Have you ever noticed just how many things are left out when you speak?  We drop subjects all the time, starting sentences just with verbs or adjectives: “Great to see you the other day.”  “Love that hat you’re wearing.”

525px-Speech_balloon.svgIn written English we demand “complete sentences” (I can hear my sixth-grade teacher’s voice right now) because in the written word there is often less context available than is needed for comprehension.  As a teacher, if I’m grading quizzes, it is a huge help if the student writes in a complete sentence for every answer, because I get a clear sense of what he thinks he is answering.  I much prefer to see “3. Pepin the Short was crowned king of the Franks in AD 752” than simply find on the paper “3. Pepin the Short.”

Yet this requirement for complete sentences in written English is not absolute.  Look, here’s a sentence discussing George Clooney, from this week’s New Yorker, a magazine legendary for its grammatical fussiness:

The most handsome and capable star in the world, and he doesn’t mind coming across as a total dork. [emphasis original]

It is an incomplete sentence, joined to a complete sentence.  In this sort of conversational and familiar writing, we tolerate incomplete sentences because we have the context, we have the flow of thought. When writing imitates the easy flow of speech, many of the grade-school rules of grammar drop away.

What is more, the differences between spoken and written English are not just in what is left out, but what is added on.  Spoken language often has a more complicated sentence structure than written.  In spoken English, we tolerate what we might, in written English, consider intolerably long and multi-layered sentences.  Our current president, Barack Obama, is a renowned public speaker. He usually is able to keep sentences short, yet even so, he frequently unleashes such sentences as this one from a recent press conference:

To me, that meets my principle that it’s not being shouldered by families who are already having a tough time, but what I want to do is to see what emerges from these committees, continuing to work to find more savings — because I actually think that it’s possible for us to fund even more of this process through identifying waste in the system, try to narrow as much as possible the new revenue that’s needed on the front end, and then see how we can piece this thing together in a way that’s acceptable to both Democrats and I hope some Republicans.

This sentence has 103 words.  If you watch the video (the sentence begins at 12:23), the sentence is perfectly understandable.  Yet if one saw this sentence on the page, any teacher would have the red pen out and be scrawling all sorts of illegible comments in the margins.

All this is to remind us, in reverse, of the lesson we started learning when we were young.  If you write the way you speak, no one understands you.  Sometimes we forget that the reverse is true: if you speak the way you write, you come off as amazingly dull, dispassionate, frigid with clarity.

In case you missed it, one of the most prominent recent critiques of the coming new texts at mass is that the texts are not grammatical.  I think this is the wrong approach.  We need to stop thinking about the prayers of the mass as newspaper articles or school essays, and instead think of them as conversation, as play, and as drama.  In a word, we need to think of the mass as spoken. It might be strange to think this way, but written grammar should not be the standard by which the texts of the liturgy are judged.  If we do, we run the danger of forgetting that every time we begin the mass, even today, we begin with one of the most famous incomplete sentences in the world: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  That sounds pretty good to me.

4 Responses to Speech!

  1. Father Joseph SJ says:

    Amen! There is a strong tendency to violate every rule of grammar through all the emails that we write each day! Let’s see, should I try and diagram that sentence -rather lengthy, I would say.

  2. Virgil Kaulius says:

    Much wisdom there, Mike!

    To many a friend starting years back when the
    world wide web started, and offices were being
    told that “hard copy” would soon die, I countered
    that we will never abandon hard copy (for many
    technical plus psychological reasons!) and that
    a future PhD will research the unique communications
    phenomenon that pervades emailing, or at core,
    all electronic means of communication (!)

    It’s crazy, with people flying off the handle
    in misreading, misdiagnosing, and psychologically
    “projecting” into every and any word someone posts!
    Because human ‘presence’ is missing: without
    voice emotional content, plus body language,
    people take words too superficially at face value, etc. It’s a whole different communication world
    unto itself, and then some!

    Not to also get into the White Water Learning
    confronting our over-information Age!

  3. Jay Hooks says:

    Thanks for the post, Mike.

    Your point about the Mass – and the suspension of common expectations about grammar – got me thinking about what we might call “liturgical grammar” in a wider sense. The Mass has a pace, an order, a vocabulary, and a context that is proper to it. Most Catholics are so accustomed to this grammar that when the rules are being followed, they’re carried along with the pace of the event, sometimes (sadly?) without noting the transitions from one section of the liturgy to the next.

    There’s a great boon to such a common grammar. Met expectations bring a lot of comfort. This is part of what ritual is about. It’s certainly sufficient for many Catholics to be pleased with their experience at Mass: “Church was fine this past Sunday, because everything was familiar; there was a sense of continuity with our tradition and with what I’d expect most Catholics to be doing at Sunday Mass.”

    In contrast, we all know the feeling that comes when there’s a change introduced into the grammar, i.e. when there’s a variation to the “normal” rhythm or procedure of the liturgy. Sometimes the variation aids our prayer, sometimes it doesn’t. A lot of the reasoning behind our approval or disapproval of the change is subjective: “I don’t like hymns written after 1950; I like it when Deacon Diaz preaches; I can’t stand so much incense – it makes me sneeze.”

    But often we offer more objective reasons for our like or dislike of a variation of liturgical grammar: the “new” element in today’s Mass actually takes advantage of an often-ignored but officially approved liturgical option; norms of the liturgical season allow or forbid such-and-such a kind of music; such-and-such a gesture goes against the rubrics. Or we simply appeal to a common understanding of good taste or decorum (yellow smiley faces embroidered on chasubles are unacceptable under all circumstances, most would maintain).

    Taking this a step further, at times the objective liturgical norms themselves call for a change of pace – or of our usual grammatical expectations – to prove a point or to evoke a certain effect. The liturgies of Holy Week come to mind. There is no dismissal on Holy Thursday, and no Mass on Good Friday. We depart from the church on Holy Thursday with a feeling of suspension; we were not given our usual missive – has the Mass ended? It may be trite to call this a liturgical sentence fragment… perhaps it’s better thought of as a run-on sentence! I feel as if I’ve been led into a single, open-ended liturgy that spans the days of our Lord’s Passion. For me, this particular interruption of expected liturgical grammar is effective, in that it highlights the gravity of the days leading up to Easter. No one tells me to go in peace; instead I’m shown, through the congregation’s adoration, by an empty tabernacle, by a temporary cessation of offering and consecrations, that my duty for the coming days is to “watch and pray”.

  4. Michae! Magree, SJ says:

    I really enjoyed your reflections on liturgical grammar. As you point out, the liturgy straddles an awkward “both…and”, in which it comforts with structure and regularity, while it discomforts with formality, strange grammar and language. And to top that, it sometimes just offers complete blanks – to your litany of “absence” I would add the strange Palm Sunday entrance that eliminates all normal introduction of mass.
    I’m a grammar snob — I get finicky with the best of them (http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/05/12/99-grammar/) — but for the reasons you mention, I don’t have much patience for the “the new mass is ungrammatical” argument.
    Thanks for reading-

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