Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Monday, April 28, 2014

Caught Between Word & Words

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a Place of Winter for the Years of Winter… ©

 [John 1:1-18.]

I was singing along with “It Is Well with My Soul” as I walked.  I was struck by the phrase, “…the clouds be rolled back as a scroll.” As I sang along with it, I had sung “like a scroll.” Horatio Spafford [1] used “proper” English when he wrote it in 1873, meaning grammatical English. I had not used proper English when I sang it 139 years later.

I should have known better. At IU when I was in freshman composition, that would have been a “gross illiteracy.” If you committed 3 gross illiteracies in a composition, it was an automatic F.  [2]

During those same 1950s college days, a Winston cigarette commercial that used the phrase, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should,” caused quite a controversy. Grammarians were offended and protested so much that Winston’s advertising agency actually came out with a new magazine ad wherein an English professor marked through “like” and replaced it with “as” while smiling college students looked on with nicotine addled approval. [Their bright teeth gave lie to the idea that they actually smoked the things.]

I have always been caught between the law and grace of language, wanting to be accurate, keeping the laws of grammar, but also wanting to be creative, using the flexibility of the words to convey old truths in new ways.

That’s our problem, caught between grace and law, even in our language, caught between language by the rules and language in the streets, or these days, language in the tweets. [3]

One of the graces of the English language is its flexibility. We have so many ways to say things. The more arrows we have to shoot at the truth, the more likely we are to hit it once in a while.

The grammar laws are important. They help us to communicate. I cringe when I hear someone say “I could care less,” because they are trying to say the exact opposite, “I could NOT care less.”

Language laws are there, though, not for their own sake, but so that communication will be clear. In common usage, we all know that “I could care less” means “I could not care less.” It’s clear enough.

In the era of tweets and texts and autocorrects, there are no language laws, and meanings are often muddled. Old people don’t much like that. We put in a lot of time learning the rules, so we want folks to use them. Let’s relax a little. The Word doesn’t need laws to be the Word. There are many ways to put the Word into words.

John Robert McFarland

1] The music is by Phillip Bliss.

2] Another gross illiteracy was splitting an infinitive. Now it is almost mandatory to boldly split every infinitive.

3] I’m quite sure I have mentioned this before, and I apologize for doing so again, but I think it’s insightful, and fun. Daughter Katie said years ago, when Vance Law played 3rd base and Mark Grace played 1st base for the Cubs, that the reason the Cubs could not win was that they were caught between Grace and Law.

The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where life is defined by winter even in the summer!

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