“Should we split infinitives? Can we say ‘to boldly go where no one has gone before’?” A sharp teenage girl in my church recently asked me this.
Great question. How do we judge what is “correct” English, anyway? And should Bible teachers even, like, care?
My young friend had a ready answer for where we find correct English: the-way-Latin-and-Greek-did-things would have to be the standard, she said, because that’s where English came from—and they didn’t split infinitives. (They couldn’t: each infinitive was one word, like ἀγάπειν and amare.)
I never could have given such an intelligent answer at her age. But unfortunately, it’s just not true. English derives from dozens of languages; other grammars can’t be our standard, or the standard would be hopelessly self-contradictory. Languages do things differently.
Anybody who communicates a great deal will run regularly into the question, “What’s the correct way to say x, y, or z?” This is true for teenage girls still learning to write good and for the grown-up Bible teachers who read the Logos blog. Here are three basic reasons why it’s important for Bible teachers to know where to find the standard for “correct” English, namely what people in fact say or write.
1. “Correct English” helps you love up.
When Bible teachers give attention to the quality of our English, we are better able to speak the truth persuasively to people above us on the social scale. It helps us love more neighbors.
“Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men” (Prov 22:29). If educated people don’t say whole ’nother, and if they maintain a rigid distinction between lie and lay, I’d like to be able to produce the correct social passwords when called upon. I don’t want to be the unwitting object of my own editor’s coffee mug slogan: “I AM SILENTLY CORRECTING YOUR GRAMMAR.” If I do break the “rules,” I want to wit it.
Viewed this way, “correct English” is a moving target. I must know my audience. To reach educated people I want to be able to sound educated. The real definition for “correct” English is what educated people in fact say or write.
2. Knowing “correct English” allows you to purposefully adopt a different standard.
It isn’t always appropriate to use “correct” English. If I’m speaking to an audience of recent immigrants or functionally illiterate down-and-outers, I don’t want to alienate them with my vocabulary or training. I want to love as many neighbors as possible in a way they’ll intuitively feel—in part through moderating my language.
I’ve often heard skillful speakers refuse to come down to the level of their audience. Their elevated vocabulary and obscure illustrations made an otherwise compelling sermon ineffective with their down-to-earth audience. Those preachers should have loved their hearers as themselves by speaking in a way the audience could understand. Sometimes that means breaking “the rules.”
But those speakers have at least one thing working in their favor: you have to know the rules in order to break them skilfully.
If you are confused about what makes something count as “good English,” you won’t be able to bend the rules when that’s what love demands. You’ll be confused about how to speak to a group in the language it best understands. C.S. Lewis, who was nothing if not incredibly smart, famously refined his evangelistic speaking skills in meetings with the regular Georges who made up Britain’s Royal Air Force during WWII. Those talks translated directly into the delightfully simple prose of Mere Christianity. He didn’t introduce errors into his English; he just brought his English out of the rarefied air of Oxonian lecture halls and fit his speech patterns to the people God had given him to influence right then.
The standard of “good” English may be different depending on your congregation and your area of the world. To the Kenyans, become as a Kenyan. To the Singaporeans, as a Singaporean. Likewise for Charlestonians and Minnesotans. There are many varieties of English. And not all pastors are called to serve the educated—or to serve their own culture. The best words that are accessible to your audience and increase their understanding are the standard you should aim for.
3. Understanding English will help your Bible reading.
Languages change over time. They all do it. Knowing this in English, first, because it’s more familiar to you, is a helpful step toward grasping its importance in the biblical languages. Biblical Greek and Hebrew are no exceptions. The Greek of Homer (8th century B.C.) is not the same as the Greek of Peter (1st century A.D.).
Greek Is Not Math. It isn’t a set of perfect algebraic equations. If you ever hear a preacher or commentator offer an extremely fine-grained analysis of a given word, it is fair to wonder whether too much meaning is being piled onto it.
‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’ (Through the Looking Glass)
The trick is to get all of the meaning an author intends to give, no more, no less. And if you don’t understand that people in ancient Greece felt their language move slowly around them just the way we English speakers do today, you’re going to expect more out of Greek than it can deliver. For example, you’re going to find a lot more meaning in the word agape than really belongs there. You’re going to propose exhaustively precise meanings of Greek particles, meanings no ancient writer could ever keep track of.
I’ll never forget the time I corrected someone else’s language only to discover a few years later that the “rule” I had cited was to real grammar as Cheese Whiz is to cheese.
Which brings us back to the prohibition against split infinitives. It’s a Cheese Whiz grammar rule. The best English writers split their infinitives all the time, and they have for centuries. Understanding why the best English writers violate this widely held “rule” means you grasp how English actually works. And grasping how English actually works will help your better love those you’re teaching—and better read your Bible.
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