I know this drum gets beaten all the time, but I need to give it a couple of whacks today.
As a lawyer, I receive way too many announcements, via e-mail and snail mail, of continuing education events. (You lose your license if you don't stay current through cont. ed.) Today I received one entitled "Defending Domestic Crimes." I don't know whether to laugh or fume (actually, I've done both with colleagues).
Lawyers are word people: That's how we make our living. Whether those words appear on paper or in oral form, those words are what we do. Consequently, one expects lawyers to have some sense of the local language (in this case, English, although a smattering of law French and Latin come in handy, I suppose). People of words ought not so molest thought as to misrepresent what they intend to say. And that is what the announcement did.
The announcement meant to say (and for this I rely on the blurb for the seminar)is that this is a seminar in how to be effective in representing people who have been accused of domestic crimes -- e.g., domestic violence. Instead, the seminar title announced a rather scandalous promotion of domestic crimes -- perhaps justifying them or encouraging people to do them.
A perfectly good way to say what the sponsors intended would have been "Defending against claims of domestic crimes." Oh sure, it adds three words and may not be as pithy as the original, but the difference in meaning added by those words is immense. I expect better. (And much as I am tempted to attend the seminar to see what's actually offered, I shall not; my ethics do not allow it. I don't encourage false advertising.)
Lamentably, this incident simply highlights something that most lawyers know: Lawyers are very poor wordsmiths; they are negligent in what matters most -- the way in which they get their ideas and arguments across.
Such a lament is appropriate to the Church, too. For the people of faith are often poor wordsmiths, and that failing is significant.
We Christians are people of the Word: Indeed, our Savior was God's own Word incarnate. As the contemporary Body of Christ, we share in that Wordiness. The issue is communication and the relationships that make communication possible. As a consequence, words matter -- and the way we put those words together matters. (Remember the second commandment: I think its tentacle reach into the very nature of our use of language, implicating our vocabulary and grammar in the life of faith.)
It seems that grammar is not now considered important. In schools, there is not much emphasis on it -- and the practical effects run to near incomprehensibility when students write. (It doesn't matter how it's phrased if you know what is intended -- that's what we're often told. Well, that is simply rubbish.) Preachers-to-be are not taught grammar and their errors are not corrected. Lousy sentence structure, faulty connections, subject-verb disagreement, shallow vocabularies -- these are passed off as less important than the "meaning." But there is no meaning without the rest; that's much of what the Incarnation taught us. (In fact, Marshall McLuan gave us an evangelical hermeneutical tool with his aphorism: The medium is the message.)
A current bestseller makes an impassioned plea for renewed attention to punctuation (EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES). Of at least similar import is grammar. Read the book and laugh -- or hold your head in misery. Then listen to your preacher: Correct him or her, ask him or her about the language of the sermon. And watch your own tongue.
The Word became flesh, and that makes our language a meaty thing.