Words to Live By

April 15, 2010

7 min read


With my compliments – a lesson in Jewish grammar.

As a Language Arts teacher, I get a lot of questions about grammar. “Do we have to learn grammar today?” “Why do we even need grammar?” “Isn’t grammar spelled with an ‘e’?”

But even the general public sometimes asks me grammar questions, because they figure that I must know grammar. After all, I’m a writer! Not only that, but I teach writing! And I probably took writing courses in school! But the truth is that at some point in school I realized that if I could get my teachers to laugh while reading my essays, they would forget all about the grammar mistakes. So I sort of coasted under the radar, and I had no idea whether my grammar was any good, because the teachers never said anything. Too bad I couldn’t do the same thing in math class.

But good grammar is important. Let’s say you are applying for a job as a surgeon, and the chief of medicine asks you about your experience, and you say: “Well, I ain’t never actually did no surgery or nothing, but I did get a 66 on m’written exam, and I have a bunch of friends who I like to watch surgeries with.” If you say this, chances are he’ll call security. This is because, as a surgeon, you need to be able to communicate efficiently. You can’t turn to the nurse and say: “Get me the zach! You know, the thing! With the thing! It has that thing!”

If you’re a surgeon you can’t turn to the nurse and say: “Get me the zach!”

Of course, some people take grammar a little too seriously, to the point where they’re always correcting you, and they totally miss the point of what you said. You’ll say, “If you don’t hurry, you and him are going to miss the boat!” and he’ll say, “You and he are going to miss the boat.” and you’ll say, “No, really! You’re gonna… Never mind. You missed the boat.” Or there’ll be a knock on your door, and you’ll ask, “Who is it?” and you’ll hear a voice on the other side of the door saying, “WHOM is it!” Of course, in that case you can always refuse to let him in. (“Um… None of us are home!” “None of you IS home!”) Also, there are a handful of folks whose whole existence seems to revolve around finding grammatical errors in the newspaper.

But these people notwithstanding, good grammar is very important, and you can’t always trust your computer to catch your mistakes. Computers are very smart, and they’re not too happy that you’re always yelling at them for things that aren’t their fault, so if you write a word that is not technically misspelled, even if has absolutely no place in the sentence, they’re not going to say anything about it, and they’re going to let you print out hundreds of copies and send them to everyone you know, so that all of those people could make fun of the fact that you wrote something like: “Should I have a coma in the middle of this sentence?” For example, my son’s playgroup teacher printed out a parsha (torah portion) sheet a few months ago that talked about how “We light the candles consensually on every night of Chanukah.” Consensually. That’s when you agree to light the candles, and the candles agree to be lit. Because some candles aren’t too happy about you lighting their one hair on fire.

Word turned “sach naches” into a “sack of nachos”.

But then sometimes your computer will insist that something you wrote is wrong even when it’s very clearly not wrong, or is in fact not an English word in the first place. You could be typing up a wedding speech, and your first sentence will be: “I would like to extend a hearty mazel tov to the mechutanim, you should have a sach nachas, and build a bayis ne’eman b’yisroel,” and the computer will change it to: “I would like to extend a hearty hazel toe to the mechanic, you should have a sack of nachos, and build a biased Norman bistro.” And if that’s how computers play around with our spelling, imagine what they are doing with our grammar that we don’t know about.

So we do have to learn a lot of grammar on our own. But it’s really hard to remember the difference between nouns and pronouns and proverbs and antiverbs and antecedents and colons and semicolons (if you have a semicolon, see a doctor,) and compunctions and perspirations and the pound key and the box where you check “yes” to receive more information. And if you think it’s hard for you to understand, try explaining it to a classroom full of teenagers who are trained to dissect a topic in the Talmud. During my first year of teaching, I frequently had the following conversation with some of my students, and I had to both get them to understand it and make sure they didn’t figure out that I myself was only about a page or two ahead of them:

STUDENT: “So what is a preposition, again?”

ME: “A preposition connects a noun to another noun.”

STUDENT: “And what is a conjunction?”

ME: “That connects two parts of a sentence.”

STUDENT: “So then what’s a linking verb?”

ME: “That connects a noun to the rest of the sentence.”

STUDENT: “So how is that not a conjunction?”

ME: “A conjunction connects two phrases.”

STUDENT: “What’s a phrase?”

ME: “It’s a group of words that doesn’t always make a sentence.”

STUDENT: “But what if it’s a really long phrase, and a really short sentence?”

Thus I have compiled several rules of grammar. I hope they are of some help to you, unless you are one of my students, and are trying to use this during a test.

1. “At” means “in”; “By” means “next to”. Thus, if someone invites you to stay by his house for Shabbos, then he is essentially asking you to sleep out on the lawn. You should probably ask if there are any small woodland creatures roaming the neighborhood at night.


INCORRECT: Who will you be by for Shabbos?

CORRECT: At whose house will you be spending Shabbos?

EVEN BETTER: Staying home.

2. If you’re Jewish, you are allowed to put your pronouns before the nouns they are standing in for. (Antecedents, according to this grammar book I’ve been using.) For instance, you can yell, “It’s about to fall, that box!” This allows you to get to your message quicker, and you don’t have to decide what you’re talking about until the end of the sentence. Of course, the person you are talking to will have no idea what is about to fall until you finish your thought, and by then it will be too late. But then you can say, “I told you it was going to fall, that box.”

3. Also, if you’re Jewish, you are for some reason allowed to end a question with the words, “Or what?” But if you do, be aware that you have presented a legitimate choice, and the other party is perfectly within rights to choose, “or what?”


WIFE: “Have you been listening to anything I said, or what?”

HUSBAND: “What?”

3a. You’re also allowed to turn regular statements into questions by adding the word, “no”.


That husband is in some hot water, no?

4. You can also turn a statement into a question by preceding it with the word, “What”.


What, you set up your tent over a groundhog hole?

BETTER: What, you set up your tent over a groundhog hole? Or what?

EVEN BETTER: Staying home.

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