Plain English

by Glenn Conjurske

I love plain English. Though I love refinement in every form, and am instinctively repelled by everything low and coarse and crude, yet I love plain English. I love that refinement which is free and natural, not that which is artificial and fastidious. I love the old farm house, which is warm and homey, where chairs were made to sit on and floors to walk on, not the cold and immaculate house in the city, where we are afraid to touch the walls, or set our foot on the carpet.

Plain English is not low or crude, though it may be regarded as such by some who affect a refinement which is artificial and fastidious. Intellectualism is greatly at fault here, and alas, the education which is designed to teach men to preach most often does just the reverse. For some years I went out knocking on doors to preach the gospel with a young man lately graduated from a good Baptist Bible college. It is my way when I knock on doors to ask people directly if they are saved. Almost everybody answers “Yes.” I then ask them how they know they are saved. This young man naturally adopted my ways, and when it was his turn to speak he followed in my tracks. He did fairly well with something like, “Can I ask you if you are saved?” but when they told him they were, he would say, “Upon what criteria do you base your certainty?” And as we walked from one house to the next I would say to him as forcefully as I could, “Not ‘Upon what criteria,’ but ‘How—-do—-you—-know? How—-do—-you—-know?”’ This may serve to illustrate what I mean by plain English.

But understand, I am all for refinement, and I abhor that modern jargon which would be better called Slanglish than English, which pervades not only the pulpits of Fundamentalism, but even its books and magazines. This is “a real shocker,” that “a no brainer,” something else “a real doozy,” and a fourth thing “a howler.” Some are “gung-ho” for this, some “suckers” are “suckered” into that, and others “nuts” for something else. This conference was “a ball,” and that one “a blast.” One person “blew it,” another is “ticked off,” a third is “screwed up,” and a fourth “in the slammer.” An hour’s random reading of modern Christian publications will almost always yield a long string of such gems.

But how do I prove that there is anything wrong with such language? I answer frankly, I hardly suppose it needs any proof. It seems to me to be self-evident. Yet it is evidently not self-evident to all, and I may therefore offer a couple of considerations. First, it is altogether contrary to the kind of language used in the Bible. It is likewise contrary to the language used by spiritual men in all ages of the history of the church. And let it be understood, I do not merely refer to the fact that these particular expressions are new. It is not the date of the language to which I object, but its nature. The same utterly careless and daringly flippant generation which uses the word “awesome” in sport, and prints with wild and bizarre styles of type, coupled with pictures and illustrations which are purposely the very reverse of everything serious, has created a flippant and smart-aleck English which is absolutely incompatible with seriousness, to say nothing of reverence. It is the sort of language which altogether dispels sobriety and reverence. That such language is used at all by Christians is a sad commentary on the lamentable want of seriousness which characterizes the Christianity of the present day. The fact that such language will be understood by “modern man” is nothing to the purpose. Though its substance may be understood, yet it creates such an atmosphere as vitiates the substance and destroys the spirit of Christianity. Most of the modern literature of the church is absolutely incapable of inspiring reverence or solemnity or devotion, unless it be of the shallowest sort. It handles the most solemn things of God and eternity as though they were a sports event. A publication received today from a Bible institute, and obviously intended to inspire something, though I am not sure what, contains such expressions as “Hang in there” and “Let’s get with it.” The very spirit of such language is directly against solemnity and devotion. It is not only the language of the world, but of one of the most careless and irreverent generations which has ever cumbered the earth. To all such language I object with my whole soul.

It is bad enough to adopt the flippant expressions of a careless and irreverent generation, but some Christian editors seem determined to outdo the world itself in lightness and levity. Another magazine, received a while ago, presents us with the large headline (as nearly as I can recall it),


What kind of spiritual emotions or purposes is this likely to inspire? Whatever the editor’s intent, such language is incapable of doing any good. It does immense harm. Instead of strengthening the things which remain, which are ready to die, it rather lends its hand to the enemy, to destroy what little of seriousness remains in the modern church.

But there is an evil on the other side, of which it was my primary intention to speak. Far away from the coarse and flippant slang of the present generation, there is an equally offensive intellectualism, proud and fastidious, which is incapable of speaking in plain English. If it rightly recoils from hearing of someone “tossed in the slammer,” or “thrown in the pokey,” it equally despises such plain English as “put in jail,” or “sent to prison.” It will brook nothing but “committed to a correctional facility,” or “detained in corrective custody.”

To deal first with a milder form of this fastidious jargon, the following comes from a cultured and educated woman who conducted mission work among the drunkards and harlots of England a century ago. Her aim, of course, was to be useful. She says,

“My familiarity with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Tennyson had fortunately trained me in the use of good Saxon English; I could speak of ‘going to bed,’ without saying, ‘ere you resign yourself to repose.’ But how to put things forcibly and clearly to uneducated men I set to work to learn from those who had proved themselves masters in the art; I carefully studied Spurgeon’s sermons, and any other preacher to the people I could hear of; and I read many of the old Puritan writers, such as old Gurnall’s ‘Christian’s Complete Armour,’ Brooks, and writers even as late as Berridge, all of them remarkable for Shakespearian force and quaintness of expression.”

She further pleads for plain English thus: “Pulpit English is the most vicious English in existence. I have myself heard a clergyman instinctively do into Latin the Saxon account of the Demoniac in St. Mark, ‘There met Him a man coming out of the tombs,’ which in the course of his remarks he rendered, ‘They were immediately encountered by an individual proceeding from the tombs;’ and I have heard another clergyman inform his congregation of village clodhoppers that ‘our Lord did not indulge in nugatory predictions,’ by way of bringing home to them that He is faithful and true. During the Irish famine, the shifts the clergy were reduced to to avoid any indecorous mention of the potato in the pulpit were curious, though why a potato should be more profane than the ‘hyssop on the wall’ I cannot conceive, since the same God made them both. Some called it ‘the succulent esculent;’ others alluded distantly to it as ‘that useful edible which forms so important a staple of food;’ while only one Irish clergyman was found who, in a kind of Celtic reaction, courageously informed his congregation that their contributions had provided thirty starving families with ‘good Irish stoo.”

‘Now, cannot we speak to the people in the English in which Tennyson and Wordsworth write? Does it show any real culture to say, ‘Ere you resign yourself to repose,’ instead of ‘Before you go to bed’? Cannot we call a spade a spade, and not ‘an agricultural instrument’? Not so very long ago I heard an address in a Mission-service of the very poorest, from a speaker appointed by a clergyman, which began thus: ‘The note, my fellow-townsmen, I mean to strike to-night is one of expostulation,’ and the discourse went on to allude to the transit of Venus, which the people probably set down as some new kind of cheese, or the last superfine tea,—-the worthy speaker was a grocer by worldly calling,—-and ended with a good thick layer of doctrine, which might have been living at some remote geological period, probably before man had made his appearance on the earth, but which so far as having any vital connexion with heart, life, or conscience might have been dug out of the old red sandstone. As the long words rolled out, I was irresistibly reminded of a medical man in the north who was noted for his Johnsonian English. Having on one occasion to prescribe for a dying labourer, he sent him a draught, labelled, ‘to be taken in a recumbent posture.’ As to what this might be the relatives of the dying man were utterly at fault. They sent over to the linen-draper, to know if he had a recumbent posture. No, he had never heard of such a thing. Perhaps it might be something in the bladder line. Did the butcher chance to have one? No, he had never heard of such a thing either. At last, they worked their way round to an old woman, who never would allow herself at fault in anything. So she said, ‘Yes, she had one; but, most unfortunately, she had just lent it!”’

Alas, the intellectualism which operated so largely in the production of the new Bible versions has imported a small amount of such language even into the Bible, so that we must now read of such things as “Bethlehem and all its environs,” (Matt. 2:16, NASV)—-and this while we are told we must have these new versions for the sake of the children. But why not “borders”? For that matter, why not “coasts”? Who ever misunderstood “in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof”? And what harm would it do them if they did?

But there is a greater evil than the language which is merely fastidious and impractical. To see a bathroom called a “rest room facility” may excite a smile, while “pre-owned vehicle” for “used car” may elicit something more akin to contempt, but to see the language of the church and the Bible replaced with that of the professional scholar or the worldly intellectual ought to make us weep. Yet such intellectual jargon so permeates much of modern evangelical literature that it is positively distasteful to me to read it at all. Looking over some of the modern literature of what calls itself the evangelical church, we continually meet with such jargon as “autographa” and “apographa,” the “locus” of this, the “terminus” of that, the “paradigm” of a third thing, and the “hermeneutic” of something else. This is “post-critical,” and that “post-modern.” Theologians must be “dogmaticians,” while words are “vocables.” The language of what is called “theology” in the present day is replete with such jargon as “dogmatic presuppositionalism,” “the phenomenological method,” “fragmented parallels,” “eclecticism,” and “objectification.” We read of “localizing the specific dynamic” of this, of an “autonomous quest” for that, of the “epistemological value” of something else, and of a “salvific relationship” with Christ. I can no better characterize such language than to repeat what William R. Newell said of it years ago, namely, that it makes God vomit. The only good thing we can hope for from such intellectual jargon is that it will deter the most of spiritual and sensible saints from ever reading the books which contain it.

And here I must speak plainly. Show me a man who delights in such language, and I will show you a man who is bristling with pride. If we must climb up to such unearthly—-or extraterrestrial—-jargon in order to be reputed theologians in this evil day, let us by all means be content to be reputed cobblers and tinkers. If it is usefulness we seek, and not reputation, what business do we have with anything but plain English? We have no more to do with the high-flying Latinized and Greekified language of the proud philosopher than we have with the low and flippant speech of the popular radio station or the high school cafeteria.

Alas, in the literature of the modern church we often find both on the same page. The same book which speaks of the “epistemological value” of one thing tells us that something else is “up for grabs.” Evidently modern Evangelicalism lacks both the humility (or the common sense) which would bring it down from the one, and the sobriety and reverence which would lift it above the other. This is one more reason why Christians ought to leave the most of modern Christian literature alone. Those who become too familiar with such language are likely to become too comfortable with it. “Evil communications corrupt good manners.”

Glenn Conjurske