Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Sivan 5765 - July 6, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family


by Bayla Gimmel

Mystery stories are very popular with readers of all ages. As a story of this genre unfolds, a crime is committed and we are introduced to several possible suspects. We try to guess which of the characters is the guilty one. Tension mounts. It is hard to put down the story until the last chapter, when we finally find out who committed the crime, better known as "whodunit."

There are many life situations where we discover that things have gone wrong and now we would like to be able to trace the blame — another form of whodunit. Let me give you an example. It is right before dinner time at the Cohen's house. Mr. Cohen has arrived home twenty minutes early. While he was waiting for his bus, a neighbor drove by and gave him a ride.

Mr. C. sits down at the kitchen table with a pile of mail in front of him. He plans to use his extra twenty minutes to do some paperwork. Mrs. C. is busy cooking and, in her spare time, also keeping track of a crawling baby, a toddler and a three-year-old. She glances over at her husband and decides that he is sitting in the kitchen because he wants to talk to her. She doesn't notice the mail.

Mrs. C. decides to tell her husband about her trip into town. "You'll never guess who I bumped into on Malachei Yisroel Street," she says. Without waiting for a response she continues, "Your cousin Chavie!" Mr. Cohen has been with her thus far, but now he opens the phone bill and starts to go over the long distance calls.

Mrs. Cohen goes on to tell about her shopping and her trip home. She was waiting at the bus stop and met a girl of about 14. They spoke for quite a while and then Mrs. Cohen's bus pulled up. Mrs. Cohen gathered her packages and turned to get onto the bus. The teenager just sat there and did not help Mrs. C. at all.

In relating this, Mrs. C.'s frustration with the teenager causes her voice to rise. It rises so much that Mr. Cohen decides to stop wondering who called Los Angeles for eight minutes on April 10th and to focus his attention on his wife's tirade. "The nerve of her! She just sat there while I struggled with everything, and didn't even offer to help put the carriage, Sruly, Tova or any of the parcels onto the bus."

Mr. Cohen is too embarrassed to ask his wife who "she" in this last sentence referred to. Before he tuned out, the conversation had been about his wonderful, sweet young cousin Chavie.

Could Chavie have been so callous as to let a relative, or anyone else for that matter, board a bus with a baby carriage three little children and a whole day's worth of shopping and not lend a hand? A doubt will remain in Mr. C's mind whenever he thinks of Chavie. And who is the culprit that caused this doubt? The pronoun "she."

"She" is not the only bad guy who causes confusion and thereby ruins relationships. "She" shares the spotlight with "he," "they" and "it."

There is a type of literature called "stream of consciousness" where the writer puts down anything that comes to mind. A topic is introduced and dropped and then the narrative goes on to something quite different. Many of us have a similar problem when we speak. Our conversations are a form of stream-of-consciousness.

We can be speaking of someone and all of a sudden, someone else comes to mind. We switch then and there. That is when the dastardly pronoun can strike. We may use "he" to refer to three characters in a row. You don't have to tune out and read the phone bill as Mr. Cohen did. You can be sitting there listening to every word and not know the players without a scorecard!

Then there is another type of conversationalist who is the opposite of stream-of-consciousness. He or she speaks in a form of verbal shorthand. This person speaks one terse sentence, thinks a paragraph and then says another few words.

The problem here is that the paragraph that was not verbalized may be about someone quite different from the first sentence that was spoken. In that case, the words that follow it will not go with what was said previously. If names are used, the listener can tell that a change has taken place.

However, because he is addicted to brevity, the shorthand speaker loves pronouns and uses them far more than he uses names. There can be lots of confusion, misunderstanding and strife—-and all because of those nasty characters she, he, they and it.

Another person who should be barred from using pronouns is the speaker who mumbles. Try as we might, we cannot follow everything this person says because he seems to be speaking more to his beard than he is to us. As he mumbles, the listener asks, "What did you say?" or "What was that?" Another response might be, "I'm sorry, but I didn't catch that."

After a while, the listener gives up. S/he stops trying to hear exactly what is being said. However, some fragments of the conversation do get through, presenting a picture that can be even more disjointed than that of the stream-of- consciousness speaker or the verbal shorthand artist. If those bits and pieces contain pronouns — watch out below!

There is yet another type of conversation that can easily be sabotaged by pronouns. That is conversation between members of different generations. When we were living in California, the teenagers there invented a form of speech called "Valley Talk" named after the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles, a populous suburban area that has lots of teenage residents, many of them Jewish.

In Valley Talk, most sentences begin with the word "like." A typical example is, "Like I was going to the mallå." Parents had no clue what their children were saying. For the teens, that was part of the fun. If parents tried to follow their little darlings' efforts at communication, the use of pronouns could really wreak havoc. [lThe Israeli version is `k'eilu', which is a probable translation of `like.']

In a sixth grade composition about the previous summer's vacation, a student may be relating how someone in her camp got a leg cramp and started to drown. The writer might refer to the swimmer, the lifeguard and the counselor who called for help and call each of them "she," bouncing back and forth as she goes. The teacher will circle the pronouns and write "vague" in the margin.

But we don't write down our conversations or carry around our grammar teachers wherever we go. We have to train ourselves to stop composing oral whodunits. If in mid- conversation we switch characters, we have to refer to the newcomer by name, at least in the first usage. That won't help someone like Mr. Cohen who tuned out early on, but it will be an invaluable aide to those of us who try to focus and follow what is being said.


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