Three hundred and seventy-four years ago, the good shippe Confidence landed at Watertown in Boston Bay and disembarked a group of men and women come to establish a new home in a new land. They moved inland to an area along the Musquetaquid River and established the town of Sudbury, the second town above tidewater in the Bay Colony. English Puritans, they had come to escape the oppression of the church hierarchy in their native land. One of these settlers was my ancestor Thomas Goodenowe.
They built a meeting house and gathered every Sunday to worship, walking in winter blizzards and spring floods, for it would have been a sin to stay home and a sin to make their beasts work on the Lord’s Day. There was no stove in the meeting house; that would have been making too much provision for the flesh. The worship services were long, with much singing. The singing was hearty, but not necessarily harmonious. People sang more or less the same melody, each at their own pitch and tempo. When the thought was advanced some years later that it would improve the singing if a hymn was sung in unison, with everyone reaching the end at the same time, the idea was denounced as worldly.
Ten generations later, I belong to a brotherhood which places much importance upon singing in four voice harmony, correctly pitched and at the right tempo. Can you imagine how utterly worldly this would seem to my Puritan ancestors?
However, it seems that my brethren have much the same attitude toward writing as my Puritan forbears had toward singing. Grammar, punctuation and spelling are deemed of little importance, the main thing is to tell the story.
But the story is sometimes hard to find, much as the words of a song must have been lost in the cacophony of Puritan singing. Too many sentences are constructed in the passive voice, possibly due to a misguided belief that vagueness denotes humility. Weighty adjectives are thrown in to impress upon the reader the seriousness of the thought the writer is endeavouring to convey. This can easily result in writing that sounds pompous and bombastic.
We who are members of this brotherhood have become accustomed to this form of writing and are usually able to decipher the meaning. But what about the people outside our brotherhood? What do they get out of our writings? If we were somehow transported back to the seventeenth century, what would we get out of the singing in a Puritan meeting house?
Consider the language of the Authorized (“King James”) Version of the Bible. Psalm 23 contains six sentences, all in the active voice, 118 words, 92 of them words of one syllable, adjectives are used only when absolutely necessary. The beauty and power of the English language are lost when we steer away from this simplicity.
We have a story to tell to the nations. The disciplines of grammar, spelling and punctuation are not medieval torture methods. They are useful tools for making our meaning clear. We should have the same consideration for those who read our writings as we do for those who listen to our singing.