Wie Geht's, Bill Gates

Who said grammar is dead? Suddenly the parsing of word usage is all the rage.

First, President Clinton put on a performance that should have provided fodder for English teachers across the land. He famously asked his questioners before the Starr grand jury what exactly the meaning of is is. That sent erstwhile Clinton critic Bill Safire in search of tense sense about that most indispensable - and larval - of English verbs.

Is, after all, starts out life as to be; comes out of its cocoon winged to fly off with almost any other verbal mate ("Liz is dissing dizzy Ms. Bliss"); next changes form to was as it goes to its reward; and then, of course, becomes a has been. A has been is exactly what Monica Lewinsky, she of the is or was, is trying to avoid becoming by signing big book and TV contracts.

Enter, now, that other big name grammarian, Bill Gates. His specialty not solely verbs but pronouns, nouns, and verbs. In one of the chunks of videotaped deposition shown at the Microsoft antitrust trial, Gates debates with his opposing lawyer about the meaning of the pronoun we. Even Queen Victoria knew what she meant by that two letter word. Then Gates gets into a verbal sparring match about the etymological difference between "remembering what you were thinking and remembering what you meant." He answers that's there's no difference if the question means remembering "what I meant when I wrote it." Aha, progress. But, no, the next answer reveals Gates doesn't remember writing it.

Don't worry about your Windows, though. Bill Gates can probably tell Bill Clinton what the meaning of is is. And Mr. Clinton can disclose why politicians use we so much ("We are not going to stoop to negative campaigning." or "We have the best record in Congress on that."). It's so much more modest than the I-word.

Grammarians ought to rejoice. The most powerful man in the world and the richest are both out there more or less diagramming sentences in public. What could be better, unless it's Leonardo diCaprio doing prepositions? Not likely. We suspect diCaprio's secretly prepping, like all actors, to play the great infinitive role: to be or not to be.

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