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A NY Times article contains this question:

Why is yawning is contagious?

Why are there two “is”’s in this sentence?

Similarly for these sentence fragments:

... as far as the freak was concerned was ... (source: University of Sheffield)

When I found out she was a cheapskate was ...

What's the purpose of the second verb in those sentences? (”As far as the freak was concerned was”, “When I found out she was a cheapskate was”, “Why is yawning is contagious”)

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  • 20
    I think there's only supposed to be 1 "is" unless I missed something
    – DialFrost
    Apr 23 at 10:40
  • 4
    The sentence (or sentence fragment) "When I found out she was a cheapskate was" doesn't make any sense. Where did you find it? Apr 23 at 18:58
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    The last two sentence fragments could be fine. It depends what the remainder of each sentence is. The question in the NY Times is definitely a mistake. Apr 23 at 22:04
  • 5
    These sort of mistakes sometimes happen in the world in which we live in. Apr 24 at 0:09
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    This looks like an editing error. My guess is that the author first wrote "Why yawning is contagious", which is not a complete sentence but which would be fine for a title or heading. However, they realised that their other headings were complete sentences and tried to change it into a complete sentence but forgot to delete the second is. Apr 24 at 23:16

4 Answers 4

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There is no "explanation". These are simply errors. You should not see these in any edited text, but this kind of stumbling over words is not uncommon in unrehearsed speech. The example in the lesson plan is a mistake. I suspect that part of the NY Times website is not as carefully checked as the main news articles and opinion pieces.

The sentence "Why is yawning contagious?" is a correct question. "why yawning is contagious" is a sentence fragment. It is a content clause that could be used like a noun in a sentence: "I'll tell you why yawning is contagious."

It is a mistake to include "is" twice. A native speaker would never do it intentionally. The same goes for all the other examples. They are mistakes.

The first example is more or less meaningless on its own. It can be parsed only when placed in a context.

[What was saleable] [as far as the freak was concerned] [was], of course, physical difference, in a form that was both marketable and palatable.

There is a content clause "what was saleable", which is modified by "as far as the freak was concerned", and this is the subject of the sentence. Then the main verb is "was". Compare this example

The apple that was on the table was red.

The first "was" is the verb in the relative clause "that was on the table". The second "was" is the main verb in the sentence.

The second is probably a mix of "When I found out what a cheapskate she was" and "When I found out she was a cheapskate" But note that neither of these are complete sentences. It could also be part of a longer sentence, with the first part being a content clause, but it's not well written:

[When I found out she was a cheapskate] [was] the day she took all the mini shampoos from the hotel.

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    Here is the source for the sentence “As far as the freak was concerned was” sheffield.ac.uk/nfca/researchandarticles/freakshows it’s in the first paragraph.
    – Anas Bo
    Apr 23 at 11:07
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    @AnasBo, you have taken a fragment out of context there. You should not be surprised that it is erroneous when interpreted as a complete sentence. The full sentence is "What was saleable as far as the freak was concerned was, of course, physical difference, in a form that was both marketable and palatable." You can perhaps understand that better by considering this simplified version: "The saleable thing was physical difference." Apr 23 at 19:54
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    The second example is also a sentence fragment, and could be correct as part of a full sentence. For example: "When I found out she was a cheapskate was when I lost all respect for her" Apr 23 at 20:42
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    Both of the latter examples are indeed parts of larger sentences, as can be seen from the sources (now added). Apr 24 at 23:12
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    Note that there's nothing wrong with "Why yawning is contagious". While it is indeed a sentence fragment and not a full sentence, this is common practice for news article titles, and is, in fact, probably what the author intended. (Using "is" twice was definitely an error though.) Apr 25 at 17:04
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The sentence with is repeated appears to be an error. The sentence with was twice is perfectly good, though a little confusing. It reads

What was saleable as far as the freak was concerned was, of course, physical difference, in a form that was both marketable and palatable.

In this sentence as far as the freak was concerned is a parenthetical clause. Without it, it reads

What was saleable ... was, of course, physical difference, in a form that was both marketable and palatable.

which is perfectly well-formed.

You may be confused because the parenthetical clause was not set off with commas - it could have been, but did not have to be - and the second was was followed by another parenthetical phase "of course", which was set off with commas.

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  • I'm not sure it's a parenthetical clause. Although grammaticality isn't lost by its exclusion, it is a restrictive clause. Apr 23 at 23:49
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    @Acccumulation: mebbe. I'm not going to argue the point.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 24 at 9:45
  • Note that restrictive clauses can also be removed to leave a well-formed sentence. Also would make more sense as a restrictive clause because it lacks commas
    – somebody
    Apr 26 at 2:34
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Some of these sentences are simply errors, such as “*Why is yawning is contagious?” If I had to guess, perhaps the writer meant to type, “Why is yawning so contagious,” but accidentally typed si for so and then had it autocorrected to is.

Some of those sentences are correct, however. They have a clause that contains the verb is or was, and that clause is the subject of a sentence whose main verb is also is or was. These don’t make sense if you look only at those sentence fragments in isolation.

A simple example of this is the saying, “It is what it is.” The subject is “it,” the main verb is “is,” and the direct object is the noun clause “what it is.”

Let’s take a look at one of the fragments you provide a link to:

What was saleable as far as the freak was concerned was, of course, physical difference, in a form that was both marketable and palatable.

This is a complex sentence (in that it has several subordinate clauses with their own subjects and verbs). This is common in academic writing. To break this down:

  • The subject of the sentence is “What was saleable.”
  • The main verb of the sentence is “was.”
  • The direct object of the main verb is “physical difference.”
  • There is a clause modifying the adjective “saleable” to “saleable as far as the freak was concerned.” (That is, it’s the so-called freak who is selling.)
  • The adverbial phrase “of course” modifies the main verb.
  • There is another modifier to the noun “difference,” specifying that it is difference in a particular form.
  • Finally, there is a restrictive subordinate clause specifying that the form is “a form that was both marketable and palatable.”

In short, was can appear four times in the sentence because it appears in the main clause as well as in subordinate clauses. Each time, it has a different subject.

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They're either mistakes, or else part of longer sentences where the grammar would be meaningful. Seems likely though that they're just typos. Newspapers have subeditors whose job is to pick out mistakes like this, but they're only human, sometimes errors get through. If you posted the entire sentences, rather than fragments, you'd get a better, more accurate opinion, but from what is here, they're simply incorrect.

If you could post the full sentences, a sentence either side might help as well, or even the entire paragraph. Sometimes people will break laws of grammar to make a joke or a point, or for stylistic reasons.

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