Chanukah begins December 24. Christmas follows on December 25.
It’s a time for gifting, and we don’t want to be remiss. So here are a few stocking stuffers and a little gelt to add to your growing pile of presents. We’re not sure we saw everyone’s wish list, but we’re pretty sure these are things everyone desperately wants to know at holiday time.
First, when to use “if” and when to use “whether.” Okay, you didn’t even realize this was an issue, right? Oh, but it is. “Whether” offers two possibilities; “if” suggests a certain action will or will not be taken. They’re not exactly the same. Here are a few examples:
· If I spin the dreidel this way, it might fall off the table. (Apparently you can spin it the other way and it won’t fall off. Weird, but that’s an “if” situation.)
· Whether it falls off the table or not, the dreidel isn’t breakable. (Two possibilities, but it will be okay in either case.)
· I can return that gift if you don’t like it. (Otherwise, just keep it, of course.)
· I didn’t know whether to buy an actual sweater or just invest in a gift card for you. (I had two options, you see: whether this or that.)
· By all means, enjoy the vegetables even if you don’t want any turkey. (We’re not offering beef, so this isn’t a “whether – or” situation. If you don’t like turkey, eat vegetables!)
· Soon we’ll know whether Grandpa is feeling well enough to make the trip. (Assuming here that he has another alternative: staying home. That’s why it’s not an “if” situation but a “whether” situation, even though “or” is not stated outright.)
How do people mix them up? Well, generally, they use “if” all the time (just like some people use “may” all the time and never “might,” but don’t get me started). Sometimes “if” is not the better selection; “whether” is the right choice. Look at these mistakes:
· Soon we’ll know if Bubby made her famous latkes for dinner. (No! Whether she made them or did not make them.) Soon we’ll know whether Bubby made her famous latkes for dinner.
· I didn’t know if I should wrap the white elephant gift or just bring it as is. (No! Whether I should wrap it. There is no such construction as “if… or.” It’s “whether… or.”)
· Nobody told me if you folks would like sufganyot, so I just didn’t fry any. (No! Whether you’d like sufganyot– not if. You have two options: you like the traditional jelly donuts or you don’t. Use “whether “ not “if.”)
Second, where in the sentence to put “only.” Ah, the most misplaced word in the English language! If you master this one during this holiday season, you will deserve an extra piece of pie. “Only” describes the word closest to it. “Only” is almost universally placed too early in the sentence, clouding the meaning. If you want to be precise, you use “only” to limit exactly the word intended, and that’s accomplished through correct placement. Here are some examples, but remember: This is not “Word Placement 101.” This is advanced material for those who already have all their shopping finished, their menu planned, the menorah dusted, and the dog groomed.
· I only brought fudge, so you dieters are out of luck! Oh, so you only brought fudge. You didn’t make it or buy it or steal it – you only brought it. Well, of course that’s not what you meant. You meant, I brought only fudge, so you dieters are out of luck! You see? Only fudge – that’s all I brought.
· I only eat latkes. Oh, so you only eat them, but you don’t buy them or make them or freeze them or cook them? You just eat them, right? I don’t think so. I suspect this person plans to eat only latkes and nothing else on the buffet table. I eat only latkes.
· The Shamash is only used to light the other candles. No, the point is that the Shamash, the “servant candle,” has only one purpose: to light the other candles in the menorah. The Shamash is used only to light the other candles.
I have a theory about why “only” is misplaced more often than it is correctly placed: It’s so darned hard to get it right! It’s probably the easiest mistake to make in writing. So how does one stop making that mistake? The only solution is reading over what you’ve written. Only then will you find this little devil. It is only editing your own writing that will correct this mistake because it’s a mistake that practically makes itself! And that self-editing is done only by those who really care about precise language.
Third and finally, the lightbulb: on or off? Not the colored one on your Christmas tree. No, the one in your head when you get a great idea. When you’re practically struck by lightning – a brainstorm you didn’t see coming! And so you tell our brother-in-law over Christmas dinner, a goofy grin on your face, “… and then the lightbulb went off.”
I swear, I hear that all the time. Someone gets a great idea, and they retell the story by claiming that the “lightbulb went off.” Really?? And how much light did it shed on your decision-making after it went off?! No! Lightbulbs go ON to shed light. Come on, this is not rocket science. But, yes, the rocket goes off. The firecracker goes off. The bomb goes off. The lightbulb goes ON when you get a great idea. Need I say more?
Happy holidays to our brave readers who care about their language even in the midst of holiday craziness. Now, could you take a quick holiday minute to add a comment telling us, honestly, whether these concepts now make sense to you? If they don’t, well, there’s a new year coming.