Monday, February 13, 2012

Take it from a father: Write it right

Some people take a mid-winter vacation and head to the Caribbean. I headed to the N.C. mountains last week. My mission: Spend five days as an editor for the Episcopal Church's General Board of Examining Chaplains at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville.

Every year, the board assembles a hundred or so bishops, priests, deacons, professors and other learned folk to grade and write evaluations of 200 exams for potential priests who are finishing seminary or their masters of divinity.

Despite more than 20 years' membership in the Episcopal Church, I have no special skills in understanding the finer points of the Council of Nicaea or the appropriate celebration of the Triduum. I do, however, have a couple of decades' experience as an editor. So I loaned my skills at rooting out double negatives, run-on sentences and the dreaded passive voice. (If you are a seminary student who took the exam, I have no idea how you did. It was all anonymous and I saw nothing more revealing than a code number on your paper.)

Still, I have to say that a large assemblage of bishops, priests, deacons, professors and other learned folk is a darned interesting place to spend three meals a day and the occasional social hour. Case in point: Stephen Moore, a priest and family-court judge in Seattle, gave opening instruction on the fine points of writing evaluations. (That's the good father up there, and I should warn you: He has a wicked sense of humor.) It occurred to me that there was much wisdom on all writing there, especially for those who read and comment on blogs and newspaper articles.

I loved it so much, I asked Father Stephen if I could share excerpts from his talk. He gave me his blessing, along with some impressive demonstrations of Latin pronunciation:

"Now a word about grammar and syntax – yours, not the

"Why is it so important? There are two immutable laws
borrowed from the blogosphere, derived from many years of
experience with people writing and responding to things written
on the Internet.

"The first is Skitt’s Law, expressed as 'any post correcting
an error in another post will contain at least one error itself,'
or, 'the likelihood of an error in a post is directly proportional to
the embarrassment it will cause the poster.'

"The other is Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation,
which holds that 'any statement about correct grammar,
punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one
grammatical, punctuation or spelling error.'

"From these we may derive Moore’s Second Maxim for the
writing of GOE evaluations: 'Candidates who receive less than a
three on any question will be hypercritical of the evaluators'
remarks. Some, like Paris on "The Gilmore Girls," will be
hypercritical if they receive anything less than a four.'

"The safest grammatical construction with which to express
an evaluation of a GOE answer is that based on the Choo-Choo
Model. In the same way that a railroad engine comes before the
railroad cars, which come before the caboose, in a simple
declarative sentence, the subject precedes the verb, which
precedes the object.

"The use of the Choo-Choo Model will prevent the use of the
passive voice. The passive voice is of great use to lawyers and
politicians but of little or no use to GOE evaluations. Avoid it.

"The use of the Choo-Choo Model also will prevent inverted
sentences, of the sort for which TIME Magazine was famous in
the 1930s. You may recall the parody of TIME’s use of inverted
sentences by Wolcott Gibbs, published in the New
Yorker: 'Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind ... Where
it all will end, knows God!' Where it ought not end is here, writing
GOE evaluations, and it won’t, provided the Choo-Choo Model is

"Former editors beseech you not to switch back and forth
between present tense and past tense in the same short
paragraph. It gives them temporal whiplash.

"Beware of punctuation use.

"The use of the ellipses and the dash are both as risky as
unprotected recreational sex.

"The semicolon should only be used by those who are
experienced and confident in its proper usage.

"The exclamation point has no place in our usage. In
Discworld, British author Terry Pratchett says that the more
exclamation points a person uses in their writing, the more likely
that they are mentally unbalanced. He also says that five
exclamation points used in the same piece are a certain indicator
of 'someone who wears their underwear on the outside.'

"Our evaluations ought to be neither crudely personal nor
therapeutically evasive. Instead, we ought to say what the essay
achieves, what it doesn’t achieve and how well it achieves it in
plain, simple, concise, coherent language. Evaluations that perform a lateral arabesque around difficult conclusions do not
accomplish this goal.

"Which leads us to Moore’s Third Maxim for writing GOE
evaluations: 'If there are two ways to understand a sentence --
the one you intended and another one -- it is certain that the
reader will get the other one.'

"This is predicated upon an observation by the late Italian
poet Antonio Porchia, who wrote, 'I know what I have given you. I
don't know what you received.'

"Our task is to write so clearly as to preclude
misunderstanding. Given the oft-demonstrated capacity
of seminary deans, bishops and commissions on ministry to
misunderstand, this is a formidable challenge. But I have great
faith in every one of you to meet this challenge like Popeye
knocking the stuffing out of Bluto when the latter attempts to
kidnap Olive Oyl.

"Caveat lector: let the reader beware. And thank you for
your service.

"This message has been brought to you by the General Board
of Examining Chaplains, protecting Holy Mother Church from
those who would be her clergy since 1972."


Anonymous said...

As someone who dearly misses 'On Language' as written weekly by William Safire, I was greatly pleased with your column today. I have certainly heard the general admonishments you gave before, but they were well presented in this column. Thank you for a few moments of amusement and a couple of chuckles.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Skitt's Law, Kathy: I've come to the conclusion that many--if not most--of the commenters to the CO's main articles (or at least the ones about politics...or anything that can be spun to be about politics) are written by people who take a great deal of pride in NOT being grammatically correct. Maybe it's an adult version of the "I can't look too smart" comment sometimes said by students in 'tough' schools. Perhaps the commenters feel that if they used proper English, they'd lose their ability to ignore fact, and have to--heaven forbid--make rational arguments.

Boo said...

Loved it. (!!!!!)

JoAnn Grose said...

Some fun to read!

Anonymous said...

Hooray, Father Steve!

Anne LeVeque said...

Thank you for this. I was away on a, erm, "hospitality mission" when Stephen entertained the troops.
- Anne