Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Bill Clinton Revised Primer of American English

William on the left- Bill on the right

Being a teacher of English as a Second Language and having studied linguistics, I have never ceased to be amazed at former president Bill Clinton's ability to use the English language, especially to twist it to suit his purposes. What Cervantes was to Spanish, what Dante was to Italian, what Goethe was to German, what Shakespeare was to British English, Bill Clinton has been to American English. Think of it; our ex-prez has virtually revolutionized the English language-especially those troublesome English verb tenses.

Maybe you have never thought about it if English is your native language, but our language has a rather complex system of verb tenses-perhaps not as complex as the Romance languages-but complex in its own right. It serves us well because we try to make it as clear as possible when an action happened, whether the action is completed or still in progress, and did it happen before or after another action. In the middle of all this is our basic verb-"To be".

For example, we use the simple present tense to describe an action that occurs on a regular, habitual basis-or to describe a general truth or statement of fact, "is", for example. If the action happened in the past, is completed and happened at a specific time in the past, we use the simple past tense- "was", for example. If the action happened in the past, is completed, but no specific time is mentioned, we use the present perfect, "has been" for example. We also use the present perfect to describe an action that began in the past and continues to the present.

So having said all that, it gives me great pride to announce the publication of Bill Clinton's Revised Primer of American English. Make no mistake, this book will be the standard textbook for future generations of students-especially those planning to go into law or politics.

Bill Clinton, to his enormous credit, uses our verb tenses like a true linguist. The most famous example of this was his famous declaration, "It all depends what the meaning of "is" is. This was his explanation to the special prosecutor, Ken Starr, who was questioning Clinton about his testimony in the Paula Jones lawsuit when he was asked about his relationship with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Clinton had answered that "There is no relationship." Was that a false statement? Hardly, since, when he was asked the question, the relationship had apparently ended when Ms Lewinsky had been transferred out of the White House.

Clinton also made masterful use of his verb tenses when he declared in a speech that, "The era of big government is over." However, as we all know,something that is over at the moment of speaking can begin again-like the next day.

Clinton also makes great use of his adjectives. Again, during the Lewinsky mess, he was asked if he was ever "alone" with Ms Lewinsky. His answer was that he was "never alone" with her. Was that a lie? Of course not! What Bill really meant was that one is never alone in the White House, which is always occupied by many people-never just the president and an intern. Why think of all the Secret Service people that were only a few yards away-in another room. No, Bill Clinton was never alone with Ms Lewinsky. Never.

Well, you say. Clinton certainly lied when he pointed his finger at the TV camera and said, "I did not have a sexual relationship with that woman, Ms Lewinsky." We got him on that one, right? Wrong again. You see, Bill was really talkng to Monica through the camera-note the comma before Ms Lewinsky- Bill was assuring Monica that he did not have sex with "that woman". Who was "that woman" that Bill was referring to? Your guess is as good as mine. Here again, Clinton shows that he really knows his English punctuation rules. (If you don't know it, commas can often change the meaning of a sentence dramatically.)

But, you say, in that same statement, he told us that he never told anyone to lie-not a single time. Once again, Bill has trumped the rest of us illiterate fools. Obviously, he never told anyone to lie-not a single time-but perhaps, multiple times? If that's the case- Bill skates again on the old polygraph.

One of Bill's classics was when he denied having sex with Lewinsky, then, when the truth was known, tried to use the old teenage excuse that oral sex is not really sex. Well, you say- why do they call it sex? Or you might scoff and say, "Right, and a red car is not a car." But, as Bill would point out; English is such a rich language that there are always exceptions. Certain words can be used as expressions-completely different from their dictionary definition. For example, a lemon is not always a fruit. It can also refer to a bad car. So how can you say that oral sex must be sex? Hmmm?

Another great Clinton contribution to the English language was his creation of new synonyms. One classic example was his use of the phrase "revenue enhancements", which actually means-NEW TAXES!

Then there was the night when Bill went on national TV to fess up to the American people that he had, indeed, been ivolved in a relationship with Lewinsky. Since he knew that it had also been revealed that he had been having phone sex with the lady, he also added a phrase about "inappropriate sexual banter on the telephone". Indeed.

Aside from being the grand master of creative use of the English language, Bill has passed on his skills to his pals. Take Vernon Jordan, for example. For years, rumors were going around that Jordan was Bill's locker room pal. It was also brought out that Jordan attempted to find employment for Monica when her presence in the White House was becoming "uncomfortable". During the investigation, Jordan was supoened into the grand jury to be asked about what he knew and when he did it... er knew it. Certainly that must have been a nervous time for Bill wondering what Jordan was saying. Jordan, almost as slick as der schlickmeister himself, exited the grand jury and was met by a mob of reporters. He then stated, "When I went into the grand jury, I was a friend of Bill Clinton, and now that I have finished testifying, I am still a friend of Bill Clinton." (I am paraphrasing part of the sentence, but the part about "was a friend" -"still am a friend" is accurate.) Bill, obviously watching on TV, with his masterful command of the English language, and using that old English art of implying and inferring, instinctively inferred what Jordan had
implied. (He had not spilled the beans.)

So now, let's take a little test to see how much you have learned.

(multiple choice) Choose the correct verb tense.

1 Bill Clinton _______ sex with Monica Lewinsky.

a had
b has
c will have
d all of the above

2 Bill Clinton_________ a womanizer.

a is
b was
c has been
d will be

3 Oral sex_________ sex.

a was
b is
c has been
d isn't

4 A red Mercedes________ a car.

a was
b is
c isn't
d will be

5 "Alone" means:

a two people in the same city
b one person in a room
c two people in a room
d 200 people in the White House

6 (Punctuation drill-pay attention to the commas)

A- In his final week in office, Bill Clinton received 200 requests for pardons. The applicants who contributed money to his presidential library were granted pardons.

B- In his final week in office,Bill Clinton received 200 requests for pardons. The applicants, who contributed money to his presidential library, were granted pardons.

In A- How many people contributed to the Clinton Library? How many received pardons?

a somewhere between 2-199
b all 200
c none
d 100

In B- How many people contributed to the Clinton Library? How many received pardons?

a none
b all 200
c 135
d one

* note: In A and B, the answers are different.

Which would you infer from the below statements?

7 There was a soccer match between Brazil and Italy. The Italian fans went home sad.

a Italy won
b Brazil won
c The game was cancelled due to rain
d The game ended in a scorelss tie (as usual)

8 Vernon Jordan was still Clinton's friend subsequent to his grand jury testimony.

a Jordan gave Clinton up
b Jordan took the 5th
c Jordan protected Clinton
d Jordan arranged a date for Clinton with a good looking female grand juror

9 When Bill Clinton met Paula Jones in a Little Rock Hotel, his knees;

a were knocking
b are knocking
c will be knocking
d knocked

10 A "revenue enhancement" is:

a more taxes
b a more attractive dollar bill
c a tax break
d money paid to the Clinton Library fund in exchange for a pardon

11 "Inappropriate sexual banter on the phone" means;

a letting Dick Morris' call-girl listen in on a call discussing official government business
b asking the 911 operator for a date
c talking over old times with Vernon Jordan
d phone sex

2 comments: said...

Picking on Bill Clinton's use of semantics? Geez, hasn't this dead horse been beaten enough? I realize that picking on Bush's semantics game is pretty old by this point as well, but at least that would be a little bit more topical.

Gary Fouse said...


Sorry. I couldn't resist writing a satirical posting on Clinton's parsing of words. Some of my writing is deadly serious, but some of it is humorous.

Unfortunately for Clinton, his ways of spinning falsehoods has become a part of his permanent legacy.