Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In the Meantime

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I had literally just posted the last post when I remembered an item about which I had been wanting to write.  As I am reading “Extemporaneous  Oratory” by James Buckley (copyright 1898), he notes the importance of regularly checking (or having someone else check) the length of the words you use.  What?

It is fairly simple.  He says, if we use very simple, particularly one syllable words it is hard to give adequate inflection and rhythm to the sermon which makes is flat and boring to listen to:

A due proportion of short and long words is necessary. If all are short, the oration will be fragmentary, and afford little room for inflection or for genuine rhythm. Although by the rising or falling inflection, or by drawling, a word of one syllable can be made to express very different ideas, it is difficult to construct a sentence of such words in prose and make proper use of inflection. Words of two syllables are easily inflected.

He warns, however, that too many long and complex words can like-wise put our listeners to sleep:

For the sake of inflection and rhythm, and the opportunity of developing the full strength of mighty voices, together, doubtless, with a natural tendency to ostentation, many speakers are inclined to use polysyllabic words. This is a serious error; it weakens the style, renders the delivery bombastic, produces little effect on a cultivated audience; and a continuous discourse consisting chiefly of long words delivered with their corresponding tone has the fatal defect of exerting a soporific influence.

The most effective style is that which contains a sufficiency of long words to produce an impression by their inflection and  continuous flow; and short ones which, according to position, will have the effect of an electric shock or an epigrammatic sparkle.

He then gives this funny example:

Dr. Skinner, of high renown in the city of New York half a century ago, was unable to use short words. Impressed with the
necessity of addressing the Sunday school, which was then becoming popular and promised to be of great usefulness, he consented to make an address, and began thus: "The Westminster Catechism is an admirable syllabus of Christian doctrine." The
superintendent gently intimated to him that the children could not understand him, upon which he said: "Your superintendent says you cannot understand me. I will explain. Syllabus, my dear children, is synonymous with synopsis."

Now, keep in mind that that was written formally in 1898 and we (most of us) neither speak nor write that way.  But I think his point is well made.   In our culture, I fear that the tendency is toward the first: “dumbing down” our sermons to the lowest possible denominator.  (Or, heaven forbid, the preachers are not educated enough to use exact vocabulary).   The sermon is not a seminary lecture, but neither is it a Junior Church object lesson.  There MUST be balance.

More later.

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