Hebrew Isn't All Bad

Written by Mark L. Levinson

Among the minor legends of America is a general who hated the expression “under the circumstances.”

Circum means around, he said.  Stance means standing.  Circumstances are the things that stand around you, so how can you be under them?  If any memo he received said “under the circumstances,” he discarded the memo without reading further.

I found that story inspiring.  As Mel Brooks said, it’s good to be king.  So after establishing myself as a manager of writers, I decided to indulge a crotchet of my own.  For the good of the writing, of course, but also in order to demonstrate my present authority and to be remembered someday later with a vividness that never prevails when you remember a sane and reasonable person.

I told the writers to watch out for the expression “all of” because I hate it.  Any good writer knows that the record is inside the file and not inside of the file.  The narrow end of the necktie lies underneath the broad end, not underneath of it.  Well, the “of” in “all of” is just as superfluous as those others.  The backup includes all the data, not all of the data.

As a matter of fact, traditionalists make the case that “all of” is a corruption of our language.  Consider Hebrew, for example.  Granted, thinking in Hebrew can cause you a lot of trouble.  Learn Hebrew before English, and you’ll never break the habit of saying “it’s depend” instead of “it depends” because in Hebrew instead of the active verb “depends” you have an adjectival form.  But Hebrew isn’t all bad.

In Hebrew, or French, or German, or Spanish, consider how you would say “He spent two thirds of his salary” and how you would say “He spent all his salary.”  You can’t say he spent all of his salary.  The “of” in those languages is reserved for fractions.  In Latin it’s called the partitive genitive.  By observing the same practice in English, your writing can only be improved.

Another place where a Hebrew speaker comes to English with an advantage is the who/whom conundrum.  I was an English teacher in night school back before English had the influence on Hebrew that it has today.  As a naive new immigrant, I would say to people “How are you?” in Hebrew, translating literally.  They looked back at me as if I had asked “Why are you?”  The question made no sense to them at all.  Today I hear it in Hebrew all the time.

Anyway, as I was saying, in those days when English was yet more foreign a language than it is today, I was teaching it to Hebrew speakers and I came up against who/whom.  I said to them, “Now this is going to be very difficult, you may not understand it, and I want to reassure you that not even all English speakers understand the difference between these two words.”

“No problem,” they said.  “We get it fine.”  And they did, because in Hebrew when “who” is an object it’s always accompanied by another word that tips you off.  So feel free to use “whom” when writing for Hebrew speakers.

But I’ve lost your attention.  You’re still not convinced about “all of.”  Am I saying that because no other language permits it, English shouldn’t?  No, I’m not learned enough to say that.  Maybe Turkish permits it.  As a matter of fact, I think Turkish does.

And there are those who contend that “all of” is okay because it isn’t a partitive genitive, it’s an explicative genitive, like “the disease of bird flu” or “the isle of Manhattan,” where the “of” separates a generic and a specific name for the same thing.  To me that explanation sounds like a pretty desperate reach, but you may want to give in regarding “all of” if the point looks costly to argue, minor as it is.  You can fight some of the battles all the time, and you can fight all the battles some of the time, but you can’t fight all the battles all the time.

Comments and questions are welcome: ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.