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Rubrics and Grammar 3


This is the third post in a series where I have been following my model of liturgy (communal worship) as being like a language – the language of liturgy being primarily the symbols, signs, gestures, etc. accompanied by words. In this context, I proposed thinking of the rules of liturgy (the rubrics) more as being descriptive than prescriptive. What if we think of rubrics, the rules of liturgy, as describing what a native liturgy speaker would naturally do?

Here are the posts so far for those who haven’t read them:
Rubrics and Grammar 1
Rubrics and Grammar 2

I have been drawing on Joseph Williams Style (Lessons in Clarity and Grace). He divides grammar rules into three kinds. Breaking the first kind, “Real Rules”, would make our discourse essentially incomprehensible – it would basically cease to be English. The same, I suggest, is true for liturgy. Breaking the “Real Rules” of liturgy would make these actions, signs, gestures, and words cease to be Christian worship. Williams’ second type of rules, “Social Rules”, I suggested would be what is appropriate in the context.

Now we come to his third type of rules – “invented rules”. I think most of us who worship intelligently can recognise what would fit into these in the case of liturgy: increasing numbers of swings of the thurible towards clergy as compared to laity; never taking the consecrated bread and wine from the front of the altar; always having an ordained person administer the consecrated bread;…

I think the passage speaks for itself, and you can translate it easily into the worship context:


Finally, some grammarians have invented a handful of rules that they think we all should observe. These are the rules that the grammar police enforce and that too many educated writers obsess over. Most date from the last half of the eighteenth century:

Don’t split infinitives, as in to quietly leave.
Don’t end a sentence with a PREPOSITION.

A few date from the twentieth century:

Don’t use hopefully for I hope, as in “Hopefully, it won’t rain.
Don’t use which for that, as in “a car which I sold.”

For almost 300 years, grammarians have accused the best writers of violating rules like these, and the best writers have consistently ignored them. Which is lucky for the grammarians, because if writers did obey all the rules, grammarians would have to keep inventing new ones, or find another line of work. The fact is, none of these invented rules reflects the unself-conscious usage of our best writers. In this lesson, we focus on this third kind of rule, the handful of invented ones, because only they vex those who already write Standard English.


It is no simple matter, however, to deal with these rules if you want to be thought of as someone who writes “correctly”. You could choose the worst-case policy: follow all the rules all the time because sometime, someone will criticize you for something – for beginning a sentence with and or ending it with up. But if you try to obey all the rules all the time, you risk becoming so obsessed with rules that you tie yourself in knot. And sooner or later, you will impose those rules — real or not — on others.

The alternative to blind obedience is selective observance. But then you have to decide which rules to observe and which to ignore. And if you ignore an alleged rule, you may have to deal with someone whose passion for “good” grammar makes her see in your split infinitive a sign of intellectual flabbiness, moral corruption, and social decay.

If you want to avoid being accused of “lacking standards” but refuse to submit to whatever “rule” someone can dredge up from ninth-grade English, you have to know more about these invented rules than the rule-mongers do.

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13 thoughts on “Rubrics and Grammar 3”

  1. And, hopefully, this will go someway to effectively transform how we do liturgy … quiz: how many rules have I just broken :).

    This thought: once one has some sense of the rules, and, say, reads a blog such as this regularly, to keep up to date, the distinctions between the kinds of rules becomes clearer.

    But there will be Christians, say, those brought up in certain parishes; those who switch from another denomination to those parishes who have absolutely no idea that the invented rules are the invented rules.

    Also, go to my post on Confecting the Eucharist … there is a lovely story posted in the comments about tradition/liturgical custom 🙂

    1. Thanks, Peter. I have added a clickable link to your comment. I intend to write on the Christ’s gluten-free body controversy – probably next week. Blessings.

    2. I see three, Venerable Canon Doctor.

      1 – Starting a sentence with and.

      2 – Hopefully instead of I hope.

      3 – Your split infinitive, to effectively transform.

  2. Since English isn’t my first language, in addition to the Apple built-in spelling checker, I have a free account with Grammarly.com into which I am constantly signed-in. It constantly looks over my shoulder and flags the rules that I break, the commas that I miss and the words that I misspell that Safari misses.

    You will be happy to know that it subscribes to the Harvard comma, Bosco!

    BTW, did you know that the Oxford University style guide recommends not using the Harvard comma unless it is actually necessaryl in clarifying the items in the list.

    Such as;
    I’m grateful to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
    I’m grateful to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

  3. Thank you, Bosco, for this thoughtful analysis of the ‘rules. Understanding them as a ‘hierarchy’, if you will, of those that are real, social and invented is helpful. If you don’t mind, I’d like to use your ideas to introduce candidates in formation here in Perth to the rules of liturgy. The bad habits I often come across is the rigid adherence to invented rules while flouting real or socially appropriate rules as being ‘stuffy’. At least Catholic priests know the GIRM, whereas most Anglicans have scraps of training, reading, and watching other clergy, which can create a rather peculiar internal rulebook.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Gareth. Certainly use these ideas in formation – I wonder if the underlying idea expressed in my video might be a helpful foundation to this short series. Do point them to this website, and to my book Celebrating Eucharist, which I’m sure translates beyond these shores. And please pray for me as I now will for them (and you). Blessings.

  4. Andrew Doohan

    Liturgical rubrics, like the rules of grammar, should always be observed…unless there is a good reason not to!

  5. ‘If you want to avoid being accused of “lacking standards” but refuse to submit to whatever “rule” someone can dredge up from ninth-grade English, you have to know more about these invented rules than the rule-mongers do.’

    Love it. Among liturgical scholars, I think Robert Taft, Paul Bradshaw, and (in a different vein) Colin Buchanan could well be described this way. I would put you in the same club, Bosco.

    Williams speaks of “the unself-conscious usage of our best writers”. I wonder, what would be the liturgical equivalent? It probably couldn’t be a list of people, but rather of communities whose worship was somehow evidently authentic and exemplary.

    1. Thanks, Jesse.

      I am deeply honoured to even be considered amongst such a wonderful group.

      And I think you are quite right – it fits with my understanding that liturgy is something we, as a community, all do together (more than something that is about the leader). The authentic and exemplary community worship that springs to mind for me is Taizé and the Cistercian monastery of which I am an Associate.


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