I came across on lyrics of Buffalo Springfield's "For what it is worth":

There's something happening here

What it is ain't exactly clear

I am interested in the following grammar structure "it is ain't". Why isn't it the mistake? I thought that the correct variant is "what it is not exactly clear"?

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    If you are looking for song lyrics to teach you correct grammar, you are looking in the wrong place. Lyricists often compromise grammar for the sake of rhythm, meter, and rhyme. – J.R. Jan 15 '17 at 10:09
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    @J.R. Well, they often use language from other varieties of English instead of from standard Englishes ... (which isn't quite the same thing). – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 15 '17 at 11:47

The meaning of the line is:

It's not exactly clear what [the thing that is happening] is.

Which really means in context,

It's not exactly clear what's happening.

The phrase "what it is" works as a noun here. This is an idiomatic way to say "what thing it is" or "what way it is". In fact, it's not particularly unusual at all.

On the other hand, "What it" cannot be used as a noun, so "What it is not exactly clear" would not be a proper sentence because the "what" is misplaced.

| improve this answer | |
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    On the other hand, one could say: What it is is not exactly clear. (It's not exactly elegant, but it is feasible.) – J.R. Jan 15 '17 at 10:12

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