Sometimes, whether you’re a native speaker or learning a language, knowing the meaning of words in a sentence isn’t quite enough to fully understand what is conveyed.
This can be the case with sayings or idioms, which are collections of words that have a specific meaning.
For example, if you hear the phrase “boulevard of broken dreams,” it can be helpful to know that the speaker is not talking about a literal street.
If you’re not familiar with the saying “It is how it is,” you might be stumped about the meaning. This looks like the speaker is saying that a thing is like itself.
This might not seem to make sense, but we can clear it up for you!
What is the meaning of “It is how it is”?
“It is how it is” is a saying that means that a situation exists and cannot be changed. The saying suggests that the speaker has accepted this as reality and is dealing with it. Sometimes, the underlying meaning is that the speaker is not really trying to change it or doesn’t care.
Is “it is how it is” grammatically correct?
“It is how it is” is grammatically correct although it is informal. A more formal or standard way of expressing the same idea might be, “It is the way it is.”
Breaking down the meaning of “it is how it is”
It’s usually not helpful to break down an idiom into its parts because idioms usually mean something different from their literal meaning.
However, “it is how it is” is an exception.
It does have some negative connotations that we will discuss below, but for now, let’s just look at the components of the saying itself.
You basically have this word, “how,” with “it is” on either side of it.
“How” has a few different definitions. In this case, it means in a certain way.
Take a look at its use in the sentences below, and notice that you could substitute “the way” for “how.”
That is how they’ve always done it.
Working hard is how she always got good grades.
Now let’s look at the repetition of “it is.”
“It” is a pronoun that refers to the situation. Essentially, what the sentence is saying is that the situation is exactly as it appears to be, and nothing can be done to change it.
To get wordy about it, it means “The situation is the way the situation is” although you would never hear someone phrase it like this!
Is “it is how it is” a negative thing to say?
“It is how it is” may be true in many cases, but it is generally not the most diplomatic thing to say to someone.
Therefore, if a family member of a good friend just died, you wouldn’t say to your friend, “It is how it is.”
If you did, you might sound callous or uncaring.
Similarly, if you are trying to convey to someone “I apologize for the inconvenience,” “it is how it is” is not the right way to make this clear even if you both know that the situation can’t be altered.
“It is how it is” carries the connotation of either telling someone they are going to have to toughen up and accept a situation or lets someone know that the speaker is not happy with the situation but knows that it can’t be fixed.
Sometimes, there is an implication that the situation can be improved, but that someone is not willing to do anything about it.
However, this is not always the case. It can also mean something like, “The sooner we stop denying this and just accept it, the sooner we can move on to fixing it.”
How can you tell the difference? The answer, as it so often is, is to take a look at the context!
Examples of “it is how it is” in a sentence
The situations and examples below may help you better interpret how this saying is being used.
In the sentence below, the speaker means that the team needs to stop worrying about being in last place and get to work on fixing it.
In contrast, below a supervisor is talking to an employee and letting them know that they aren’t going to change things.
The supervisor is being rather unsympathetic to the employee’s situation and doesn’t particularly care that the employee knows it. This is an example of using the idiom to indicate that no steps are going to be taken to solve the problem.
Supervisor: It is how it is.
In the example below, the speaker is annoyed at the person they are talking to and letting them know.
Not only does the speaker basically mean the opposite when they say “that’s fine,” but their “it is how it is” means something more along the lines of “I’m not going to argue with you about this, but you’re wrong”:
Of course, “it is how it is” doesn’t always have to be as emotionally charged as these examples! Sometimes, it really is just a way of acknowledging that a situation is not really ideal but that there’s also nothing you can do about it:
As you can see, this can be a tricky phrase to use.
Just like calling someone a “silly goose,” understanding this idiom requires you to pay attention to exactly what the situation is before you can be certain about its real meaning!
The difference between “it is how it is” and “it is what it is”
“It is how it is” and “it is what it is” basically mean the same thing. The words “how” and “what” have essentially the same meaning in this particular construction.
In informal situations, they can be used interchangeably.
However, “it is what it is” is more standard than “it is how it is.” It is also much more common.
Don’t be surprised if you hear politicians or journalists use the phrase “it is what it is.”
They would be more likely to use this instead of the “how” version because although neither version is technically ungrammatical, “how” sounds a little more nonstandard and thus is more casual.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.