Friday, January 10, 2014

A Timely Grammar Lesson

     First off, THANKS for reading this far, after seeing the "title'!
     Anyone who knows me, or who's read any of these "reflections" or "meditations" of mine, would agree that I am a bit "old school" in some respects.   For crying out loud, I started wearing a fedora before Indiana Jones re-popularized them!  Argyle NEVER went of style in my sock drawer!  I write my sermons with a standard #2 lead pencil (that I sharpen with a "manual" sharpener)!  So it should come as little surprise that the Facebook feed from "Grammarly" would delight me.  While arguments about the "Oxford comma" can get a little arcane (although I'm all for it), there certainly IS a difference between "We're going to learn to cut and paste kids!" and "We're going to learn to cut and paste, kids!"  Grammar matters, even in the days of "tweets".
     This truth is nowhere more evident to anyone than when learning a new language -- or even a new dialect.  The rules of sentence structure can cause one to take a step back.  The old example of a "Pennsylvania Dutch" instruction -- "Throw momma from the train a kiss" -- is just one easy example.  And who, studying German, hasn't been frustrated by wading (and waiting) through a very long sentence to get to the verb . . . at the very end; English is structured very differently.  Examples abound!
      These differences, however, can be more than either amusing or frustrating.   A native English reader/speaker, for example, who is limited to English translations of a sacred text can miss many nuances of the original.  Pronouns for the Deity in the original language don't necessarily "map" well into English.  For example, how comfortable are we calling God an "It".  And, certainly, we English speakers (except those who make regular use of the contraction "y'all") miss the distinction made in many other languages between the plural and singular use of the pronoun "you".
      I was struck, however, the other day by something a little different.  English verbs, for the most part, only "exist" in three tenses:  present, past and future.  Certainly, with modifiers, they can become more precise, more descriptive about when certain things might (have) happen(ed).  Other languages, however, force a more precise choice when conjugating the verb.  And where this came home to me most powerfully was with ancient Greek (it MAY be true in modern Greek as well, but I know ancient Greek!).  Ancient Greek has seven tenses:
  • Present: describes an action which is happening at the time of speaking or regularly:  A man is sacrificing an ox.
  • Imperfect: describes an action which used to happen in the past:  A man used to sacrifice an ox.
  • Future: describes an action which will happen in the future:  A man will sacrifice an ox.
  • Aorist: describes an action "pure and simple."  A man sacrificed an ox.
  • Perfect: describes a present state resulting from a finished action:  A man has sacrificed an ox.
  • Pluperfect: describes a past state resulting from a (farther in the past) finished action:  A man had sacrificed an ox.
  • Future Perfect: describes a future state that will result from a finished action:  A man will have sacrificed an ox.
What I noticed, and re-appreciated was the distinction between the "Perfect" and the "Pluperfect".
         The "Perfect" differs from the "Pluperfect" in the effect of the past action.  In the first case, the effect remains into the present.  In the second, the effect is done and over.  And I began to wonder how much we confuse those two in our thinking.  How often do we wake up in the middle of the night stewing over things that are done and passed, wishing we could have a "do-over"?  Yes, there are things from our past that still affect our current selves and relationships.  But re-playing old events can't change anything that has happened.  Yet we often find ourselves frustrated, regretful, sad, even incapacitated because we can't let go; we hold many of these things in -- to our detriment.
        In this regard, there is something very therapeutic about the practice of verbal confession, whether to a mentor, a psychologist, a spiritual guide, or a trusted friend.  Speaking the past can serve to exorcise some of its effects.  James Pennebaker's 1990 book, Opening Up:  The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions*, makes this very point with some wonderful examples of "confessions" made to police officers, and even in private journals.  I loved that book when it came out.  Moments of insight from the rules/forms of ancient grammar reminded me of the truths it asserted.
       How much of what I carry as "perfect" is really "pluperfect" and need wield no more power over me?


Chaplain Gary

*Guilford Press, 1990, re-issued in 1997.

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