The Most Annoying Phrases

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A while ago, a feature article published on the website of the UK Telegraph newspaper asked, ‘what is the most annoying phrase in the English language?’ Suggestions included ‘chill out’ and the replacement of ‘now’ with ‘at this moment in time’. The posting, before it disappeared, elicited over 2000 comments from readers, each of whom mentioned a pet hate. A random glance at them yielded such expressions as ‘all intensive purposes’, ‘fell pregnant’, ‘blue-sky thinking’ tautologies such as ‘potential risk’ and the use of the soccer-player’s favourite phrase ‘at the end of the day’, which, it was claimed, actually means nothing at all.

The observant world is blessed with a number of eloquent speakers and writers who are outstanding advocates for Judaism. Their sensitive and lucid writings have drawn many hearts towards authentic Judaism and, when necessary, they articulately defend the Torah from outside attack: we would be a poorer community without them.

Yet the standard of their written and spoken English is scarcely reflective of the majority within the observant community; even in English-speaking countries, low standards abound. À la Telegraph, one could prepare a list of the most annoying phrases used by members of the religious community. My bête-noir is the common misuse of the word ‘by’, as in ‘I’m eating by the Cohens this Shabbos’ and ‘we daven (pray) by the Oshplotzer Rebbe’. This may be correct syntax in Yiddish, but is it English? Some even seem to be unaware that the words ‘takke’, ‘mamash’ and ‘ziche’ may be unfamiliar to the plumber.

In some parts of the religious community there is little appreciation of the value of using clear and accurate English and examples of frum-speak are common. Numerous English-language books and journals are filled with basic spelling errors (don’t the authors use ‘spell-check’?), inaccurate usages, and scant attention to English syntax, quite apart from the limited and simplistic vocabulary. How should one respond when one’s children notice simple spelling and grammatical errors in the school-worksheets prepared by their teachers? In a masterful exposition of this problem (aptly named: ‘Tefillin in a brown paper bag’), Rabbi Emanuel Feldman wrote in reference to the contents of an Orthodox periodical:

The alphabet and the words were English, but the sentence structure, the rhythm, the syntax, the tone, were of another language altogether

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Perhaps we have forgotten that many books and articles on the market are commonly read by the less observant: in fact, the literature is frequently prepared with them in mind. For them, weak English is often a real turn-off, as they inexorably associate the message with the medium: bad English equals bad message. Some recent ‘outreach’ publications suffer from this deficiency: notwithstanding the time and resources that have been devoted to their publication, I suspect that they will have little impact on their target audience. Rabbi Feldman again:

Beyond theory, the use of deficient language has practical negative consequences as well, for it prevents us from preaching to anyone but the Orthodox choir. Intelligent, educated non-Orthodox Jews will surely be put off by the argot which passes for much of Torah Judaica today.

Some opine that at least within the observant community, this is unimportant: provided the intended audience understands the message, who cares if the English is poor? It is difficult to treat this seriously. A well-known Jerusalem Rosh Yeshivah remarked that it is hard for him to understand why anyone would aspire to speak English poorly. Why, he asked, would one aspire to learn English from people who speak it badly; why would one want to ignore the nuances of expression available in English and communicate in a puerile or ambiguous manner?

Does anyone truly believe that simply because the audience is familiar with the ‘lingo’, the use of poor English has no consequences? Language is not merely a means of communication, but exposes the outlook of the speaker:

Every language expresses the core ideology of the nation (that speaks it) according to its Weltanschauung and in accordance with its grasp of the essence of reality: from this emerges its language. (Telshe Rosh Yeshivah, Shiurey Daas, Likutim)

Every language connects the core (of a person) with the external world…. (Shem MiShmuel, Devorim 5676)

If a language reveals the essence of the speaker’s world view, perhaps it follows that a limited vocabulary and the use of clichéd phraseology is reflective of tired, uncreative thinking and narrow horizons, hardly noble religious aspirations.

Negligible attention to presentation and slapdash English spill over into other areas of life too. Do we fool ourselves into thinking that when our children neglect English, this has no impact on the quality of their Torah achievements? Children are unable to compartmentalise their experiences – if they see sloppy presentation in one part of their schooling, it will affect others: is it too daring to suggest that users of poor English may become inexact Talmud readers?

Inaccurate English is most often caused by laziness and occasionally by a smidgen of arrogant superiority that allows people to think that they can get by without bothering to master the language. Simplistic English has a different source: inattentive reading, which leads to careless use of syntax and scant attention to the subtleties of language. Carefully reading a range of appropriate literature is the only way to develop a sophisticated and nuanced approach to the use of the language.

We need to produce more journals, children’s books, English-language scholarship and fiction that are engaging, rich and nuanced, and exposing our children to them, as well to a carefully-selected range of general literature. This will contribute to broadening their horizons and improving their capacity for self-expression and excellence in Torah learning. And without doubt, it will help us to extend our influence far beyond its current confines.

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26 Responses

  1. Chaim Wolfson says:

    This discussion reminds me of a speech I once heard at a Bar Mitzvah. The speaker, a product of some of the finest yeshivos in America and abroad, referred to a certain old age home where the structured activities included several hours of shiurim and learning. He said that he could see the difference this made in their attitude. In his words, “They were all so vibrant, even though many of them were decapitated”. When I pointed out to him that decapitated people cannot be vibrant, and that the correct word is “incapacitated”, he shared a good-natured laugh with me. I didn’t laugh too much, though, because I knew that when I was spending my free time enjoying “good English literature”, he was spending his free time learning another “blatt Gemara” and becoming a better Jew. Improper syntax grates on my ears too, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that there are some who lack command of the language because they are busy fulfilling their true purpose in life. Bad English should not be a badge of honor, but good English shouldn’t necessarily be a source of pride either.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Business and industry have a similar problem. Teachers in public and private schools at all levels too often lead their students to muddy up their communications by padding, using arcane synonyms, and using too many passive constructions. They sometimes fail to teach even the basics of English properly. Bad writing habits ruin corporate memos and reports. Businesspeople, particularly executives, don’t have the time to get to the meat of dull, vague, long-winded communications. As a result, many companies have been paying for training programs to fix their employees’ approach to writing.

    (Note: That should have been “incumbent” in my comment “July 17, 2007 @ 3:37 pm” above)

  3. ahk says:

    Unfortunately our children have almost no chance. It isn’t only adult speakers and authors, but children’s tapes and cds that are guilty as well. “He had nowhere where to go” “his clothes were shluchy”, and “he got treated extra special nice” are a few examples of the dialogue and stimulating vocabulary I heard on a tape recently. Additionally, it is depressing that storytellers and tape creators talk “down” to our children, by not modeling good reading expression and a rich oral vocabulary. Is it any wonder adults in the workplace sound like they are still in fourth grade?
    What’s even more depressing is if you correct someone or point out a grammatical error (like on a sign in a store: “seasonable items not returnable) you are told – “what’s the big deal? You understood me!”

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Miriam (July 17, 2007 @ 1:22 pm)
    pointed out that “Much of even the most “correct” (in terms of usage , syntax, etc) “frum” writing irks me because of its excessive complexity and formality”

    One thing that bugs me is when they say X “is incument on” Y.

    Wordiness also exists in the secular academic world, where writers in certain disciplines seem to get paid or tenured based on the number and inscrutability of their words. Is it possible that some frum writers are trying to lend more status to their work by trying to write like academicians?

  5. S. says:

    >S., other than the spelling of the word “Yiddish”, what are examples of the wide spelling variations? Did any of these these make the writing of one area unreadable in another?

    Off the top of my head I don’t have examples. Just compare some old Yiddish texts. The only reason I remembered the fact that there was no standard way of spelling the word “Yiddish” is because it’s so ironic.

    Of course the various written Yiddishes were mutually readable. Same thing in English. The point is that there wasn’t a standard orthography except for a couple of conventions, like using the aleph for the qomatz sound and the ayin for the segol. But even matters like using a tes-shin for “ch” was no standard. Sometimes only shin was used for “ch.” In fact, it was impossible for there to be a standard at that time. The way spelling becomes standard is either through the existence of a canonical literature to be emulated, ala Hebrew with Tanakh and our other canonical works, or through printing, but especially through dictionaries and lexicons. Yiddish basically had none of these, except for printing, but Yiddish was considered lowbrow and hardly any attempt was made to take it seriously as a medium of serious, as opposed to casual communication, until the 19th century.

    >How many people in how many places have to speak a language before it’s promoted from dialect or one of these others?

    There’s no hard answer. The aforementioned Max Weinreich is alleged to have coined the pithy aphorism that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that the presence of consistent grammar is indicative of one thing: that it is a medium of communication which uses spoken word. As I said, all of them possess grammar and rules; only some of them are “privileged” of having the rules discovered and described, but it hardly needs to be said that the speech comes before the rules; not that there is speech and then it stabilized to follow rules. There is speech and then someone or someones come along and study the speech and identifies what are the rules that the speech follows.

  6. miriam says:

    Much of even the most “correct” (in terms of usage , syntax, etc) “frum” writing irks me because of its excessive complexity and formality: the substitution of big words where simpler ones would do, the overuse of long and supposedly momentous adjectives where a more creative verb or noun would be better, etc. There is nothing “wrong” with a lot of this writing, it is just not good either, as english writing goes. as one commenter said above, you (and your teachers) have to read good english writing to produce it… (or at least read one of the many available guides…)

  7. Bob Miller says:

    “And by the way, it’s really Pennsylvania “Deutsch” as these farmers were largely from German lands, not Holland.
    Comment by barry — July 17, 2007 @ 11:59 am”

    Exactly, Barry. Interestingly, when I lived for a time in Western Michigan, there were many actual Dutch there, who were sometimes called Holland Dutch to distinguish them from Pennsylvania “Dutch”.
    See http://library.thinkquest.org/C005615/data/english/main.html
    In that part of Michigan, the ethnic jokes were often about Hollanders.

  8. barry says:

    “the use of deficient language has practical negative consequences as well, for it prevents us from preaching to anyone but the Orthodox choir. Intelligent, educated non-Orthodox Jews will surely be put off by the argot which passes for much of Torah Judaica today.”

    FWIW, this problem is not limited to English. My Israeli friends (frum)tell me that they are turned off by educated rabbonim from the US who purport to write in Hebrew but, to echo Rabbi Feldman, misuse Hebrew vocabulary,sentence structure and syntax. (And when confronted with the crtique, one well-known US Rabbi supposedly responded–“so, next time you write the book”).

    And by the way, it’s really Pennsylvania “Deutsch” as these farmers were largely from German lands, not Holland.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    FYI, This new edition of the definitive history of Yiddish is due out in 2008:

    Here is a summary from the Yale web site
    http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300108873 :

    History of the Yiddish Language
    Volumes 1 and 2
    Max Weinreich

    Max Weinreich’s History of the Yiddish Language is a classic of Yiddish scholarship and is the only comprehensive scholarly account of the Yiddish language from its origin to the present. A monumental, definitive work, History of the Yiddish Language demonstrates the integrity of Yiddish as a language, its evolution from other languages, its unique properties, and its versatility and range in both spoken and written form. Originally published in 1973 in Yiddish by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and partially translated in 1980, it is now being published in full in English for the first time. In addition to his text, Weinreich’s copious references and footnotes are also included in this two-volume set.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    “As for Yiddish spelling rules, they were actually widely varying until the 20th century’

    S., other than the spelling of the word “Yiddish”, what are examples of the wide spelling variations? Did any of these these make the writing of one area unreadable in another?

    “That’s true of any dialect, jargon, ethnolect or seeming nonsense that crazy teenagers develop.”

    How many people in how many places have to speak a language before it’s promoted from dialect or one of these others?

  11. S. says:

    >Despite the introduction of words from Hebrew and other languages, Yiddish as spoken in Europe had rules of grammar, spelling, and everything else pertaining to a language.

    That’s true of any dialect, jargon, ethnolect or seeming nonsense that crazy teenagers develop.

    Grammar is not planned. It happens and it gets described once the language is studied.

    As for Yiddish spelling rules, they were actually widely varying until the 20th century. Even the very word “Yiddish” had a wide variety of spellings! Does it begin with an aleph or a yud? Perhaps two yuds? Orthography was far from standard in Yiddish. That said, English orthography also didn’t really become standard until the 18th century.

  12. kar says:

    See P. 21 of this article for Noda Beyehuda and R Akiva Eger’s positive view of learning the language of one’s country well

    http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%204%20Fried.pdf

  13. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Oops, you’re right Aryeh. Fat fingers – I blame my BII (Baby Induced Insomnia)

  14. Bob Miller says:

    Despite the introduction of words from Hebrew and other languages, Yiddish as spoken in Europe had rules of grammar, spelling, and everything else pertaining to a language. Fundamental differences between Yiddish and contemporary “standard German” can be explained as carryovers from older usages in “standard German” or local German dialects.

    Once I was standing near the counter of a drugstore in Allentown PA, where there are remnants of the Pennsylvania Dutch language, really a dialect of German. The customer in front of me talking to the clerk referred to his town as “Allenstaedtl”, pronounced Allenshtetel.

    As for the theory that Jews deliberately changed Yiddish to make it unlike German, I ask for proof.

  15. Aryeh says:

    “Yishivish is OK”–Ori, I believe the proper speling of “Yeshivish” in Yeshivish is “Yeshivish”

  16. Garnel Ironheart says:

    To Danny Rubin – Shalashudis is a corruption of Shalosh Seudos. My limited understanding here is an opinion that the Seudah Shlishit contains the spiritual potential of both itself and the previous two Shabbos meals, so it gained the nickname Shalosh Seudos – Three Meals, to reflect this. That eventually corrupted into Shalashudis and its many variations.

    Ori Pomerantz makes an excellent point for sprinkling words from other languages into English. Not only ethnic groups but the legal and medical professions will also use words borrowed from Latin or Greek for the same reason Jews will use Hebrew and Aramaic ones – there is no really perfect word in English for what the person wants to say that can take the place of the word they want to use. “Permission” has its meaning. “Heter” has a whole bunch of implications not necessarily present in permission.

    There are, however, those who take it a step too far. It’s one thing for an immigrant learning English as a second language to use his original language’s grammer structure to speak. Hence “You want I should give this to you?” On the other hand, it is uneducated for people to imitate that and think it makes them sound more Jewish. I don’t doubt that the great Jewish minds of the centuries that spoke the languages of the countries they lived in spoke them impeccably. I doubt that when the Rambam presented himself to the sultan of Egypt he said “Nu, Mister Sultan person, you want to know how we cure this by us Yidden?”

  17. Ori Pomerantz says:

    As a linguistics maven, I’d like to comment that some linguistic innovations are easier for a language to digest than others.

    Words are among the easiest (for example, “maven” in the sentence above). Sprinkling a few Hebrew or Yiddish words will not hurt one’s English, especially when the words’ meaning is clear from context.

    Syntax is a different issue. Syntactic innovation often grates on the listener’s ear. Sure, you can understand “I amn’t joking”, but it would make you focus on the language, instead of the message. That is clearly not a good idea if one’s purpose is to be clear.

    That doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with an in-group dialect, as long as it is used for in-group communication. Such a dialect, though, becomes a liability if you can’t shed it off when you need to communicate with people of a different group. That is true for the Welsh, the Irish, the Jamaicans, and us. Yishivish is OK, as long as the speaker can also use standard English (or never interacts with gentiles / non frum Jews).

  18. Danny Rubin says:

    Reb Harvey,

    Thank you for pointing out the critical difference between jargon and linguistic ineptitude. I have been quite irritated by meeting people who take pride in sub-par english and believe it is a sign of their low level of assimilation. As your article eloquently points out incompetence is habit-forming (and possibly malignant!) and is far more dangerous than reaching to the outside world for proper language skills.

    P.S. Is “Shalashudis” a real word or a slur of Seuda Shlishit?

  19. Heshy Grossman says:

    At a meeting announcing the establishment of a new Mesivta high school in Bergen County, New Jersey – Yeshivas Ohr Yosef, Rav Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael, and the Nasi of the new Yeshiva (which is named for his father), said this about the study of English: “the ability to utilize language properly is critical for our students. Without a sophisticated understanding of language, our students cannot express themselves properly, and if they cannot express themselves properly, it is an indication that they are not thinking clearly, which follows that they will not even be able to learn Torah properly.”

  20. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Takke to Aryeh.

    It’s easy to see why English is so corrupted in Orthodox circles. First of all, look at the precedent. Yiddish is corrupted German without any real hard and fast grammatical rules. There are dozens of versions of Yiddish because in each country where Jews lived, they imported words from the local language. If one looks at the “anglo” communities in Israel, they already use English the way our forefathers used Yiddish.

    There is more, though. Most ethnic groups will corrupt the English they speak, just take a trip to Newfoundland and see if you can understand half the things they say. Jews are the only ones who do it with pride, as if throwing in mispronounced Hebrew and Yiddish words is a mark of intelligence.

    One can say that Feldheim and Artsroll’s greatest contributions to the frum world have been books that are reasonably written and formatted. Way better than the stuff that comes out of the small publishers.

  21. rejewvenator says:

    So long as we stay away from reading great literature in English, we will continue to fail to produce it.

  22. Bob Miller says:

    Proper instruction in the English language at the elementary and secondary levels would help. To make this work properly, the Jewish schools would have to hire qualified English teachers and convince the students that their grades in English really mattered. Considering the schools’ financial problems despite the already high tuition, and also the common idea that English instruction is done only to meet government requirements, I don’t see this situation as improving soon. Somehow, I had some really good English teachers in my day school in Grades 5 through 7, and I feel this was important to me later.

    Turning to Jewish books in English, I see a lot of variability in the way these are edited. Some publishers take editing more seriously than others. Authors have to write well, within reason, but they can never spot all the typos and other mistakes they make.

    Today’s Jewish books and periodicals often seem to have no standard at all for the English spelling of names of people and places, and specifically of words transliterated from Yiddish and Hebrew. Sometimes it seems that a name started out with the proper spelling in a European language, was then transliterated into Hebrew, and was then transliterated into English. It’s no wonder that some of these names become unrecognizable.

    Side comment to Aryeh (July 15, 2007 @ 10:07 pm ):
    It’s better when a send-up like yours comes from an insider of the group parodied.

  23. Sarah Lipman says:

    Somewhere I heard (in the name of a Rav, but I forget whom) that clear speech leads to clear thinking. Since then, I have read quite a bit on the subject, in books about neurology, deaf culture, and more. If you don’t have a precise word for a concept, you almost certainly don’t have the precise concept. A frivolous example is that kids who grow up speaking Hebrew see “light blue” and “blue” as two different colors — they get confused if you refer to something light blue as “kachol” [blue]. Americans don’t, because we don’t see light blue as a different category from blue; to us, it’s a subset, to Israelis, it’s a different color. Why? Because they use an entirely different word.

    The point about sloppily written books being a turn-off for the newly-religious or non-religious doesn’t go far enough. I am reading a book on halacha that covers a topic I really want to know about, and on a subject for which there are very few books in English. The book is poorly written, and has many typos, grammatical errors, spelling errors, formatting errors, etc. The feeling it gives me is one of unprofessionalism, and unfortunately, I am not entirely able to direct that feeling only towards the physical page; I apply it to the book as a whole. I am finding it a real struggle to “hear” the halacha from an “unprofessional” source — it demeans my perception of the authority of the Rav who wrote the book, which is terribly unfortunate. I’m (intellectually) sure the sefer is great, but emotionally, I’m resisting.

    I grew up in the frum community. I have (for the most part) adjusted to hearing rabbanim speak who sound completely uneducated, yet are in fact erudite and brilliant thinkers (fortunately, speakers have improved over the years). But the really “bad” books, few as they are, are still a problem for me.

  24. Aryeh says:

    Rabbi Bielovski. I will not be nochis to your taanos about poor spelling. That is ziche a chisaron. However, it’s very poshut and in fact to be expected, that Yidden who live in any land will mix the local language with the gemora loshon that we live with in our mental universe. Dos is nisht geferlach b’shum ofen. How do you think Yiddish started? Why, l’shitos’cha, Sholom Aleichem and other giants of Yiddish (some of whom were even zoche to get Nobel prize for their work)merely spoke schreklache German, with bad grammar and lots of words that the goishe plumber, German, Polish or otherwise, wouldn’t be makir b’klal.
    Now, I’m moideh that klal yisrael needs people who have a gevaldige shlita on and a big bkius in normal English, and a miyut motzui has a tzorech for it als parnasah, but is it really necessary for the rov hamon am? Efshar the hamon am can be mistapek with the English on the level of the local goyim (kulei alma lo pligei that they’re not all English professors either) while Yeshivish will be vaksing zain in America the same way Yiddish did in Europe and Ladino in Spain.
    L’aniuys daati, what’s going on in the velt arain, is a tevadike process that has gone on m’yomim kadmonim and l’olam voed until bias moshiach when we’ll all speak (?). B’etzem, I’m msupak what we’ll speak then. Ken Zain it’ll be a mixture of the tzionishe dialect with yeshivish, ken zein something else. Ich veis nisht.
    Every language goes through kama shinuim and develops dialects for the various tziburim that’s it’s spoken by. English is a good example. It’s not poshut to me at all, that with your Oxford education you’d be mevin zain a hillbilly from Texas or a schwartzer (WARNING: this term is NOT used as a slur. It means (in Yiddish)–a black person, any perjorative interpretation on your part shows your bias, not mine) from Bed-Sty or an Australian from the outback, etc. Us, frumme Yidden aren’t different. We also take the language around us and adapt it for our own tzrachim. You might taana that our schprach is not mutually intelligible with normal English. But that’s poshut! They didn’t learn in yeshiva! And anyway, why can’t we have a zchus to our own dialect? Are we worse then the Irish, the Welsh, the Jamaicans and the Singaporeans? Ziche not!
    So a sach nachas and I hope you’ll be neheneh from participating in the great linguistic journey now unfolding before our eyes. It’s not every day you can watch a new language developing when you’re eating by somebody over Shabbos.
    P.S. For those with a geferlach sense of humor, I’m moser modoa that half of this has been said Loshon-in-cheek. Which half? Hamevin yavin.

  25. Kayza Zajac says:

    I am very, very glad to read this. I think that this is a real issue, and needs to be addressed.

    I recall hearing a story from a Chabad Shaliach about an experience they had when they first went out on Shlichus, in a foreign country. One of the first things they did was start an edition of Shmuesen Far Kinder / Talks and Tales in the language of the country. As was the common practice by Shluchim at the time, they submitted a copy of the magazine to the Lubavitecher Rebbe ZY”A, before publication. To their shock, the Rebbe responded with thanks – and a whole set of corrections to the grammar and usage. They were stunned – they hadn’t realized that the Rebbe was even familiar with the language. Of course they made the corrections, and were far more careful, afterwards.

    The story made a real impression on me. My children laugh at me – it’s a story I tell often. There was never a time when the Rebbe did not have a tremendous amount of things to occupy his time. That he chose to spend so much time on insuring the correct grammar and usage of a periodical aimed at children speaks volumes, in my opinion.

    I would point out one other thing. The basic universal taxonomy has three classifications: Mineral, Vegetable, and Animal. Yiddishkeit adds one more classification – Medaber. In other words, humanity. And, how do we distinguish humanity from animals? Not intelligence etc. Only SPEECH. Wouldn’t it make sense to treat and use the one facility that clearly sets us apart from the animals with care and respect?!

  26. Ori Pomerantz says:

    There used to be a tradition of expounding on the Torah in the vernacular. The Tannaim of the Mishna used the Hebrew of their time, which was very different than the Hebrew of the Tanakh. The Amoraim of the Talmud abandoned Hebrew in favor of the Aramaic of their society. In the middle ages, Jews in Muslim lands wrote in Arabic. As far as I know, all of those scholars used their language properly.

    Surely such an example is worth following.