School begins today in the state of Michigan, which reminds me of 8th grade, when Mrs. Richie was my English teacher, and I couldn’t understand the difference between a coordinate clause and a subordinate clause. No matter how hard she tried to explain it, I just didn’t get it. After becoming obsessed over the whole thing, I finally decided to accept the facts of independent and dependent clauses and move on.
I’ve been a stickler for grammar ever since. Of course, it helped to have a mother who was an English major and a librarian. Well into her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, my mother would inspect the church bulletin every Sunday and circle typos and grammatical errors. Consequently, I’m one of those annoying people who believes that grammar is just as important as content for effective writing.
After working as a teaching assistant at Florida State, our son, Garth, also became very interested in writing and grammar and is now an editorial assistant for an academic publisher in New York City. Last year I picked up a book he was reading, Woe Is I; The Grammaphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia O’Connor. It proved to be both stimulating and refreshing.
Coincidentally, I had been wanting to find answers to two specific grammatical questions that have plagued me for the past several years. The first question I’ve had is, “When referring to a 2 point charge, do I spell it Alto and Bowne Center UMCs or UMC’s?” Apostrophe or no apostrophe? I’d been using an apostrophe, but since UMC’s is not a possessive, I was uncertain, and it bothered me. In Woe Is I, I finally found my answer: the plural of numbers, letters and abbreviations includes an apostrophe: i.e. 1950’s, A’s, UMC’s, Rev.’s Laurie and Gary Haller. Since I have such a hard time typing United Methodist Church instead of Untied Methodist Church, it’s easier for me to stick with the abbreviation UMC. Now I know how to make it plural!
The other question I’ve had relates to inclusive language. I am not comfortable using male language to describe people who can be either male or female. I find myself alternating between using “his/her” and the plural “their.” According to O’Connor, “their” is simply bad English, which I know in my heart. However, “his/her” is clumsy. O’Connor and I both agree that we need a sex-neutral possessive word in the English language. Any ideas?
I also agree with O’Connor that writing skills are necessary for many jobs, including professional ministry. If people are confused by the writing in our sermons or newsletter articles, it’s probably our fault. Good writers take complicated ideas and make them seem easier. Their writing is clear and simple, although not simple-minded.
The most fascinating aspect about Woe Is Me was learning that grammar is a lot looser today than it was 40 years ago when I was taught to write. I was surprised to learn that:
- Split infinitives are more acceptable now than they were in the 1970’s.
“The SPRC chair decided to discreetly speak to the custodian about the 2 foot high weeds on church property.” “Discreetly” can now happily split the infinitive, “to speak.”
- “None” can be singular or plural, but most authorities now think it is plural.
“None of the finance committee members are happy with the budget.” This sentence is now correct, although I am afraid that fact won’t help the state of the church budget.
- It is now acceptable to say, “It is me,” rather than the more proper, “It is I.”
When the disciples asked, “Is it I?” at the Last Supper, it really could have been, “Is it me?” (Mark 14:19) In fact, that’s how this sentence is worded in The Message.
- You can now sometimes end a sentence with a preposition. And in informal writing, you can sometimes use “who” when it really calls for “whom.”
“Who did you go to the church picnic with?” This is now acceptable.
- Double negatives are not frowned upon as much as in times past.
“I wouldn’t say I didn’t like your sermon.” This is now okay, as long as you really did sort of like the sermon.
- “Will” has now edged out “shall” as the people’s choice … except in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2008.
- Starting a sentence with “and” or “but” is no longer forbidden.
“But I didn’t really mean to ask them to move. It’s just that they were sitting in my pew!” The “but” is okay, but asking them to move wasn’t.
I am so glad to know that I can be free of these outdated grammatical prohibitions. In the same way, using O’Connor’s language, “the ghosts of dead rules and the spirits of imaginary taboos” can hold us back in the church as well. So here are my:
Outdated Church Rules for Churchaphobes:
- Wearing “Sunday clothes” to church is the true measure of piety.
- Worship can only be on Sunday morning.
- You have to be a member in order to be active in the church.
- Every single decision has to be approved by the church council.
- Staff members should not be paid living wages because they are really volunteering part of their time.
- New members have to “pay their dues” before being elected to leadership.
- “Open doors” means welcoming people after they take the initiative to come to us.
- Building or remodeling is a guarantee that people will flock to our church.
- United Methodists who have recently moved to town will automatically come to our UMC church.
- The church is timeless and should not have to change with the culture.
- The hymns I like are the only ones we should sing in church.
- The purpose of the church is to minister to my needs.
- It is expected that the pastor’s spouse will be active in every aspect of church life.
- Pastors should be content to live in outdated, cramped, poorly maintained parsonages that don’t conform to conference parsonage standards.
- It is acceptable for church members to “control” certain committees or ministries for 30 years.
- You cannot use the kitchen without permission from the kitchen “gatekeeper.”
- Teens and young adults don’t have enough experience to serve in leadership.
- Because the church is a family, there is no need for sound fiscal, personnel, and building use policies.
- Bad behavior is tolerated because “That’s just who Bill is.”
- Rumors, gossip, and innuendo are appropriate forms of church communication.
The program year in most of our churches begins this Sunday. How about if we decide to put our best foot forward in all of our church communications without being grammaphobes? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a churchaphobe, either. So when I become crotchety, rigid, and out of touch, please let me know. You can call, email, or write. Just try to get the grammar right, okay?