Just yesterday I heard on public radio a word I could not comprehend. The word was: the “siria”. I knew it was not Syria, so I put on my thinking cap and realized she was saying “This area.” How could such a mangling take place? Easy. More and more English-speakers are placing final consonants on the next word (where possible), as for instance, “client’s policies” would be pronounced “client spolicies”. A number of which have been noted elsewhere on these pages.
But a couple of my favorites have not yet been mentioned. At the Preparation of the Gifts in the present translation of the Mass we have, “Through your goodness we have this spread to offer. . . .” And consider its companion prayer, a great misfortune: “Through your goodness we have this swine to offer. . .”.
Another gaff is an embarrassing double meaning just by itself, hardly to be mentioned in polite company, not to say, holy company. I dare to mention the Eucharistic Prayer’s sacred words, “Take this, all of you, and eat it.” My age group and beyond went through high school (and college?) hearing the slang words, “eat it” as a vulgar insult. Sorry to mention it. Gratifyingly, the new translation will say “Take this, all of you, and eat of it.”
One of the most hilarious phrasings, at least to those who take communication seriously, is in the last petition in the Second Eucharistic Prayer. One line actually says, “. . . and with all the saints who have done your will throughout the ages.”
Yes, we all know what is being said: saints are people who do God’s will. But as written it actually says that we are referring only to the saints who have done so, and not the others, who presumably have not done God’s will. To get technical, we are witnessing here what is called a “restrictive clause” as opposed to a “non-restrictive” one. You don’t need to dig out a grammar book, let me explain. A restrictive clause defines more closely the noun it is referring to. “My uncle who lives in Brazil is coming to see us”. The words after uncle restrict the meaning of uncle to only the one who lives in Brazil. If I used the same words but with different punctuation, I would be uttering a “non-restrictive” clause. “My uncle, who lives in Brazil, is coming to see us,” I am just adding information to the subject, my uncle, without defining him. I could as well have said, “My uncle is coming to see me.” [The examples are from the Oxford Companion to the English Language (Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 859).]
The commonly accepted manner of writing a restrictive clause is to put in commas. Without them the clause in question restricts the saints we are speaking of: just the ones who have done God’s will throughout the ages. Apparently there are other saints who have not. I know what “most people” would say, that everybody understands it cannot mean such a thing. And it would imply an oxymoron anyway—contradictory terms combined in “saints who do not do God’s will”—so why get all excited about a few commas more or less? Because the Mass is sacred and deserves good, not confusing, language.
I admit that even had the (non-restrictive) comma been in place (“all the saints, who have done your will throughout the ages,”), the right meaning would still be very hard to communicate vocally, except with an appropriate pause after the word saints. That is what I do in presiding at Mass. But grammarians currently indicate that commas are supposed to indicate structure, not vocal pauses. I conclude that the sentence itself should have been re-written.
Such an error will obviously be corrected in the new translation, you think. But hang on to your hat. The new words are: “and all the Saints who have pleased you throughout the ages.” Again, shamelessly, a restrictive clause, restricting the meaning to only the saints who please God, not the ones who do not.
Finally, I would like to make a small remark on responses in ritual. My example is the “solemn blessings” of the present Sacramentary. Why is it that people do not respond “Amen” when each portion of a solemn blessing finishes?
The reason is quite simple. In ritual, the congregation needs a formula to trigger their response. If there is not one, individuals do not want to embarrass themselves by speaking out at the wrong time. They need a signal. Here is an example, the first petition from the solemn blessing in the Mass of the Ascension.
May almighty God bless you on this day
when his only Son ascended into heaven
to prepare a place for you.
There is no trigger, unless the presider knows how to lead with his tone of voice, dropping down and slowing down for a cadence at “a place for you.” Therefore, no Amen results. Many of us have noticed that priests are now supplying the Amen themselves, since the people are silent. Could this be the beginning of re-clericalizing the Mass?
What would an appropriate trigger-ending have been? The Church has a repertoire of them: “Grant this through Christ our Lord,” “We ask this though our Lord Jesus Christ, for ever and ever.” After each segment of a solemn blessing, why not put in “I ask this through Christ our Lord”?
I do not have access to the new translation of the Missal, so I do not know what the new form will be. But here’s hoping they will.