When I was in primary school grammar instruction was compulsory, precise and rigorous. Understand the categories and rules and I could receive an ‘A.’ While I was an exemplary student, I am also mildly dyslexic—I just didn’t know it then. Categorization is excruciating for one with a dyslexic processing brain. And word order? Oy gevalt! And the torture of enduring a teacher reading to the class an example of the gross misuse of pronouns—and recognizing it as my own! So imagine my dismay when I recently learned that it is now acceptable to use the word ‘their’ to indicate male or female in the singular!
Indeed, many so-called grammar rules have changed over the course of my (nearly) 50 years. Not only the rules, but word meanings shift and new words are coined and words that were once strictly nouns are verbed. At 50 years, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is revisited with contempt for the harm it has done (and continues to do). The ache I face as I witness the agony my children endure while reconciling their dyslexic processing with great intelligence and attending creative genius. How can I tell them they need to apply the rules so they can receive an adequate grade, but it is essentially meaningless—while promoting respect for those entrusted with their education?
Language is meant to communicate, and something I read somewhere (please forgive the errant reference) if the message is successfully communicated, language has served its purpose—the grammar is in effect, correct. But language also serves an even greater purpose. Pádraig ó tuama, the community leader of Corrymeela, Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization, expresses it so eloquently:
“Language needs courtesy to guide it, and an inclusion and a generosity that goes beyond precision and becomes something much more akin to sacrament, something much more akin to how is it you can be attentive to the implications of language for those in the room who may have suffered.”
Is this how we see language employed these days? Twitter and Snapchat, among other myriad means of communication, oblige brevity and are disbursed in a flash—more often than not, without any real thought behind the ostensible message.
Language can wound and exclude. It is important to fully grasp the power of language. In order to keep from such wounding or exclusion, ó tuma advocates a “generosity of listening.” It is an orientation to the text. Namely, that which is in the text is recognized as sacred because it arises from the text of somebody’s life. And to be generous with anything, time is essential. It is being present, mindful of the other, listening for the divine – with inclusion and courtesy, generous.
As I write, I pray that no one is counting my grammar errors. I also pray to be honored today by opportunities to practice generosity of listening. I pray this for you, as well, and welcome your reflections on your experience of the sacrament of language!
I’d still like an electric train.