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Me and dad and our Shabbat grammar chats

Shabbat lunches were the training ground for a grammar maven

    Adi Bloom, grammar maven
    Adi Bloom, grammar maven

    There was a certain pattern to Shabbat dinners in my family when I was growing up.

    “So, what did you do today?” my father would say.

    “Well, me and Abigail had —”

    That was as far as I ever made it. “Abigail and who?” my father said.

    “Abigail and I.” I was an enthusiastic enough reader to realise that “me and Abigail” was incorrect: none of E Nesbit’s characters ever referred to me and anyone else. I, however, was not a character in an E Nesbit novel. “Anyway, me and Abigail had this great project idea, but the teacher said none of us were allowed —”

    “None of us was.”

    This was a subtly different interruption. “None of us was” hinted at the magic of language: the way that the unexpected could also be the deeply logical.

    Think about it for a minute — as I was compelled to do, while pretending to focus on my kneidlach. “None” means “not one”. So, when referring to none of us doing something, what you are actually saying is: “Not one of us was doing this”. So: “None of us was”.

    Mine was a family where correctness was valued: not being able to finish an anecdote without interruption might have been mildly annoying, but it was accepted as a price worth paying in the interests of grammatical exactitude.

    What I hadn’t quite realised, however, was that not every family was like mine. Then I started working as a journalist at the Times Educational Supplement. I quickly discovered that no-one likes a know-it-all. We were sitting in a news meeting, and one of my colleagues pitched a story. “One out of 10 teachers are —” he said.

    “Is,” I said.

    “Sorry?”

    “One out of 10 is. Because the verb refers to the one, not the 10.”

     

    If a look could drain your body of viscera, and then crush the remaining husk beneath its heel, that’s what my colleague’s expression would have done. From then on, I kept my mouth shut.

    But then grammar became fashionable again. Primary-school children are now expected to know their fronted adverbials from their verbal nouns. And my annoying habit became a useful party trick.

    And so, when the Tes decided to publish a grammar guide, I was drafted in to write it.

    Remember the scene in Yentl, where Barbra Streisand first attends yeshiva after years of studying in a shuttered room? This was what it felt like, when the editor and I sat down to debate the finer points of parsing. As with the best scriptural study, the results were at once immensely pleasing and profoundly discomfiting.

    “Sometimes ‘none of us are’ is acceptable,” the editor said.

    I may have scoffed. Openly, visibly, and derisively.

    “It’s true,” she said, citing her favourite rabbinical authority: Mary Norris, The New Yorker’s copy chief and self-dubbed comma queen.

    Every scholar has her own preferred rabbi. So I tweeted the question to Benjamin Dreyer, chief copyeditor for Random House US, and Twitter grammar maven. “Plural none is fine, always has been, always will be,” he replied.

    This is the kind of sticking point, I believe, over which breakaway communities are formed. But it is also one of the joys of grammar: once you know the rules, you can debate endlessly over nuance. If you know that some people will be judging you for your use of “none of us were”, you can choose to use it — or not to use it — as you see fit. Grammar can be toyed with, messed with, downright ignored, for dramatic effect. As long as you know which rules you’re breaking, you can break them with impunity. As I will be telling my father, the next time I begin a story with “Abigail and me.”

     

    The TES Little Book of Grammar by Adi Bloom is available from 

    www.tes.com/store/grammar-book-17

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