Wednesday, August 2, 2000

"He's a man who understands what the definition of 'is' is."—George W. Bush on Dick Cheney

If Dick Cheney really does know the definition of "is," he's a true rarity in his party, Modern Humorist has learned.

Since President Clinton's 1998 claim that the meaning of the word "is" was fluid, Republicans have gleefully piled on the snide remarks about the character of a man who can't be pinned down on such a simple word. But is their own much-vaunted comprehension of the definition of "is" merely a sham?

In an exclusive poll of delegates ("poll" because we stopped dozens of people wearing very silly elephant hats, "exclusive" because the rest of the media decided to cover something more important, like the open bar at the R.J. Reynolds party), Modern Humorist has discovered that, just like the president they loathe, a shocking 50 percent of the delegates at this year's Republican National Convention have little or no idea what the meaning of "is" is.

"You mean is it like a noun or an adjective?" asked South Dakota delegate Scott Wilk when asked for a dictionary definition of English's most-beloved verb. For Wilk, it was all downhill from there.

"Well, it's not really a verb because there's no action," Wilk said, struggling like a Southern conservative trying to cheer a Colin Powell speech. "I think it's an adjective, because it's describing something. You know, 'The ball is the ball.' It describes what is known."

Nice try, Wilk, but even a compassionate conservative teacher like Laura Bush would give you an F for that answer, although she might be forced to socially promote you.

For the record, the dictionary definition of "is" is:

is (iz): verb, intransitive. 3rd person singular present indicative of be.

Easy enough, right? Considering that the word "is" is in practically every sentence in the English language, you'd think all these Clinton-bashing Republicans would at least have some fleeting understanding of its use.

But in our unscientific and really time-consuming survey, only 25 percent of delegates correctly defined the word that was Clinton's undoing. A whopping 35 percent—a plurality!—didn't know the definition of our most-basic word at all, and another 15 percent barely staved off a failing grade by getting partial credit for effort and neatness from a sympathetic reporter. In fact, when you chart the results, they resemble an opposite version of a certain "bell curve" conservatives should be familiar with.

In the interest of full embarrassment, here are some of the answers from the floor of the First Union Center:

"'Is' is whatever you want it to be," said Chris Kinsey of Shreveport, Louisiana. "I think it's a dangling participle."

Kinsey correctly grasped that "is" is a word in the present tense, but botched the extra-credit question, "Is it first, second or third person?"

"I think it's first," Kinsey said, only to be reminded that such an occurrence would come dangerously close to that other Republican bęte noire, Ebonics.

"Well, I is from Louisiana," Kinsey kidded—and then launched into a jovially racist joke about God, a dead zebra and the way black people talk.

The "person" question also flummoxed Rocie Park of New Jersey. "I know it's second person," she said, sounding as blissfully confident as Gary Bauer during a stump speech in January. "I just know it's second person. That’s how it’s usually used, at least."

North Carolina delegate Elizabeth Kelly seemed to have trouble grappling with the admittedly difficult concept of the forward flow of the timestream. "I think 'is' is an honest verb about what's going to be in the future." This reporter gave her partial credit ("verb"; "to be"), but she ended up with a gentlemen's C.

Now, this "is" the moment in a "normal" "piece" of actual "journalism" where the reporter would pull out his trusty university media guide and call some English professor for a comment. And so, in close simulation of journalistic research, this reporter called his eminent sophomore-year roommate Peter Weyler, who has not only been an English teacher for many years, but was the guy in the dorm who always had the right word for everything no matter how late the all-nighter went.

"It sounds like George W. Bush should be asking the delegates, 'Is you is or is you ain’t a party that cares about grammar?'" Weyler quipped. "If compassionate conservatives don't know the meaning of 'is,' how will they handle the more important helping verbs?"

I pressed him to draw some overly broad but easily digestible conclusion about the state of America's linguistic integrity, but he slipped my journalistic noose. I couldn't tell whether Weyler, in his genius, was merely throwing me off the case or leading me to my answer through a series of Riddler-esque puzzles.

"Not to trash your story," he said, "but to me, the important question is not what 'is' is, but the eternal, infinitive question, 'To be, or not to be?'"

Harvey Tettlebaum could answer that one. A delegate from California, Missouri, Tettlebaum was the only member of his party who got the definition of "is" with no prompting at all. He even knew that "is" is an intransitive verb form!

"I’m a lawyer, so I know words are important," he said. "I'm also a Jewish alfalfa and hay farmer from Missouri. I think that's a better story than this one you're doing on 'is.'"

Maybe that depends on what your definition of "Jewish alfalfa and hay farmer from Missouri" is.

[ 100% True ]

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