Time for an Update

by Mark L. Levinson

“Time for an update!”  It was Karmi, the sysadmin’s dogsbody.  I managed to hit Ctrl-S as he hustled me out of my swivel chair.  Readjusting its height with one hand, he spidered the other about on the keyboard.  Colorful windows appeared and disappeared, menus opened and closed, and as he sprang out of the chair and headed for the hall, he said, “I’ve updated your database.  When the progress bar hits a hundred, reboot.  Or if you get a message before then, let me know.  Don’t touch anything in the meantime.”

“What progress bar?” I called after him.

“Wait for it,” he said.

I emptied a box of paperclips onto my desk, searched for paperclips that were linked together, and unlinked them.  Then I searched for paperclips under printouts, under stray pages, and under cardboard coasters.  I returned more paperclips to the box than I had poured out of it.  By then the progress bar had appeared.  It said 1 percent.

I found a notebook and a working ballpoint, and before the progress bar reached 100 percent, I wrote the preceding thirty-two editions of this column.  Now that they’ve all appeared, it’s time for an update because in the meantime some e-mail has come in.

In “Hebrew Isn’t All Bad,” I wrote that English uses the word “of” in connection with fractions — “He spent two thirds of his salary” — but everyday usage is illogical and arguably incorrect in permitting the combination “all of” as an alternative to “all.”  Andrew Warren wrote in that “I think Dutch and Russian permit it, too... But I don’t think that matters, since I'm unsure that applying the rules of any other language to English will improve my writing.”

Although my sources tell me that you won’t find “all of” in Dutch, and that Russian doesn’t even have an imaginable equivalent you might look for, still Andrew’s second point is a strong one, because each of the world’s languages is a unique way of dividing reality into related subconcepts and its integrity deserves respect.  If the English we hear today boasts less variety, precision, and elegance than the English of a hundred years ago, I’m sure a lot of the blame can be traced to the common-denominator English spoken by non-natives like those of my grandparents’ generation in the USA, who applied the rules of other languages insofar as possible while failing to use the unique features of English.  Not my grandparents themselves, of course, but probably those upstairs neighbors of theirs who were always trying to cheat at kalabriasz.

On the other hand, there’s no rule against learning from other cultures.  For generations, Anglophone schoolboys were made to sharpen their English by comparing it to Latin.  The comparison is the means, polished English is the end.

Andrew also writes, “There’s no question as to the correctness of ‘the entirety of his salary’, ‘the whole of his salary’, ‘one hundred percent of his salary’, ‘every last bit of his salary’, etc.”  I believe that the last two aren’t really analogous to “all of his salary” because they are phrased in terms of fractions of his salary — all the fractions of his salary.  A percent is a fraction and a bit is a fraction.

The first two are more analogous to “all of” and I think they can be analogously improved:  “his entire salary,” “his whole salary.” 

I have to admit, though, that the analogy isn’t perfect.  We say “his entire salary” or “his whole salary;” but we say “all his salary,” not “his all salary.”

Andrew brings up another peculiarity:  “It occurs to me that in English, I can say ‘all of the people’, but I can't say ‘all of people’ — ‘of’ isn't acceptable without the article.”

Not all is yet revealed, it seems, about this mysterious word.  Comments and questions are still 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.