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A Word Fitly Spoken

Gregory E. Reynolds

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11).

Tennis whites, ladies and gentlemen matches, ball handlers in ties, all at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon. At Skytop Lodge in the Poconos: “no hats, T-shirts, torn or faded denims.” All little holdouts against the deconstruction of Western culture, the rejection of standards everywhere, except, of course, in computer programming and surgery. Even the word “tradition” has taken on a sour flavor.

When I went to first grade, it was one of six grades called grammar school—yes, one of the three disciplines of the trivium, the lower division of the seven liberal arts. In other words in order to study any subject one must first know how to write, think, and speak properly: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. To be educated is to learn the language and literature of one’s own culture. Moses and Daniel are good examples of this in the Bible.

Why am I concerned about this subject? Some may think me a grammar or speech Pharisee, but I think the risk is worth taking, since, especially in preaching and teaching the Word of God, the integrity of what we say is at stake. For ministers of the Word, words and grammar are the media of their ministries. Thus preachers should be wordsmiths, crafting oral communication of the Bible that will open, clarify, and apply God’s wisdom with simple, direct clarity from Sunday to Sunday. Those who are unaware of proper grammar will have no problem with the preacher’s improper grammar, but those who know the rules will lose confidence in him if he fails to use proper grammar. Renowned English professor Leland Ryken rightly insists:

speakers who use incorrect grammar and usage lose clarity of communication and credibility. The rules are not arbitrary; they serve the purpose of effective communication. Furthermore, people who know the rules lose respect for speakers who lower the bar of competence.[1]

Someone might object that Paul was not a good preacher in the eyes of the Corinthians. But they criticized him because he was not a polished, persuasive rhetor not because he had poor grammar. “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account’ ” (2 Cor. 10:10).

As we listen to the political and social discourse around us, we must be aware that we are in an Orwellian language world. In San Francisco convicted criminals are now euphemistically called “justice involved persons.” A freshman congresswoman recently referred to border detention centers as “concentration camps.” This is a dangerous linguistic environment, so care in crafting clear and honest speech is crucial.

One of the great questions regarding grammar and dictionaries is, “Are they descriptive or prescriptive?” Ordained Servant uses the Chicago Manual of Style, the bible of English usage and American writing style as its guide. Dismissing a linguistic standard, drawn to its logical conclusion, ends in solipsism—leaving one able only to communicate with oneself. Had Humpty Dumpty followed the logic of his assertion, “ ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ”[2] conversation with Alice or anyone else would have become impossible. Without useful, pleasing, and appropriate forms of speech, manners, or anything else, civilization is impossible.

Recently in reviewing a book titled Semicolon by Cecelia Watson, Barton Swaim takes issue with her chastisement of prescriptivists.

Almost everybody who cares about this subject, even the vanishingly small number of grammar snobs left in the world, understand that writers who know what they’re doing can bend and break the rules to good effect. Do we need to be told one more time that all those “prescriptivist” grammarians of the 18th and 19th centuries failed to grasp the always-evolving nature of language? Do we need one more book alerting us, as Ms. Watson does, to the fact that an insistence on rule-following can exclude people of less privileged backgrounds? . . .

Like most grammarians in our latitudinarian age, Ms. Watson enjoys her status as an elite user of language but can’t bring herself to pronounce judgment of any kind, except to dismiss those who do. But language is like any other field of human endeavor: Before you master it, you’re bound to feel inadequate and look stupid sometimes. Ordinary literate people understand this, which is why they buy Strunk & White and the Chicago Manual of Style. They aren’t interested in “seeing, describing, and creating beauty in language that rules can’t comprehend,” as Ms. Watson puts it; they are interested in stringing words together without appearing ignorant. Ms. Watson has shown us she’s been to college, but for what reason?[3]

I close with several examples. I recently heard a well-educated person say, “me and her went to the beach.” Beyond being grammatically incorrect, it may well be that this rule is rooted in Christian ethics, which requires that we put others first. But even then, it’s not “her and me,” but “she and I.”

Then there are cases where a word is misused, diminishing its proper meaning. “Awesome” comes immediately to mind. A standard dictionary definition would be “extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration.” Adding to its misuse is the tiresome fact that it has become a cliché. Such overuse diminishes the value of a word and betrays thoughtlessness.

Finally, there are words that are used improperly, thus removing the nuance of the original meaning. “Enormity” is a classic example. A recent eulogy for a supreme court justice referred to the enormity of the shoes that would need to be filled. This word means “a great evil.” When confused with immensity, it eventually removes the original meaning from English usage.

I realize that poor grammar is largely caused by poor education. I am grateful to have been forced (I hated grammar in school, until I studied Greek) to learn good grammar and to have been raised in a household with two well-spoken parents, neither of whom, by the way, went past high school. And, I am still corrected on occasion (my adult children delight to do so), for which I am grateful, since good speaking is a lifetime learning endeavor. Since we serve the Word made flesh, it behooves us, especially those who preach and teach, to pay constant attention to good grammar. Good manners, of course, will dictate that we correct others graciously and often remain silent. But good grammar glorifies God.

Endnotes

[1] Leland Ryken, email message to author, July 5, 2019.

[2] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (London: Macmillan and Co., 1872), 124.

[3] Barton Swaim, review article “Between a Stop and a Hard Pause,” Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2019 A-13, reviewing Semicolon by Cecelia Watson.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, December 2019

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