Punctuation saves lives, words nourish faith

Barney Zwartz ponders his own grammar obsession, how language changes over time, and the importance of words in the Christian story.

My new T-shirt arrived the other day, from a design-your-own slogan outlet in the US. The three lines are: “Let’s eat kids./ Let’s eat, kids./ Punctuation saves lives.”

My grammar obsession dates back decades. In previous lives I lectured theology students on grammar so they could learn Greek, as well as newspaper sub-editors.

I am not puritanical: grammatical guidelines enhance communication, but they are not set in stone and do evolve (go on, split that infinitive!). My T-shirt highlights that a tiny piece of punctuation can change meaning in profoundly important ways.

Body language is important in face-to-face communication, but we can’t do much without words. We can’t convey theoretical information, we can’t analyse, we can’t even think without words. The richer our vocabulary, the richer the possibilities of our thought life.

Words change too. I regret some – the loss of the contrast between imply and infer, which people now often use interchangeably, or the use of “hurting” to convey suffering rather than inflicting pain (it used to be a transitive verb, as in “she’s hurting him”), or the use of disinterested to mean apathetic rather than impartial. This blurring impairs precision.

But many changes enrich our lives, for example much of the vocabulary that has flowed from the pandemic – think “covidiot” (someone who behaves recklessly during the pandemic), “doomscrolling” (constant indulging in bad news), or “quarantini” (a lockdown drink, probably widely enjoyed in Melbourne at the moment). All are excellent examples of how language unites us.

God apparently deems the word so important that he speaks creation into existence, as the Genesis account of creation shows: “God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light”, and on through the narrative.

We learn, are exhorted, encouraged and delighted by God’s words.

The Gospel of John announces that “in the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God … Through him all things were made.” The Greek word “logos”, usually translated “word”, is a complex concept. The Oxford Dictionary defines it succinctly: “The Word of God, or principle of divine reason and creative order, identified in the Gospel of John with the second person of the Trinity incarnate in Jesus Christ.”

Believers in the three monotheistic religions believe words are the key, though not only, way God reveals himself to humans. We learn, are exhorted, encouraged and delighted by God’s words. The prophet Jeremiah in the 6th century BC wrote: “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy words were unto me a joy and the rejoicing of my heart.”

In every way, words are a precious gift. We should treasure them and use them wisely – even if this is a classic case of do what I say, not what I do.

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article was originally published in The Age.