Monday, January 30, 2006

Grammatical Pedantry

Is there a Talmudic precedent for those pedantic people who insist on correcting everyone's grammar? What does the Jewish tradition have to say about such a practice? I'm glad you asked.

The Tosefta (Berakhos 5:18) discusses whether the person calling others to recite the zimmun introduction to the grace after meals should say "nevarekh" (we will bless) or "bar'khu" (you bless). The Tosefta states that regardless of which of the two is said, we do not correct him but the "nakdanin" correct him. Jastrow translates nakdanin as "cavillers," Soncino as "those who are punctilious," Artscroll as "the perfectionists," and Neusner as "people who are meticulous." In other words, the type of person who goes around correcting other people's grammar. Most people do not correct someone who says "you bless" but those sticklers do. Is that the correct thing to do?

It seems to be a dispute between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. The Babylonian Talmud (Berakhos 49b-50a) seems to rule like the cavillers, that one must say "nevarekh" (let us bless). The seeming legitimacy of imprecision in the Tosefta is abandoned for the proper grammar of the nakdanin.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhos 7:3), however, tells the story of how R. Hiya bar Abba once corrected R. Ya'akov bar Aha and R. Ze'ira was very upset over this. The clear implication is that the nakdanin are wrong.

Various commentators try to explain this different attitude but I think the simplest explanation (which emerges from the Meiri's commentary) is that both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds agree that one should try to be grammatically correct. However, they also agree that one should not correct another for being incorrect. Thus, we accept the position of the nakdanin that the grammatically correct usage should be utilized but reject their attitude of correcting others.

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