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.”
In 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.