is one of the best-written sitcoms on television.) And the thing is is that it makes me want to scream—

Because the fact is is that that extra "is" is not only unnecessary, it's ungrammatical!

There. I'm glad I got that off my chest. Now, before someone accuses me of being a "Grammar Nazi" (How I hate that term! Should someone who encourages correct usage really be equated with the Third Reich?), let me point out that I am not someone who goes around correcting people's grammar willy-nilly—in casual conversation, e-mails, Facebook posts, etc. My complaint is with professional writers. They should know better. Also, I admit that the double copula is a relatively minor offense. I have heard worse.

For example, recently I was watching the movie X-Men: First Class on television. It's an entertaining movie, and I was enjoying it—at least until I heard the following line: "Between you and I, I'm more fun." That line was like fingernails on a blackboard to me. Suddenly I was no longer paying attention to the movie. All I could think about was the writer's mistake. "But maybe it wasn't the writer's mistake," I thought, and I began to make excuses for him: "Maybe it was intentional; maybe he meant for the character to sound ignorant. Or more likely the actor butchered the line. It's a well-known fact that most actors can barely read." By this time, I had missed a good deal of the plot and nearly lost interest in the movie.

Historically, the English have tended to be better grammarians than we. However, lately such errors have been creeping into their writing, as well. In a recent episode of the (usually) brilliantly-written BBC series Sherlock, I cringed when Benedict Cumberbatch delivered the line, “Did you know there were other people after her, Mycroft, before you sent John and I in there?" Surely the brilliant Sherlock Holmes would know when to use the objective "me" rather than the subjective "I." This is elementary stuff—even Watson should be able to grasp it. Unfortunately, apparently the writer couldn't.

What makes all of this doubly frustrating is that these are talented people. They create ingenious plots and fascinating characters. But it takes more than talent to be a good writer. It takes skill. You may have a brilliant idea for designing a house, but unless you know the fundamentals of construction, you are not an architect. In the same way, unless you know the fundamentals of English composition, you aren't really a writer—or at least you shouldn't be one.

"This is just nitpicking," I hear you say. "Most people don't know the difference between a subject and an object."

But my point is that, of all people, the writer should know the difference.

"Maybe so," you reply, "But aren't writers just writing the way people talk?"

People talk the way they do, in part, because of the way they hear people talk in movies and on television. If our writers continue to write badly, our children will learn to talk—and write—badly. And their children will talk and write even more worser. And their children...

Now do you see what the problem is is?

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