On this day in 1998, then President of the United States, Bill Clinton made his infamous grammatical reply. He had been asked whether or not the statement by his attorney Robert Bennett to Judge Susan Wright, “there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape, or form with President Clinton” was truthful. Regarding the alleged relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton stated, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
The intricacies and arcane language of the legal system were being exploited in this instance. If the statement by Mr. Bennett referred to the past tense of is–was, means one thing; but if the present tense of is changes the tone of the attorney’s statement in a subtle, but important way.
The take-away, of course, was Clinton’s is is deflection of the question. Clinton demonstrated that verb tenses are very important in communication. Verb tenses can change everything.
Of course Bill Clinton wasn’t the first American President to manipulate verb tenses to try to alter public perceptions, nor was he the last one to do so. To one degree or another all of them, past, present, and future Presidents, were, are, or might be guilty of grammatical transgressions.
In any case, August 17, 1998 was a great day for grammar and verb tenses. There were numerous remarks by pundits and people on the street regarding Mr. Clinton’s manipulation of the word “is”. Grammar was front page news.
Presidential statements aside, the word “is” has many meanings. My Webster’s Student Dictionary defines the verb as, “third person singular present indicative of be.” The verb “be” is a multi-faceted word. It can mean “to exist”, “to happen”, “to occupy a place or position”, “to continue”. Used as an auxiliary verb “be” shows up in the first person singular as “am”, second person singular as “are”, and third person singular as “is”.
“Be” and “is” are endlessly fascinating words. We use some form of “be” so frequently that it almost seems invisible. On the other hand “be” and its various forms appear absolutely essential to communicating in the English language. We use the word to help describe action–a helping verb. For example: “she is singing”. Other uses might include” “She is a blonde.” “She is opinionated.” “She is finished.” “Is” is used quite often in English phrases and sentences.
One of the beauties of “am, are, is” regards living our lives. We use the word to indicate our states of mind, our physical states, our actions, and our aspirations. “Is” and the other forms of “be” help us tell about them. Is is anything you want it to be.