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It depends on what the meaning of “is” is

Can one word-change destroy a joke? I only ask because I reviewed William Boyd’s latest novel, Waiting for Sunrise, in last Saturday’s Guardian. (SPOILER: I didn’t like it much!) At one point, I wrote:

Many sentences could have done with extra care: early on, Lysander is seen “staring at a flowerbed in a fearful quandary”, which seems an unwise place to put a flowerbed.

But at some point during the editing process, my “seems” was changed to an “is”, resulting in the following version of the sentence being printed:

Many sentences could have done with extra care: early on, Lysander is seen “staring at a flowerbed in a fearful quandary”, which is an unwise place to put a flowerbed.

Personally I feel sad about this “is”. It sounds like I am a pompous pedantic dullard making grand claims to horticultural expertise. You may well think that I am a pompous pedantic dullard, readers, but I don’t actually think I am any good at garden-planning in urban spaces. Maybe it was a poor joke in the first place? But, you know, one poor joke can still be funnier than another. So I am going to put the question to the stern test of blog democracy, or blogcracy. Which word do you think makes the sentence funnier, “seems” or “is”? Please describe your reasons in the comments. Thanks for your “input”!

Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

  1. 1  Dan A  February 21, 2012, 5:34 pm 

    I mean yeah honestly it’s not a great joke, but you’re right in that changing “seems” to “is” turns it from kind of a humorous tongue-in-cheek dig at the sentence, to something a bit meaner.

    I notice you do that sort of thing in your reviews a lot, and it’s a fun way to put an opinion across I think. It reminds me of a line in one of the Red Letter Media Star Wars reviews where he says:

    “So, does this movie finally expose George Lucas as the shallow money-grabbing businessman that he really is? Well, i’ll let you decide. But the answer’s yes.”

  2. 2  Robably  February 21, 2012, 5:37 pm 

    I think “is” is funnier. It may seem harsher but it puts an emphasis on what the nature of the joke is, that you are confused as to why they put the flowerbed there in the first place…

    Looks like I’m outvoted on this one though!

  3. 3  Steven  February 21, 2012, 5:37 pm 

    Dan A — yes, I think you’ve put your finger on it when you say “is” sounds “meaner”. The “seems” sounds to me gentler, even though arguably it’s not really gentler. (It’s a sarcastic performance of diffidence rather than actual diffidence.)

  4. 4  Stuart Houghton  February 21, 2012, 5:38 pm 

    ‘Seems’ implies a slight squinting at the problem, maybe cocking the head to one side with a bit of tooth sucking for good measure. Seems is playful.

    ‘Is’ is just not as funny.

  5. 5  Stan  February 21, 2012, 5:50 pm 

    I think it’s an unseemsly edit.

    That may be harsh (or it may just seem so) but you can use it for poor-joke-comparativeness purposes.

  6. 6  Steven  February 21, 2012, 6:22 pm 

    Stuart – yes!
    Stan – I see what you did there.

  7. 7  Jasper Milvain  February 21, 2012, 6:51 pm 

    ‘Seems’ is definitely better – the ‘is’ seems to me a slightly undesirable repetition, as well as a deviation towards cruelty – but, from a subeditorial point of view, I can imagine the ‘is’ being an incredibly tempting way to turn a line.

  8. 8  Steven  February 21, 2012, 6:54 pm 

    That indeed was my suspicion as to motivation, but I would rather kern it to fuck.

  9. 9  WIIIAI  February 21, 2012, 7:38 pm 

    “Seems” performs the function of indicating that this is meant light-heartedly. The “is” version could have been written by a grammar pedant with no humorous intent at all.

  10. 10  sw  February 22, 2012, 1:37 am 

    “Seems” is funnier because it suggests you’re pondering the issue and aren’t quite sure and aren’t totally committed – as if it’s worth thinking about. It holds the idea out and invites the reader to consider it as well, which is the little trap in your joke, the slight tweak of gotcha. (An argument akin to pts 3 and 4 above).

    But regarding your opening question, “Can one word-change destroy a joke?” The answer was already yes, even before we got to your example.

  11. 11  Steven  February 22, 2012, 12:20 pm 

    Hello WIIIAI and sw! Yes, I fear “is” sounds all too much like Oliver Kamm.

  12. 12  Stephen Paulger  March 8, 2012, 11:04 am 

    I think it depends on the type of humour you prefer.

    The editor’s use of “is” perhaps implies an appreciation of a more dead-pan, straight faced form of humour. Whereas “seems” is clearly intended to be a joke.

    I think “seems” is better because there is no difference in actual meaning between the two sentences, so there’s no benefit from the edit. Changing it makes it a different style that doesn’t sit with the rest of your writing.

    With a different author “is” may well have been the correct word to use.

  13. 13  Ron  April 3, 2012, 11:11 pm 


    “is” is an explicit criticism of “flowerbed,” and makes “flowerbed” the focal point of the sentence. But “seems” only appears to be about “flowerbed” while being actually about the double “stative” adj. & noun “fearful quandary,” that may come out as pompous redundancy.

  14. 14  Sean Anderson  April 12, 2012, 7:33 pm 


    Because this joke, like many jokes, is based on an absurd “wait, what?!” reaction going on in the reader’s head. “Is” gives you a more protracted period of waaaaaaaitaminute so the amusement bonus is greater. Theoretically.

    Also, you’re making a metaphysical joke about flowerbed locations, I don’t think the grammar is the flashpoint for making you look pompous.

  15. 15  Jim Birch  May 15, 2012, 7:18 am 

    While third person seeming – “It seemed to John that…” – is possible and correct, the normal first person use of seems implies “it seemed to me” even without the explicit “to me.” This is because “seems” refers to an impression of how the world is rather than the statement of actuality of “is”. If a fearful quandary actually seemed to me a good and wise place for a flowerbed I’m not necessarily in dispute with you; things seem different to different people and even to the same people at different times.

    So we might say that “seems” addresses the gentle reader with a little deference while “is” lays down the law on flower bed placement. And in the case of a flower bed being hypothetically placed in as unlikely a container as a quandary, a potential for multiplicity of opinion on what is literally impossible adds a little touch to the humour of the imagery.

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