Grammatical Slips and Rebekah’s Language Breakthrough

7956999330_b790e43033_mA piece in the Wall Street Journal (October 1, 2015) raises the question again: is human language a richly endowed gift, one of humanity’s most elevated, and to be used with care and respect? Or is it only a rough tool to be used well enough merely to “get the job done”?

According to WSJ, the dating site, Match, asked more than 5000 singles in the US what criteria they trusted most when deciding whether to go forward and date persons first contacted by means of the internet.

Eighty-eight per cent of women and 75% of men in the responses received said they cared most about the careful use of words. What the singles saw written on the computer screen shaped their opinions to a degree before any meeting took place.

What bothered both men and women had to do with such details as carelessness in the misspelling of common words, the misuse of semicolons, lack of proper capitalization, etc. They were just grammatical errors but errors that colored expectations unfavorably.

In the minds of the singles these careless slips by the unseen respondents lowered their grades although, for reasons of courtesy, the receivers would never disclose this mark-down.

Personally, I see language as a gift from God so my vote is on the side of care and accuracy — though I sometimes slip in spite of my best efforts. Nevertheless, as I see it, the gift of good speech is to be honored.

Amazingly, the workings of this great gift manifest themselves very early in life. I confess it’s fun as a great grandparent to listen to the oncoming generation’s earliest efforts to communicate using this rapidly unfolding gift.

When our great granddaughter, Rebekah, was three, she was in the early stages of mastering by trial and error the basics of the English language. Whatever she mastered she applied to new and untried situations.

For example, already at three years of age she had apparently discovered the prefix, “un”. She grasped, for example, that when you get up in the morning you dress, but when you go to bed at night you un-dress. Doors that are locked may be un-locked, and shoes that are tied must be un-tied.

Once, while carrying her own food tray across the dining hall at a summer camp she suddenly signalled for her grandmother’s help. She said, “I want you to hold my tray so I can un-itch my nose”. A few moments later she needed help again to un-itch her arm.

Although such irregular use was novel, when uttered experimentally by a three-year-old it was fresh and wonderful to the ears of a grandmother, and later when I heard of it, wonderful to my ears too. It was language in progress. I thought it deserved three cheers.

Three short years earlier, as a helpless infant she had only been able to communicate by crying, burbling or smiling. Now she was handily on her way to the day when she will make the subtlest thoughts clear by delivering them in words with prefixes and suffixes of all kinds.

Rebekah’s growing mastery of language is obviously grounded in an innate gift. She doesn’t know yet that it is a gift implanted in her by God — one aspect of his beautiful gift of humanness. But she will know soon.

Even so, I shudder to think that some day, under the wrong influences, her language may become strewn with the clutter of meaningless verbiage. Like, will she, like, lace her sentences, like, with the muddle of verbal redundancy? If so, this may limit her in many ways, as the research done by “Match” showed.

But, on second thought I believe her parents will make sure she understands that such misuse will always be un-seemly and thus un-acceptable.

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Photo credit: Lyn Lomasi (via


3 thoughts on “Grammatical Slips and Rebekah’s Language Breakthrough

  1. Your piece on grammar sent me scurrying, pastor Don, for information as to the legitimacy of beginning a sentence with an adverb, which you did a couple of times. I discovered, to my surprise, that it is legitimate, ‘on occasion.’ I discovered, as well, that an adverb does not follow the verb immediately when an object is present; it follows the object. I have learned something to-day.

  2. .
    My understanding is that all animals communicate with each other in some way,in all God’s creation.Taking communication loosely I’d say this extends even to the plant kingdom too.But only human beings,God’s creation most dear to Him, have verbal language, finely tuned and nuanced.

    The Bible’s book of Genesis points to the essential truth that originally there was one single human language,understood by all of us.Until human pride intervened,that is Humanity foolishly dreamed of building a tower so high as to bring us level with God. Universal labguage,splintered into many disparate tongues,so one person’s tongue sounded like mere babble to another of a different tongue

    This continued until Pentecost ,around AD 30,when some were given the spiritual gift of being understood by all.Perhaps as a sign
    To this day we humans speak in many tongues.Though no one ,only all-knowing God ,can understand every language,each language is more than a rough tool among it’s own people.Languages are precise ,each with their own grammatical laws and laws of syntax( and punctuation for the written word).

    The more accurately and carefully we use language ,the better we communicate. Good communication can mean greater interpersonal understanding and harmony.

    Watching a child learn and develop her language skills is a joy.Sometimes there will be experimentation. 3 year old Rebeckah’s experiments are charmingly novel. No wonder Rebeckah[s wanting her nose un – itched delighted her Granma.

    At a similar age to Rebeckah ,Asha, a little girl I helped raise, called retractable biros ‘jumping up and down pens’ and while out walking through town she called the din made by pneumatic drills ‘headache music’.I found this delightful and worthy of applause.

    When language is used experimentally it can be creative rather than careless.

    After all,who could ever be said to use words better than Shakespeare.Perhaps Tyndale,the brains behind the first whole English bible. These two have had the greatest impact on the development of the English language,to my mind.

    Skakespeare spelt his own name more different ways than I can remember,though many of these spelling variants may have been written by others.Cetrtainly Shakespeare invented a vast new lexicon of neologisms as well as an immense array of new phrases still used today.

    English is used differently in different parts of the world. There is American English,Canadian English,Australian English,South African English ,Scottish English and many others.A child who spelt savior or color would fail her spelling bee in England.In USA & Canada she would fail if she spelt it colour or saviour,I believe.

    In Canada ‘gotten’ is a perfectly grammatical form,yet in English schools frowned upon. I find it .like so many new North American spellings and forms, very good English ,perhaps even truer than ours to middle English,which I especially love.

    When careless or a slip ,as I’m often guilty of, variations are not good but simply the result of error.Now we use keyboards to type more and handwrite less,we have a new kind of error in the written word – typos ,or slips of the finger on the keyboard. We hit the wrong key.

    When inventive and progressing our language,diversion from the orthodox can be good.It’s a matter of taste.The American poet e.e.cummings refused to use capitals in his poetry.I personally can’t see what function is served by this ,but others find it to their taste.

    Some new words like yomping,I like.Yomping describes a particular walking gait ,deriving fron the Falkland War,I believe.

    Others like Brexit or Grexit ,I abhor.These mean exit from the European Economic Community,by Britain and Greece ,respectively. Similarly I don’t at all like Xmas for Christmas.It seems to water down the reason for the holy season.

    I trust Rebecka ‘s language is never bogged down in so called ‘ teen speak’.

    I recently heard a teenage girl say to her friend:

    ‘So ,you know ,it’s like totally.Ya ‘

    Her friend seemed to understand .On the other hand when I first heard a teenager say ‘I love exams Not! – this had amusing novelty value (.the first time I heard this use of the negative).It soon palled.Similarly the use of ‘Jealous much?’ or other other adjectives followed by ‘much’ ,soon became more irritation than novelty to my ears.

    The redundant use of ‘like’ in the middle of a sentence, seems to have been in use for decades.Similarly one word sentences like ‘Cool ! and ‘Awesome! ‘ and even ‘Wicked ! ‘ which strangely all seem to mean the same thing ,have replaced older forms teenagers used to use ,like ‘Rad!’ and ‘,Boss!’.All these words seem to mean ‘Nice’!

    I think often teenagers use these words and phrases only among themselves,not in their family,school or workplace..Perhaps it is merely a way of saing ‘I’m like you,I’m an adolescent too’. I’m sure peer pressure to conform to the current fad exists.

    Whatever we think of the value of new changes in how we use language,I think we should always use it carefully,deliberately,considering the best way to express our thoughts,ideas,meanings and feelings.For language is the gift which enables us to reach out and communicate with others.

    God created us in His image.I think language is part of His image.For in the beginning was the word.And the word was with God and God was the Word.

  3. In a comment on a blog about language slips ,I’m ashamed to notice I spelt Rebekah’s name wrongly as Rebeckah.I remember concentrating not to spell her name Rebecca,but Rebekah.But I ended up with Rebeckah ! Apologies.It’s Rebekah .

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