August 2, 2000
a man who understands what the definition of 'is' is."George
W. Bush on Dick Cheney
Dick Cheney really does know the definition of "is,"
he's a true rarity in his party, Modern Humorist has
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?
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.
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.
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."
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.
the record, the dictionary definition of "is"
(iz): verb, intransitive. 3rd person singular present
indicative of be.
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.
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 percenta
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.
the interest of full embarrassment, here are some of
the answers from the floor of the First Union Center:
is whatever you want it to be," said Chris Kinsey
of Shreveport, Louisiana. "I think it's a dangling
correctly grasped that "is" is a word in the
present tense, but botched the extra-credit question,
"Is it first, second or third person?"
think it's first," Kinsey said, only to be reminded
that such an occurrence would come dangerously close
to that other Republican bête noire, Ebonics.
I is from Louisiana," Kinsey kiddedand then
launched into a jovially racist joke about God, a dead
zebra and the way black people talk.
"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. Thats how its usually
used, at least."
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
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.
sounds like George W. Bush should be asking the delegates,
'Is you is or is you aint 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 puzzles.
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?'"
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
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.'"
that depends on what your definition of "Jewish
alfalfa and hay farmer from Missouri" is.
100% True ]
previous ] [