When I read Lynn Truss’s book about punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, I knew there was a sermon in it; a Unitarian-style sermon, to be sure, but an important sermon, nonetheless.
In the forward to Truss’s book, Frank McCourt, who became rich and famous by writing Angela’s Ashes, says: “If Lynne Truss were Catholic I’d nominate her for sainthood.”
Lynn Truss writes about punctuation—those little marks we use in sentences to help us communicate clearly. She writes about the power of punctuation—how a misplaced comma, for example, can completely change one’s intended meaning.
She writes, “If there is one lesson to be learned from this book, it is that there is never a dull moment in the world of punctuation.”
I chuckled through her chapter on the uses and misuses of the poor apostrophe. Her labor on the difference between the colon and semicolon was not lost on me, nor was the difference between the dash and the hyphen. Let me know if you find errors in this printed version of the sermon I delivered live on October 16, 2005.
To get into the spirit of her marvelous and informative essay, I titled the sermon Gramma’s Trinity. If you’re from Boston, as I am, the word grammar is pronounced without the ‘r’; so it sounds like gramma—my mother’s mother.
But I’m not going to dwell on my grandma’s theology, or lack thereof, except to use the opportunity to bless her: she was a one-of-a-kind grandmother—a most remarkable person, about whom biographies don’t get written or Nobel prizes given, but my deep and abiding appreciation for her lives on. She was a living sermon, all by herself.
These paragraphs, however, are about grammar and punctuation: the study of how words and their various parts combine to form sentences, and how sentences combine to form good, tight paragraphs; and how paragraphs weave into essays and op-ed pieces, biographies, Nobel prize acceptance speeches, love letters and sermons.
Sermons, as you know, are never to be taken lightly, though they might provide a relief (now and then) from all the heaviness of the world–the natural disasters and the man-made disasters. Heavy or light, sermons address the difficult challenges of being a person, all by yourself, or in relationship with other persons on the planet or, closer to home, to be in relationship with those with whom you share the kitchen! Or those who live on in memory, for better or worse.
Clear communication is important. Agreed. Syntax is skeleton key to that unlocks the closet in which we sometimes hide. Syntax is not the extra money you pay for cigarettes and alcohol: it’s about the basic rules of language, the rules that are intended to help form and express ideas, concerns and questions into sentences, both spoken and written.
Lynn Truss suggests that punctuation is like the traffic cop, directing the flow of words. I’d suggest that punctuation marks are like the umpires in a baseball game. We who watched the White Sox beat the Angels the other night were reminded of the umpire’s importance.
(Umpire Doug Eddings called a swinging strike on White Sox hitter A.J. Pierzynski, but he realized that catcher Josh Paul had not caught the ball cleanly, so he allowed the batter to run safely to first base. The next batter hit Pierzynski in, breaking the tie and winning the game.)
Punctuation is the sentence’s umpire. Take this sentence, for example:
A woman without her man is nothing.
Now bring in the ump—and read those same seven words:
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Or take this famous sentence from the Bible: “Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” In other words, get your affairs in order, your life on earth will be over before sundown.
But remove one comma, and move the other one, and the Savior says, “Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” So stop worrying about your eternal future and enjoy the earthly years you have left—you have a reserved seat in heaven.
Speaking of the Bible, the Ten Commandments are rules for living. Before God carved the commandments onto those mythological stone tablets, the Hebrew people had been liberated from bondage in Egypt, but they spent forty years wandering aimlessly in the desert. They were bowing down to the infamous idol, the golden calf. In other words, they remained in mental or spiritual bondage. Without order there’s no freedom—there’s chaos.
The point of the story about the Ten Commandments is that lasting freedom requires rules—order; structure. Punctuation says, “Thou shalt pause…thou shalt not pause.”
The Biblical myth says that the people of Israel became civilized the day they got the Ten Commandments. Moses was inspired by God’s ten, so he got a lot more specific. Before Moses put down the pen the Torah included 613 commandments or Mitzvot. Those 613 are divided into 248 positive commandments, or ‘thou shalts,’ and 365 negative commandments: ‘thou shalt not.’ The 248 positive commandments are said to correspond to the 248 bones in the body, and the 365 negative commandments are said to refer to the 365 days of the year.
That’s why there are 613 strands hanging from the tallis, the Jewish prayer shawl. It’s marvelous mythology.
“Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations…and it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord.”
Deuteronomy 22 :12
Civilization is dependent on the written word–clear communication is dependent on rules of grammar, including punctuation: a sentence’s commandments.
That’s Lynne Truss’s point in a nutshell. Her runaway bestseller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, elevates the period, comma, and apostrophe to well-deserved theological heights: a trinity, if you will. Add the semicolon, dash and parentheses, brackets, quotation marks and exclamation point and you’ve got a virtual pantheon of gods.
Religion, at its best, is humanity’s spiritual language; it can hold a civilization together, and it can hold the individual together, helping to survive the storms, the disasters, the losses; the disappointments of life. A good spiritual life keeps us from ‘falling apart’.
Clear, honest communication allows us to escape the burden of separateness—it helps us to connect with one another; it holds us together. That’s religion.
So I saw a sermon in Lynn Truss’s wonderful little book about the panda who shows up for a meal, pulls out a gun, shoots the waiter, and makes his getaway; all because of a misplaced comma. Without the comma he’s just a cute, innocent little creature who munches on bamboo shoots and eats all the green leaves he can find.
Jay Leno often provides a Lynn Truss-like example of unintended miscommunication. Last week Leno included a story from a hometown newspaper about a generous high school culinary class with the headline: “Students cook and serve parents.” That headline turned the generous cooking class into a gruesome case of fratricide and cannibalism. It also provided a chuckle: good for Leno, good for us!
Lynn Truss has lots of examples. Take the Dear Jack letter, for example.
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy—will you let me be yours. Jill
Now bring on those little commas, periods and exclamation points:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn! For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be? Yours, Jill
Truss points to the deterioration of the English language because of our failure to emphasize rules of grammar. She says, “A child sitting a Country Schools exam in 1937 would be asked to punctuate the following puzzler:
“Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off”
Answer: “Charles the First walked and talked. Half an hour after, his head was cut off.”
Now that you’ve tasted a free sample, I recommend sitting down to a full course meal with Lynn’s book.
Now for my theological conclusion, and the trinity to which the title referred:
Of all the little punctuation marks we use the one I want to nominate for sainthood is the ellipsis; those three little dots that indicate that something is left out. A trinity of dots!
In seminary I was fascinated to learn strict Jews will not write the word God. It’s a form of idolatry to think you can write a word for that which is ultimately incomprehensible. So, in humility, they write G dash d. G-d.
The Tetragrammaton is the four Hebrew letters which we transliterate as YHWH used as a biblically proper way to write the un-namable Name. We can offer a kind of praise—a sense of ‘awe,’ without using the word God. Take John Ciardi’s wonderful little poem, White Heron, for example:
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky — then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.
The Nobel prize for literature was recently awarded to the playwright Harold Pinter. He has been making the point that language is often used to avoid communication. His plays show the disparity between what people say, and what they mean—the ways we use language to (intentionally) avoid the truth.
Pinter’s pauses became famous. One critic said, “His genius rests in his control of what is left unsaid…moments of charged tension carefully marked in the scripts.”
This brings us back to the theological meanings hidden in those little punctuation marks that Lynn Truss wrote about in her amusingly important book. Truth is discernible in the details. The pauses are important.
The ellipsis, the three little dots (a kind of trinity) shows the omission of a word or phrase which may be necessary for perfect syntactical construction, but not necessary for adequate understanding.
The word ellipsis is from the Greek verb elleipein, to fall short. Humility requires that we humans acknowledge that we fall short; we fall short of being able to put an adequate name on the Creator of the Universe.
We do know that we are involved in creation. We do know that creation continues to evolve. We do know that the religions of the world have sometimes done more harm than good. We do know that some of that harm has been done in the name of God!
The fatal flaw in any religious system is to suggest that you know what God was thinking all the time; that you know that God is on your side—not the other guy’s. The fatal flaw is to suggest that you have the only true religion, and all the other’s are false.
Religious wars have been fought over that idolatrous idea throughout the course of human history.
That’s why I nominate the ellipsis as the most theologically significant piece of punctuation. Unfortunately, this is where Lynn Truss and I part company. She writes:
“I recently heard of someone studying the ellipsis (or three dots) for a PhD. And, I have to say, I was horrified. The ellipsis is the black hole of the punctuation universe, surely, into which no right-minded person would willingly be sucked, for three years, with no guarantee of a job at the end.”
We Unitarians don’t feel like we’ve been sucked into the black hole of theology, simply because we refuse to make pronouncements about God and heaven and hell, and so forth. We are, for the most part, people who marched out of the Egypt of our former religious captivity, crossed the Red Sea of uncertainty, and jumped into a theological black hole that says: “Your religion is the way your live your life; your real theology is lived out, not spoken out loud to prove you are one of the elect, saved, while all the rest are damned.”
The sacred book of Taoism, The Tao Te Ching, opens: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
Some lines from Whitman’s poem A Song of the Rolling Earth to close:
A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,
Were you thinking that those were the words, those upright lines?
those curves, angles, dots?
No, those are not the words, the substantial words are in the ground
They are in the air, they are in you.
Were you thinking that those were the words, those delicious sounds
out of your friends’ mouths?
No, the real words are more delicious than they.
Air, soil, water, fire–those are words,
I myself am a word with them–my qualities interpenetrate with
A healthy presence, a friendly or commanding gesture, are words,
The charms that go with the mere looks of some men and women,
are sayings and meanings also.
The workmanship of souls is by those inaudible words of the earth…
I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,
It is always to leave the best untold.
When I undertake to tell the best I find I cannot,
My tongue is ineffectual on its pivots,
My breath will not be obedient to its organs,
I become a dumb man.
The best of the earth cannot be told anyhow…
I swear I will never henceforth have to do with the faith that tells
I will have to do only with that faith that leaves the best untold.