August 2, 2000 |
man who understands what the definition of 'is'
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
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 (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
"'Is' is whatever you want it to be," said Chris Kinsey
of Shreveport, Louisiana. "I think it's a dangling
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
"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?"
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
"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
"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
Maybe that depends on what your definition of "Jewish
alfalfa and hay farmer from Missouri" is.
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