Philly Faces: The Angry Grammarian Jeff Barg Speaks

Jeff Barg
Jeff Barg (Christian Hopkins)

You might know Jeff Barg, 38, from any number of places.

Perhaps you’ve read his Inquirer column, The Angry Grammarian, dedicated to understanding our relationship to language; maybe you saw his folk musical, an adaptation of Henry IV, Part I. It’s even possible that you’ve met Barg through his position as the associate director of planning and external policy relations at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). Barg, who wrote most recently about the historical racial connotations of the word “thug,” sat down with us to talk about Yiddish, Chanukah parties and the PHS.

Q: How did you get involved with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society?

I went to grad school for urban planning at Penn and when I was there, a person in the class ahead of me had done their summer internship at PHS. I knew Flower Show, ’cause everybody knows the Philadelphia Flower Show. But I had no idea that there was a role for an urban planner at PHS. So I talked to this classmate and did more research and learned about all of the community greening work that PHS does, everything from cleaning and greening vacant land to planting trees to helping support community gardens, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what I want to be working on.”

Q: How did you begin writing The Angry Grammarian?

I had been a copy editor for a lot of years at Philadelphia Weekly and I had this idea that I wanted to write a column about grammar, and I pitched it in a story meeting, and everybody was like, “That is a terrible idea, no one will read that.” And I was like, “OK, I’m sorry you think so, I’m going to try it out anyway.”

After the staged reading of The Angry Grammarian musical, I got in touch with one of the opinion page editors at the Inquirer who happened to have been one of my old interns from Philly Weekly, and said, “Hey, what would you think about relaunching The Angry Grammarian in the Inquirer?” And she was like, “Sounds like a lot of fun. Let’s give it a shot.”

Q: Does your drive to be in these different fields come from a single place within you?

In a certain way, they come from fairly different places, and that’s why I like them. The muscles that I’m working when I’m at my day job are very different from the muscles that I’m working when I’m doing something onstage. But there’s also a performative element to my job, because not infrequently, I find myself standing in front of groups. It’s something I’ve been very comfortable with for my whole life.

It’s thanks to Chanukah, frankly. When I was 6 years old, I wanted to do a magic show at our family Chanukah party. I practiced for months and months, and finally was about to go do it at the party, and got really, really nervous. My dad tells this story that I went to him, and I was like, “I don’t think I want to do this.” And he was like, “If you don’t want to do it, that’s totally OK, no one will hold that against you. But! You’ve worked really hard on this, and I think that if you did it, you would have fun.”

And so I went ahead and I did it, and then I continued to do magic shows at our Chanukah parties and at the Purim carnival at Har Zion. It was all really stupid, and I’m sure not at all impressive for the adults in the room, but it got me comfortable being in front of groups.

Q: Do you see an intersection between your life as a planner, writer and performer and your life as a Jewish person?

Certainly when it comes to language and grammar. I think a lot of my love of language has come from my Jewish upbringing. Yiddish has these incredibly rich and descriptive and specific words. Like, machatunim is a great example. There’s no word in the English language for that, but there’s something so Jewish about the fact that there’s a Yiddish word for it. The whole sort of thesis of The Angry Grammarian as a column is that you should use language to be as precise and concise as possible. Some of that manifests itself in using the right punctuation, not having a run-on sentence. But a lot of it is about language choice and word choice. And when you can lean on Yiddish to say something in one word what it might in English take 30 words to do, that’s way more precise and way more concise. So I’m all about it.

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