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Following is a sentence from an article in The New York Times, having a grammar that I could not fathom.

"I would not have minded if Smollett had gotten off relatively lightly— provided, that is, that he had admitted the charges, shown contrition and begged forgiveness."

"that is" in this sentence, seems to be redundant and unnecessary. Besides, how is it possible for "provided that", which implies "if condition", to be separated by "that is"? I have searched the internet about the grammar behind this sentence, but unfortunately, I cannot find the proper grammar, and since my native language is not English I could not comprehend it by myself.

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    It's fine. "That is" is grammatically optional, but semantically it provides an elaboration or exemplification of what follows it.
    – BillJ
    Feb 29 at 11:15
  • Both redundant and unnecessary?
    – gotube
    Feb 29 at 21:05

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The idiom "that is" always refers back to what was immediately just said, and communicates that what follows helps to clarify it or make it more specific.

I always wear socks—that is, if I'm not bathing or swimming.

You're right, in this I've narrowed my meaning, so the sentence could be recast as "I always wear socks provided I'm not bathing or swimming." But...

My dad was taller than all other men—that is, that's how he remains in my childhood memories.

Here I've simply clarified rather than narrowed, so there's no sense of "provided that."

So you're right, in the case of your quote the author could have deleted "that is," but it's not really an unconscionable redundancy to include it.

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  • In your first example,"if" provides the clarification/specificity/narrowing, not "that is".
    – gotube
    Mar 1 at 9:15
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Interesting question! And it turns out the sentence you've found is correct and natural.

"That is, ..." is a discourse marker that doesn't contribute any new meaning to the sentence, but rather changes the flow of the ideas, which affects how they're understood or felt by the audience.

In our case here, the pause with "that is" adds a nuance of deep consideration and draws our attention to the condition that follows as an important one.

Your confusion may come from the fact that "that is" is often used to indicate phrases which add a conditional meaning, such as "if", "whether", and "provided that". But the interjection "that is" by itself doesn't indicate conditionality on its own, so its presence in the quoted sentence is not redundant.

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