Friday, September 11, 2009

“It Depends On What The Meaning Of The Word ‘Is’ Is”

Philosophers, lawyers, spin doctors—and the former U. S. President who infamously uttered the title sentence to a grand jury—all suffer from a bad reputation: they play games with words. That may well be true, but we shouldn’t blame the philosopher in a person for those offenses. We should blame the English language for making those offenses possible in the first place.

For English, like other languages, is a mess: it’s vague, ambiguous, and inconsistent. And it is most notoriously unclear with respect to one of its most basic words: “is.” Sometimes (for example) “is” indicates the present tense: “Fred is eating now.” But other times it indicates the future: “Fred is coming later.” And other times it is used timelessly, as in “The number 3 is odd,” or “'Is’, simply, is a mess.”

And even if we restrict ourselves to the present tense, “is” is no better. For consider the following sentences:

Fred is red
Fred is lead
Fred is Ted
Fred is

To say that Fred is red is to say that redness is one of his properties. (Maybe he’s blushing.)

But to say that Fred is lead is to say that he is composed of lead—maybe “Fred” is the name of a statue—in a way we’d never say that blushing Fred is “composed of” redness.

When we say that Fred is Ted we’re identifying Fred with Ted: Fred and Ted are one and the same person. (Perhaps he’s been two-timing some women by using different names). But we don’t say that Fred the statue is “identical” to lead. After all there’s plenty of lead in the world that’s not affiliated with Fred.

Finally, when we say “Fred is,” we’re not saying anything about his properties, what he’s composed of, or what he’s identical to. We’re merely saying that he exists.

So “is” is a very difficult word. So many possible meanings packed into so few letters! And the language only gets messier for more complex words. So don’t blame the philosophers, the lawyers, the spin doctors, nor the former U. S. President (who may be all of the above)—it’s English itself which deserves to be impeached.

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