Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Writing it Right

To most foreigners, English seems a reasonably easy language to speak.  With a few words and a most basic understanding of grammar, non-native speakers quickly start making sentences, even the Chinese whose native syntax is so different. Expressing ideas in writing in English is another story. Given the luxury and curse of being able to review the sentence before sending off to another person, people realize how “foreign” their English is, not to mention how much it shows their lack of vocabulary and knowledge of grammar. As a professional teacher of English and a non-gifted writer, meaning I had to work hard to learn how to be able to write properly, I see three major difficulties in crafting the language of Shakespeare on paper.

The most obvious difficulty is vocabulary.  Except in regards to emotions, there is no excuse not to say exactly what you mean.  Words like good, bad and thing are essentially meaningless due to the extreme range of specific contexts they carry. Not only that, given the number of synonyms, it is considered bad form to repeat the same word in the same sentence or even in the paragraph. Writers impress by their richness of vocabulary, for better or worse. Investors invest in future investments is not going to cut it when words such as place money, speculate and opportunities, to name just a few, could also be used, albeit with a slightly different meaning.  To be a good writer, a rich vocabulary is necessary.
There is also the matter of sounds. Relatively homogeneous languages, such as French, Hebrew and Russian, the languages from which I translate, have a natural rhythm. They easily create a song: Je suis comme je suis. Je suis faite comme ca, as André Prévert said. English, alas, is comprised from three major language families, Gaelic, Germanic and Latin (French), not to mention the countless words derived from other sources, such as ketchup (Chinese), jubilee (Hebrew) and kangaroo (aborigine). The result of this mixed cocktail is a series of words whose rhythms and sounds are rather cacophonous. A diamond of a sentence in English takes serious polishing. That is the reason that I admire writers, such as Orwell, whose writing has the illusion of being so effortless.

Finally, ultimately the most demanding criterion of proper English writing is the requirement that the author actually say something and even efficiently.  Having content may seem obvious but, in fact, many languages strongly de-emphasize it when judging the quality of good writing. In French, especially the modern version, the witty phrase always gets the applause, even no serious thought lies behind it. In Russian, ideas become rather obtuse due to the fluid sentence structure and extreme use of filler words that have no actual meaning. Sentences there tend to be rather convoluted and long, often weakening the impact of the idea. There is no such luxury in English. If you write in an ornate, i.e. overly complicated style, readers tend to think that you are trying to impress or, even worse, hide your lack of knowledge. Neither is desirable.

So, my advice, once again as a teacher, to foreign learners of English is read a lot in English to build up your vocabulary; read your sentences out loud and revise until they sound good; and, finally, don’t get too fancy with the sentence structure. Instead, focus on the ideas and organization.  These goals are easier said than done but still attainable.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Be a man!

It is the nature of human societies to implant role models based on gender. In other words, through words, examples, media and unspoken expectations, boys and girls learn the practical functions and approaches needed to be an adult.  Of course, each family, subculture and era interprets these standards differently and modifies them as circumstances require. For example, the entry of women into the work force radically changed role models, partially wiping out those of previous generation. These expectations are expressed in numerous small scenes of daily life.  The gap between expectations and reality lead to quite humorous situations.

Money management is supposedly the realm of the male. As was common knowledge, women are too emotional to handle such an important matter.  Alas, men mismanage budgets at least as often as women.  Still, when talking to couples, many financial advisers assume that the male has the final word while the woman is there as a courtesy.  Being wrong on this point can lead to a very short conversation. The whole restaurant experience is still a bit macho for some.  It is the male that is supposed to call for restaurant and reserve the table. Lack of time and chivalry has really put cracks in that stereotype. At the restaurant, if one person orders a regular coke while the other a diet coke, the waiter will almost always serve the diet version to the woman as if men are never on diets or don’t care about sugar intake. When it comes time to pay the bill, it is obvious that the male will pay for it, right? Many women earn more money than their partners but don’t get any respect from the waiter.

Cars have been a male thing from day one. Men have all supposedly all the privileges and obligations attached to those machines. For example, according to the movies, men do the driving on vacation trips and going to those above mentioned restaurants, but not on shopping trips.  Yet, men tend to drink more and be more dangerous drivers even when not under the effect of alcohol.  Many women know this and immediately take the car key, generally without an argument. On the other side of the coin, when it comes to taking the car to the garage for repairs or changing the oil, everybody knows that boys are born with the knowledge to understand such matters.  In fact, the understanding of the workings of the car engine and, by extension, that the mechanic is inflating the bill is available to everybody, XX’s and XY’s. It is a matter of experience and desire to learn (which I don’t personally have but my wife does in this area).  We won’t even talk about the stereotypes regarding replacing a flat tire.

Men can ignore most household chores, including cleaning and cooking, but do so at their one peril.  On the other hand, society seems to expect the man of the house to justify his existence by doing all the house repairs even if it would be much faster and less expensive if his spouse did it or he called in a professional. Likewise, despite the fact that computer programming was invented by seven female math lecturers during World War II, men are supposed to have a natural ability to solve any computer issue, probably due to our legendary non-emotional nature.  The fact is that the larger muscle mass in males gives them no inherent advantage in trying to figure out what an alien message from the computer wants us to do. Yet, we have to try but are happy to pass on any woman that knows better.

I should mention one task that a man cannot avoid. When his daughter brings home a prospective husband, he must sit with him, preferably fortified by a beer (or two), and check the guy out. He fully knows that nothing he says will change his daughter’s mind but he has to go through the scene to ensure domestic tranquility, his. If there is one thing that a man needs, that is a domestic tranquility.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


A preposition is a short word describing the physical or lexical relation between words, such as in, on, or about, to name a few.  Every language has them, but the actual use may vary, especially in sentence with compound objects (of the preposition, not things).
For example, French insists on placement of the preposition before each noun to ensure clarity: Il a parlé de l’indépendence, de la dignité and de la gloire de la France.  In Hebrew, a speaker can insert all of them or omit the last ones:   הוא דבר על העצמאות, על הכבוד ועל התהילה של ישראל   or, without additional prepositions, הוא דבר על העצמאות ,הכבוד והתחילה של ישראל .  The prepositions are underlined in all of the sentences, with the translation being He spoke of the independence, dignity, and glory of France and Israel, respectively. English has a clear preference to drop unnecessary prepositions, as demonstrated in the previous sentence. 
The most curious case is Russian, which often omits all of its prepositions entirely due to its grammatical structure that has built-in prepositions.  Some examples include он мне дает деньги and она работает дураками [On mne daet dengue] (He gives money to me) and [ana rabotaet durakami] (She works with fools, respectively).  In these cases, it is not necessary to add to or with because the ending on the noun expresses the relation without additional words.  Of course, in many cases, Russian does use prepositions, but, like English, tends not to repeat them.
To conclude, I would like to cite Abraham Lincoln’s beautiful use of prepositions in the Gettysburg’s Address:
“…to ensure that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people can long endure.”

Tongue twisters

A tongue twisters is a logical (more or less) series of words that test a speaker’s ability to pronounce properly.  Ideally, a tongue twister forces the speaker to say one word at a time in order to clearly distinguish it from the following  and proceeding similarly-sounding words.
Children (small and big) enjoy testing their mettle with these.  The classics that all American children learn are “Peter Piper picked a pick of picked peppers. How many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?” and “She sells sea shells by the sea shore.”  In my opinion, the most difficult tongue twister in English is “Sixth sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick” which simply cannot be said quickly and coherently.  (It is okay to try: I said Big and small children.)
The French have some challenging ones also.  Un chasseur sachant chasser sait chasser sans son chien de chasse is a real mouthful, literally.  Cinq chiens chassent six chats is not easy while Mon père est maire, mon frère est masseur is just cute, which is also important, since it sounds likes My father is a mother, my brother is my sister but means My father is mayor, my brother is a masseur. (Taken from
I am not very impressed with Hebrew tongue twisters.  They are cute, but Hebrew is simply too poetic (in sound) to make it difficult to pronounce. The best I have seen is גנן גידל דגן בגן, דגן גדול גדל בגן [Ganan geedel dagan bagan, dagan gadol gadal bagan] meaning A gardener grew a cereal in the garden, a large cereal grew in the garden.  If you want to see more, see
I will let native Russian speakers tell about their toughest tongue twister. I am also interested in tongue twisters in other languages.