Apr 7, 2007

Is it okay to end a sentence with is?

From time to time I receive queries about grammar issues, and from time to time I answer them. Today's question represents a perfect distinction between competence and excellence.

In English, you won't always be thrown in the penalty box for ending a sentence with "is." However, to craft tighter sentences, avoid it. Let's see why.
George W. Bush is who the current president is.
This might sit well in casual conversation, but represents sloppy writing. "George W. Bush is the current president" works just fine.
Before considering a solution, we must first understand exactly what the origin of the problem is.
Ending with "is" often creates an awkward, deflated conclusion to a sentence--and an inflated word count. Compare:
Before considering a solution, we must first understand the exact origin of the problem.
Better, with the punch landing on "problem," but still trim-worthy:
Before considering a solution, we must understand the origin of the problem.
Bye-bye, "first." Bye-bye, "exact."

Literary genius? Not yet--but closer to a slim, rhythmic sentence that can dance. After all, that's what good writing is. I mean, that's good writing.




[136th in a series]

22 comments:

Grenage said...

Nice article; short, sweet and informative.

Anonymous said...

The correct answer should have been.

"Yes it is."

Jim Anderson said...

Well done, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

"Yes it is" is not a witty expression of a rule, but of an exception. In this case, "is" refers to a state of being and is fine standing alone.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the info. Really helps, although some sentences just work better with 'is' at the end. Just not the Bill Clinton's "It depends on what 'is' is.

Anonymous said...

correct grammar:

Yes, it is.

Because, if I remember my English Lit. rules correctly, yes and no are only complete sentences in verbal communication but not in literary communication, and when answering with a yes or no at the beginning of a sentence, there must be a comma after yes or no.

:)

Anonymous said...

What about this sentence:

I've also been wondering what the point of categories is.

(And what about "What about this sentence:"? I.e., how do you ask a question and use a colon simultaneously? We do it all the time in conversation. How's it supposed to look in writing?)

Thanks!

donna

Jim Anderson said...

Donna, you could write, "I've been wondering: what's the point of categories?" Or, "I've been wondering about the point of categories." (I'd prefer "the significance of" to "the point;" the latter is a little more informal.)

I'm not sure of the grammatical answer (and am too rushed to look it up), but to me,

"What about this: [example]"

looks right without a question mark. By its nature, it's an informal construction.

Anonymous said...

This is another bogus rule. Good writers always have and always will end sentences with linking verbs. Posting examples of clumsy sentences using this construction doesn't prove that it always makes for a clumsy construction.

Jim Anderson said...

Anonymous, I actually agree that there are no absolute rules for effective writing. Good writers bend the "rules" to suit their style, audience, and purpose--and, on another level, to fit their words into the context of a sentence, paragraph, or chapter.

For instance, you'll never see this blog advocating for the "rule" that sentences ought not end with prepositions. My motto is "'use your ear." If it sounds good, write it.

However, I still believe that, for the sake of word economy, it's generally better to avoid ending a sentence with "is," and I'd like to see an argument to the contrary that addresses mine on the merits.

Harshad Patel said...

But, you can't always end sentences with prepositions. When you could leave off the preposition and it wouldn't change the meaning, you should leave it off. Here is a cell phone commercial that gets on my nerves.

Anonymous said...

But we don't know how serious the damage is.

Do you know how big it is?

Do you know what the distance is?

I don't know how far it is.

Sentences of this sort are hardly unusual.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said:

"and when answering with a yes or no at the beginning of a sentence, there must be a comma after yes or no."

Not true. It is simply a matter of style and how the author wishes to emphasize it.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I am the anonymous who posted the sentences above. Yes some of them can be re-written using fewer words, but are they unidiomatic? Are they clumsy or incorrect?

And as far as the merits of your argument are concerned, I don't accept that fewer words are always better. If we removed all the words that weren't really necessary from Shakespeare or other greats the merit of their writing would be destroyed.

Jim, look at your post beginning "I actually agree".

Let's rewrite it caring about word economy.

Anonymous, I agree there are no absolute rules for writing. Good writers bend the "rules" to suit their purpose and fit their words into context.

This blog wont say sentences ought not end with prepositions. My motto is if it sounds good, write it.

I believe that, to use fewer words, it's generally better to avoid ending a sentence with "is". have you a substantive argument to the contrary?

Ugg. I have an uneasy feeling that I haven't made it that much worse -- I may even have improved it and thereby shot myself in the foot.

Anonymous said...

I regret rewriting your post, it just obscured my point.

As far as the "merits" of your argument you seem to be saying that shortening a sentence always improves it. I can't agree. Good writers are aiming for rhythm, flow, and euphony. Word economy is not as important as you seem to be suggesting.

2. But I don't accept for a moment that most sensible sentences ending with "is" can be usefully shortened.

You give us an example like this to "prove" your point:

"George W. Bush is who the current president is."

That is just a very badly crafted semi-literate sentence that has nothing to do with sentences in general that end in "is". If I wrote a bit of gibberish ending in "it", would that prove that ending sentences with "it" should be avoided?

I stick to my guns that ending sentences in "is" is standard. Dig up any corpora and check it. In the meantime, would you explain what is wrong with the following sentences:

What do you think it is?

Gyro gearloose, the eminent scientist, argued the monolith was of earthy origin, and subsequent evidence has confirmed that it is.

There it is!

Joe looks bigger that Alex, and so he is.

Sherlock Holmes knows who the murderer is.

We are going to be explaining what our mandate is.

It's around the back of the house where the washouse is.

Perhaps we have not, up until this point, considered just how difficult that task is.

Could I have a comment. Simply to indicate what your thinking is.

They would be very big news at the moment given how small the government majority is.

In any of their literature does it actually say what time of day the seminar is.

Jim Anderson said...

Those are all perfectly fine sentences--said aloud. There's a big difference between speaking and writing, though.

Of course, we're not considering the sentences within the flow of a larger piece--a paragraph, a page, closing a chapter--so any editing advice is to be taken with several large grains of salt.

It's all about rhythm, and whether the sentence "sings." If a sentence ending with "is" sounds better than a shorter one without, then use it.

What do you think it is?

Gyro gearloose, the eminent scientist, argued the monolith was of earthy origin, and subsequent evidence has confirmed that it is.

My edits of your examples, just to see (or, I should say, hear) if they're any better:

There it is! (No edit needed. A perfectly fine example.)

Joe looks bigger that Alex, and so he is. (Also fine.)

Sherlock Holmes knows who the murderer is.

We are going to be explaining what our mandate is. (We are going to explain our mandate.)

It's around the back of the house where the washouse is. (It's around the back of the house, near the washouse.)

Perhaps we have not, up until this point, considered just how difficult that task is. (Perhaps we have not, up until this point, considered the true difficulty of that task.)

Could I have a comment. Simply to indicate what your thinking is. (Simply to indicate your thinking.)

They would be very big news at the moment given how small the government majority is. (Given the puny size of the government majority.)

In any of their literature does it actually say what time of day the seminar is. (Say the actual time of the seminar.)

Are these objectively better? Probably not. Which is why I won't defend them to the death. Because that'd be what foolishness is.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think two of your rewrites of my sentences are objectively better.

I'm thinking of the one about the "mandate", and the one about "indicate your thinking".

As far as the rest are concerned, I'm not sure. The exercise has been useful to me and I'll concede that ending sentences with "is" (it's probably the same for "are", etc) is something one needs to be cautious about. But I still think there are times when such sentences are ok.

Jim Anderson said...

Thanks for an interesting and informative discussion!

David Edward Sapp said...

I don't agree with the word "exact" as being "trim-worthy" in your sentence. The word "first" is unnecessary because of the word "before," so it becomes redundant. But “exact” adds specificity to the word “origin.” Therefore, it shouldn’t be taken out. The writer is telling the reader we not only need to understand the origin of the problem, but its exact origin.

Another reason to leave in the word “exact” is because adjectives can become like highlighters, emphasizing the nouns they are describing. And since the word “origin” is the emphasis of the sentence, “exact” is important to underscore it.

It’s wrong to simply remove words as if it’s a “game” to see how many one can remove and still keep that sentence’s basic meaning. But I feel this is an extreme reaction to those who use words unnecessarily. And I agree, doing this does create horrible writing. But going to the other extreme in reaction to this is not productive.

Anonymous said...

"I never realized just how great my vocabulary is!"

Please suggest an alternate that maintains the tone. It was meant to be a joke.

I never realized the greatness of my vocabulary! (Too high-handed)

I never before realized the depth of my vocabulary. (Still sounds like a boast)

Moment's gone, but we will always have Grammar.

Anonymous said...

BUT YOU JUST ENDED A SENTENCE WITH IS..........

Anonymous said...

BUT YOU JUST ENDED A SENTENCE WITH IS........