Rules, rules, everywhere I look: rules. I open the Bible and it is full of commandments and statutes. I go to work and find it necessary to rewrite some policy manual. Even when I want to relax by watching a baseball game, I have to navigate a sport that has a rule book almost 200 pages long.
Rules are helpful, of course. But I'm getting danged tired of following rules all the time (including rules about what vocabulary I can use in a church related publication.) How about having one day a week when we have a rule against having any rules? After all, we humans have been created in the image of God, and God is the universe's ultimate
Jesus reinforces this "color-outside-the-lines" divine persona. He was always breaking rules, insisting that love should determine what rules we follow and what rules we break. One of my favorite songs expresses the spirit of Jesus when it asserts, "
Love changes everything...love bursts in, and suddenly all our wisdom disappears...love: all the rules we make are broken...love will never let you be the same."
Except when it comes to grammar. I'm old school when it comes to preferred ways of speaking and writing. No one should get a free pass when it comes to the rules of English.
- "Me and my brother went on a camping trip last week." Wrong.
- "When a visitor arrives, ask them to write their name on the register." Wrong.
- "The chairman of the committee left to visit the ladies' room." Wrong.
- "I can't figure out what she's so upset about." Wrong.
- "You may secretly desire to boldly use bad grammar, but God knows whom you are." Wrong...and...wrong!
I joined a writers' group a little over two years ago, partly so I could perfect my own grammatical skills. It seemed reasonable that a collection of like-minded devotees to the English language would help me improve my writing and speaking.
So, every Friday afternoon I enter a room full of people who are smarter than me. We each bring stuff we've written, read it to the group, and let those colleagues tear into it. Before printing off any of my papers for critique, I always revise the grammar and wording at least five or six times. You have to be careful with that bunch. They are, after all, mostly an assortment of professionals and professors and authors. And the rest are hoary grammar school valedictorians from before World War II. In short, these are the people who have intimidated me all of my life. I really want them to approve of my grammar...(really.)
But something has gone amiss with these experts. They have lately begun talking (in whispered tones, of course) about a revolution afoot to overthrow some of our sacred rules of grammar. Certain unprincipled members of our group have openly gone over to the other side. For example, in a flurry of emails this past weekend, several of our comrades advocated using "the singular they!"
What!? Say it ain't so!
You may not think this is a big deal, but stick with me here while I explain. In the olden days, if you read the phrase, "he will kiss you," it meant that "one particular guy will be making it to first base with you." If you read the phrase, "she will kiss you," then it meant that "one particular gal will osculate you, whether you want it or not." But if you read, "they will kiss you," it meant that "you are about to be slathered with Lord-knows how many cooties."
"They," "them," or "their" always used to mean multiple persons.
But now, they are saying (
in this instance
meaning multiple, mysterious persons)
that it is okay to use the word they when referring to a single individual, particularly if we do not know the gender, do not want to confine a person to a particular gender, or do not wish to reveal the identity of an individual. In other words, according to them, there is edification in changing this long standing rule in order to make our communication less wordy, more inclusive, and more protective.
Argh. I'll think about it. But don't rush me.
As a biblical scholar, I don't like people messing around with language. I come from a long line of ancient scholars who often argued that God despised linguistic innovation so much that he himself refused to learn or use any language other than ancient Hebrew. This thinking is the reason that Protestants only have 39 books in their Old Testament: those are the only documents originally written in Hebrew.
But I suppose that grammar is less about pleasing our dead English teachers and more about developing language skills so that we can lead others along a story or thought journey we think will bless them. You don't need to read all the pages of
Official Baseball Rules: 2018 Edition
to enjoy a baseball game. But the more of the rules you know, the more they can aid you in sharing your understanding and enthusiasm for the game with others. You don't have to read your audience that whole book, or bore them with selections from it, but as background knowledge, it will make you a more valuable guide.
When I look back on rules of grammar that existed when I was born, I can see that I have jettisoned several of them in my own writing. For example, I will start sentences with an "And" or a "But" if I think it will help my reader along. And I will sometimes end one with a
preposition if the alternative is to write a correct sentence that my readers might find distracting awkward and distracting.
Rules prove their worth only
as they allow us to communicate in ways that are entertaining, compelling, and clear. Keep the rule if it assists us conveying our love of our
material...and the people with whom we are communicating. But cast off the rules if they get in the way of respecting the audience or the subject.
Love changes everything. With love, all the rules we make are broken. Love will never let you be the same.
I can't remember the name of the person who wrote that song, but they got it right! --Mike
P.S. For a good article on the singular they,