Thursday, October 2, 2008

On Being Besides Myself

I am, for a change marking papers. Marking papers can be a neutral activity, providing neither pleasure nor pain. Sometimes there is real pleasure in what I am reading. And sometimes I'd rather go to the dentist then to have to mark some of the papers.

In particular, I am no fan of "Yeshivish" or "Yinglish." It has become so institutionalized in the frum community that no less an "expert" source than the Wiki refers to it as a patois or dialect of English. Baloney! It's sheer laziness or incompetence on the part of the mostly male schools in teaching the correct patterns of English. My students are not, for the most part, speakers of Yiddish. So just why is it that so many of them speak as if they are translating from Yiddish into English?

One particular construction that creeps up in far too many papers is the use of the word "besides" coupled with the word "for." Okay, listen up and please pass the news. Standard English does not, I repeat does not have the construction "besides for."

Those people who use "besides for" are looking for "aside from," "in addition to," or "except for." Sometimes they should simply be using the word "besides."

It is a little known fact that incorrect usage can make English teachers homicidal. "Besides for" is one of those egregious usages that sets our teeth on edge and makes us dream of stabbing red pens, if not worse. Save a student's life today; pass on the message that "besides for" is officially banished from the vocabulary that educated people should be choosing from. Those who were born here in the US should not be sounding like they are going to get off the boat tomorrow. Being frum is no excuse.


Anonymous said...

Good luck to you if you are taking on Yinglish. I don't get it either. My kids are third generation Americans. Until my boys went to school they spoke American English. Now they are beginning to sound like immigrants. I keep on correcting them but they spend more time with those who are speaking Yinglish then they do at home. Any suggestions on how to fight this?

Anonymous said...

Don't forget about "speaking out", Prof. K.

Let's not discuss the poor spelling and math skills, though. There's only so much a teacher can handle at one time, right?

Anonymous said...

"....I'd rather go to the dentist then (sic) to have to mark..."

Nuff said

Orthonomics said...

I hear nails on a chalkboard and it makes me cringe.

mlevin said...

ProfK - I have a few weaknesses with English. Then/Than is one of them. Can you give a few examples, so I may eventually get it.

My other weakness is which/that. I can't ever see the difference between the two. So, I use one or the other depending on my mood.

My great weakness is articles. But I accepted. I will never figure them out. If I'm writting something important, I just give it to the kids to re-read.

tnspr569-how can you compare spelling with math? Math skills indicate logic, critical thinking and IQ. Spelling skills indicate one's ability to memorize. Especially considering that spelling evolves. There is more than one way to spell a word. On the other hand one plus two will always be three and triangles will always add up to 180 degrees.

ProfK said...


For an excellent and clearly written explanation of that/which usage, see

ProfK said...

You are both right and wrong. "Than" is used as a comparative--I am taller than she is. It is clear that two things are being compared using height as the point of comparison. In the sentence you highlight that comparison is not so clear. Yes, the sentence can be read as comparing two items--the dentist and marking papers--with the comparison point being which one is preferred. It can also be read as preferring to do one thing INSTEAD OF the other, clearly not a comparison of the two things. The latest edition of the Webster's Dictionary has pretty much come out and said that while "than" cannot be substituted for "then," "then" substituting for "than" is in fairly common usage, and they believe that "than" is on its way out of common usage, at least in the US.

Lion of Zion said...


"how can you compare spelling with math? Math skills indicate logic, critical thinking and IQ"

try studying orthography without using logic, critical thinking and IQ. you won't get too far.

Anonymous said...

Then / Than:
Not bad, I moved up from being wrong in your earlier response (where did it go?) to being both right and wrong in your later revised post. I stand 50/50 corrected.

On Being Taller:
To be factual: one inch taller [than she is tall].

ProfK said...

The prior comment disappeared when a colleague rightly pointed out to me that the then/than usage question was not a matter of either right or of wrong, but that it was rather murky right now thanks to the Webster's position. I believe said colleague also told me to stop posting at 6:00 AM as the hour was clearly not conducive to careful editing. As he said, no one should be editing anything on less than two large cups of coffee.

Anonymous said...

Lion: logic and (English) orthography do not couple closely. If one wants to study English orthography in some fashion other than a memorization drill, one needsto larn the history of English, and its shifts in pronunciation over the centuries.

ProfK said...

Both you and Lion make good points about the spelling issue. Yes, there are spelling rules that guide how words are supposed to be written. And for every rule there seems to be hundreds of exceptions. But the exceptions are not because the rules aren't logical. You are correct Mike that a study of English language history would shed light on the spelling problem.

To put it plainly, English is carnivorous, snapping up words from other languages on a frequent basis. Sometimes it "chews" up those words quite well and "spits them out" so that their spelling follows the rules. Other times the words remain in English with remnants of their original spellings or wholly spelled as they were in the original language. Sometimes the spelling remains as in the original but the pronunciation changes to fit English pronunciation. (Think the Spanish word rodeo which is pronounced as in the original when referring to Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles but is pronounced with "American" pronunciation when referring to the event where bull riding takes place. Or there is the word "houston"--pronounced by New Yorkers one way when referring to the city in Texas and pronounced another way when referring to the street in lower Manhattan.)Sometimes it is pronunciation shifts that are responsible for spelling changes that occur in some words but not others.

There have been many notable people who have called for a radical overhaul of the spelling of English words, yet there has been no such major overhaul. For one thing, you would need to bring to the table all the various countries that are English speaking and get them to agree to abolish certain elements that make their language distinctive dialects of English. You would also need to standardize pronunciation globally. Not going to happen. At least we can be thankful that regional pronounciation has not brought about a call for regional spelling changes; Bostonians may say they will "pahk" their car but they still spell the word "park." And while the South may have a sandwich called a "Po'boy" they still teach their children to spell the "real" word as "poor."

mlevin said...

"For one thing, you would need to bring to the table all the various countries that are English speaking and get them to agree to abolish certain elements that make their language distinctive dialects of English." Not true. We already have American English designation, so why can't we twik this American English to make it easier for American Speakers. (It's not as if it's the first time that English has officially changed)

ProfK said...

Your suggestion would be easier to carry out if 1)English would behave itself and never again borrow words or phrases from another language or from another dialect of English and 2)if all various dialects of English were isolated with no contact with each other. The things that we read come to us from English language sources around the world. Only changing the spelling rules for American English would leave our people without the resources to understand the other variants of English and/or to communicate effectively with people from other English dialects.

Anonymous said...

Also, there are words from a single root whose meanings remain tied, but where the pronunciation varies. To have the orthography track the pronunciation would tend to obscure the relationship. For example, "nation" and "national" have different sounds for the initial 'a' and "relate" and 'relation" have different sounds for the 't'. A purely phonetic spelling would obscure the connections.

ProfK said...

You are correct about the roots being obscured. But there is also this: whose pronunciation would be used in standardizing the spelling? For example, the words marry, merry and Mary are pronounced identically if you are from the West Coast; they have three different pronunciations if you are from NY. The same goes for Harry, harry and hairy. So,will you spell the words identically or will you spell them differently, leaving West Coasters and others with the same spelling/pronunciation differences there already exist?

Looking Forward said...

I definitely agree, leave the english as it is spelling wise. it definitely gets its lexicon from far to many sources.

but that doesn't mean I can spell that well. :( (or always pronounce it. I've started to realize that the nice neat pronounciation rules that we have only work 50 percent of the time, and so many of my words are ones that I've only read, that I don't always pronounce them well, such as modicrum.) (which usualy triggers a recognition of the root and pronouncing it as its more common related noun.) (?)

I almost think it might be more effective to move english to a logographic or syllabic system, given the immense problems that young students have reading english words.

(and this as a (studying) elementary school educator.)

and my other thought is that perhaps hebrew numerals would make a major change to english math education. it might be a useful inbetween for teaching the regular arithmetic algorithms. (I remember the prounounciation verbaly usualy, together with the regular pronounciation.)

(and also, I've suffered from considerable british contamination. Thus custome and not custom. armour and nor armor.

Jewish Side of Babysitter said...

I don't remember ever hearing not to use the words "besides for".

I wasn't aware it stemmed from Yiddish or Yinglish. I thought I actually saw it in little kids homework books. with subtraction problems, it would say "Sam took all 9 marbles besides for the 4 yellow ones, how many are left?"

Do you at least correct them when they use such words, so they know not to use them? And do they stop using them after?

ProfK said...

If the homework book had the problem reading 9 marbles besides for" then it had to be one that the teacher made up and he/she clearly did not know the correct usage. I can promise you that no editor would allow it into a regular printed book--it would have to be either "aside from" or "besides" in the example you gave.

Yes, I correct them, and I also make a point of giving a mini lesson on it. My students know better than to use it in their writing. Once I've warned them, it's a full grade deduction on any paper that contains the offending construction.

Re the Yiddish connection, there's a phrase in Yiddish "achitz foon" which loosely translated is "aside from" or "besides from" which has morphed into "besides for."

Jewish Side of Babysitter said...

Prof K: it was one of these standard workbooks, not from the teacher. Perhaps I just imagined that it said that.

At least you have a rule about it so your students know, that's good. I had a teacher who would give deductions for certain things and it really helped me be careful to write things out the write way.

ahh I see, I don't know much yiddush. That's amazing how a word like that can be carried down for generations.

Anonymous said...

My school started a campaign, last year, on speaking/writing in proper English. There are posters hanging all over the school walls which depict the average teenage dialogue. "besides for" was actually used on one of the posters :). Most of the students read them and comment on how corny it is, but i guess since we're reading it,taking notice of it and discussing it that they figure it's a working method.

nmf #7 said...

Ouch. I took it upon myself to type in "besides for" on Google search- and it seems that it is one of those egregious errors that just about everyone makes, Yinglish or not.
Although, a comma might help: besides, for...

ProfK said...

I hotfooted it over to Google and also checked out "besides for." Youch! However, most of the uses of "besides for" were when "besides" was being used as an introductory word; as you point out, the problem is a comma error rather than a word usage error per se. There were only a few instances of "besides for" in the middle of sentences. Interesting to note: most of the noted usages were from blogs or personal home pages. Apparently lots of people don't believe that the rules of standard English need apply to blogging, or at least the rules of punctuation don't have to.

I found the following gem:
"Besides for typos and grammar errors(which everyone does so don't sweat it), it's kinda hot." Would it be churlish of me to point out that you "make" errors, not "do" them? Or that you can say "One kind of error is____," but that "kinda" and "kind of" are not standard written English? Or that "hot," in formal English, should be used only for descriptions of temperature as it relates to various things that can be heated?

Maybe I need to add another sub-category of English to my list: Blogglish.

A Living Nadneyda said...

As for modern deterioration of language usage (or not), this article expresses an interesting viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest you read books on AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and the successful educators who teach inner city teens how to speak standard English. AAVE and standard English have different uses in different contexts. You may also want to look at ESL techniques. There is a lot of research available on both these topics that may be helpful in the classroom.

Yeshiva students are not being lazy when they use yeshivish as it is more useful in expressing halachic and talmudic ideas with greater clarity than is standard English. Your job as an English teacher is not to deride their language choices but to educate them in standard English so they can interact respectably with the greater culture.

They are not going to stop speaking yeshivish. Your job is to teach them the contexts where they need to "code-switch."

ProfK said...

Anonymous Teacher,
We'll have to agree to disagree as our opinions are different. I've read the AAVE literature and have for many years been associated with the CUNY CLIP programs for ESL students. The language learning problem seen in these two groups is not one-for-one analagous to the problem of Yinglish/Yeshivish language users.

You state: "Your job is to teach them the contexts where they need to "code-switch." Teach no, reinforce and refine yes. But first there would need to be knowledge of both codes. That is where the problem lies. For far too many Yinglish/Yeshivish users there is no solid foundation in Standard English. I teach upper level college courses to seniors in college; that is NOT the place to first be teaching Standard English. That job should have been begun in first grade and continued through the senior year of high school, a senior year that many boys yeshivas don't provide for their students. A one or two week crib course for the English Regents does not a year's instruction make.

Re "Your job as an English teacher is not to deride their language choices but to educate them in standard English so they can interact respectably with the greater culture." The word you were looking for is not "deride" but "decry," and yes, decrying is part of my job. When those who are supposed to be teaching Standard English, who come before the students get to me, aren't doing their jobs then decrying becomes mine.

" Yeshiva students are not being lazy when they use yeshivish as it is more useful in expressing halachic and talmudic ideas with greater clarity than is standard English." Have you read the Art Scroll translations of the seforim used to study halacha and talmud? They are not written in Yeshivish/Yinglish and are wonderfully clear. They are also not completely accessible to yeshiva students whose Standard English vocabulary is poor.

Let me clarify my position: Yinglish/Yeshivish as a patois, jargon, cant or argot is fine when kept in its intended place. But when speaking/writing that patois replaces Standard English rather than having its own place then that is not fine. And when a reason for that substitution of Yinglish/Yeshivish for Standard English is because they are not being taught Standard English or are being taught it poorly and/or sketchily or are not being taught it long enough or at all, then my job is to bring that out in the open and yell "False!"

Anonymous said...

ProfK, I taught English in yeshiva elementary school for many years. I'm degreed in English. Trust me, I tried my hardest to give my students a full well-rounded education in English. But I was hampered by the administration of the school, which made up policy of what to ban in reading matter every few minutes. The supervisor of secular studies was a rebbi, non-degreed, who also put in his two-cents worth (and not worth the two cents). Then there were parents who complained about the amount of homework the students were getting. They were particularly upset with all the books the students had to read for reports. They saw no reason for teaching poetry to boys. As for grammar, I had many more than one parent tell me "The goyim don't know from grammar either so why should we make our children suffer with it?" They thought that nightly vocabulary work was too much. And the students? They saw the attitude of the school and of their parents and it translated to lack of interest on their part in the classroom. I finally gave up and left the school.

You are fond of idioms; here's one that describes what happened to me: "You can bring a horse to water but you can't make him drink." And when schools and parents reduce that water to a bare trickle then there is nothing to drink even if that "horse" would want to.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I agree with you. I thought you taught high school. This needs to be taught in elementary school and high school. not to do so is educational neglect. I feel for you. I don't think AAVE or ESL is a one-to-one but the research could be used to develop an elementary school/high school curriculum.

Have a meaningful fast