Walter R. L. Scragg is president of the Northern Europe-West Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists.


WORDS are the building blocks of communication. A structure of thought, blueprinted in beauty or ugliness, utilitarian or ornamented, transfers itself from one mind to another through the use of words.

Words link the world together, bind heart to heart, move mountains of doubt, march a people to war, fire the suicide's despair, capture slaves for ideology, pull the strings of imagination, create a nuclear physicist, fill the pocketbooks of Madison Avenue.

Informing, enticing, inspiring, bewitching, praising, condemning, words without end flow around us, toward us, into us, above us from the beginning to the end of our days.

Words created light out of darkness, formed the world from the shapelessness of the primordial state, justified the molding of Adam, seduced Eve to sin. Jesus Christ bears the name Word suggesting that even salvation itself comes as a structure of divine thought directed audibly and visibly toward humanity.

The Use of Words

How we use words, their choice and arrangement, brings success or failure. An educated man unable to shape his thoughts in coherent communication will fail; an ignorant orator will motivate his audience to action.

For the professional communicator—preacher, teacher, editor, author—words comprise the tools of his trade, the medium of his choice, the end product of his training. The more he knows about the use of words, the more successful he will be.

Too often the would-be professional communicator feels that he can make the leap from amateur to professional use of the language without thought or study. Unfortunately, it usually shows. Only seldom does environmental absorption of a language provide the basis for its professional use. All too often the person feeling called to preaching, teaching, or writing fails to recognize that success in this calling consists, technically at least, in the use of words. He may become brilliant in theology, learned in science, a master in literature, and yet fail in word usage. He may actually resent any studied attempt to shape the stream of communication, regarding it as manipulation of his audience, or feeling that what he possesses from experience is all that he needs.

Simple versus complex words. If you wish to know the simple use of words in the English language, listen to two people talking about everyday things. English stems from two distinct influences. When William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel, there rode with him an unseen army of words intent on conquest. Though he and his knights claimed Viking ancestry, they had long since shed their Norse tongue and had adopted the sophisticated French language, with its roots in Latin and Greek. Backed by the culture and authority of the Normans, French thought and words invaded the Old English forms.

As in so many other fields, the English finally won the battle, but only through compromise. English today re ally consists of two languages welded smoothly and unnoticeably into one. When we talk with each other, we use the short, four-letter words of our English mother tongue; when we wish to be accurate, or flowery, or sound learned, we insert the words of the French invasion. Over 50 per cent of the words found in any English dictionary are either French or Latin in origin. The majority of words of two or less syllables are of English origin; most words of three or more syllables come from French or Latin borrowings.

A simple test of the power of the words used by preacher or writer lies in an examination of their roots. A powerful mover of men uses simple, short words of Anglo-Saxon origin. When he selects longer, and perhaps more descriptive, words, he does so carefully, especially when they are words not normally used in everyday speech.

Of course, like all such observations, this one oversimplifies. No one can rely entirely on Anglo-Saxon words. English is one language, not a two-tiered structure, and the two language sources intertwine so thoroughly that any attempt to utilize only one ends in artificiality.

To sense the punch behind the shorter, Anglo-Saxon words we only have to think of such words as rip, hate, love, snap, rush, and so on. The four-letter word forms the basis of much of our stronger, harsher, more emotive reservoir of words, and the longer words give subtler tonings of mood, accurate description, or subtleties of thought.

Word usage goes through phases. In Shakespeare's day, the age of the King James Version of the Bible, Anglo- Saxon roots dominated. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the dependence of borrowings increased giving the flowing, and, to us, often rotund, style of John Ruskin, Tennyson, and the romantic poets.

From the moguls of the advertising world, the news readers, the mass media, and the realistic writers of our age, English has revolved once more to its Anglo-Saxon roots. We fret under the circuitous style of the bureaucrat, terming it gobbledygook. We resent the long sentences, the deliberate choice of complex words, regarding it as a "put on."

Choosing simple words. In preparing sermons, teaching assignments, or articles, a general rule is to choose the simple over the complex, the short over the long, the known over the unknown. Too many hearers of the word lose interest because the words live outside their world. Two aids assist the communicator in the choice of words:

1. A good dictionary. Some years ago I came across a new word in an article I was reading. I went to the dictionary parked outside an administrator's office. The word was not there. The dictionary was twenty-two years old. A new one arrived shortly after. I have a rule that if my dictionary does not contain the word I want, it is time to buy a new or better one. A dictionary should give pronunciation, meaning, and derivation. Better word banks will reveal the first known usage of the word and will quote it within literary sources.

2. A thesaurus. Here lies the key to word usage. Shades of meaning, synonyms and antonyms surface in the grouping of words in a good thesaurus. By combining dictionary and thesaurus, no communicator need be a purveyor of tired words.

Using fresh words. English has at least twice as many words as French, the language with the second-largest number. No preacher need bore his congregation with the repetition of thin words worn smooth and unattractive by repeated passage.

A few months ago a young minister sporting a M.Div. and well-advanced toward his D.Min. boasted to me that he never read a newspaper or news magazine, read no secular books, stayed only with theology, devotion, and inspiration. Such a retreat can lead only to staleness.

Never pass a word by without knowing its meaning. Our dictionaries should wear out faster than any reference book except the Bible.

Words of Power

The voice offers intonation, inflection, accent, emphasis to our words. But if the words are not chosen with care and arranged in appropriate order, they may fail in their purpose.

Grammar ranks right alongside foreign languages and mathematics in the negative popularity poll among elementary and high school students. Vast numbers of college students fail to distinguish between noun and verb, adverb and adjective, active and passive voice. Students may read and write, but are grammatically illiterate. Ask them to analyze a sentence, and they may con fuse it with the actions of a court of law!

Out of this pitiful ignorance of the science of language flows a welter of incomplete sentences, clouded concepts, and obscure meanings that leave the speaker bewildered, the hearer frustrated. All too often the criticism, "I didn't get what he was driving at," reflects the speaker's inability to put words together in correct sequence and relationship.

Grammar teaches sentence structure, right pronunciation, language history. Syntax concentrates on the correct formation of sentences. A preacher, a teacher, a writer without a knowledge of both has about as much chance of con trolling the thrust of his words as a ten-million-mile airline passenger has of piloting an aircraft successfully just because he has flown so often. He lives under the threat of always being a passenger of his own flight of words and never the pilot.

This does not mean that we should tolerate a stilted use of the language. Twenty to thirty years ago, split infinitives, certain collective nouns with plural verbs, and other usages would have appalled or confused many audiences. Today, usage is pushing such structures toward acceptance and correctness.

Here are some tips in making words more powerful:

1. Master the use of the simple declarative sentence. Consider the power of these sentences. "God is love." "The gospel is the power of God unto salvation." "Ye cannot serve God and mammon." "The kingdom of heaven is within you." "Ye are the salt of the earth." A simple declarative sentence takes a subject and links it with an object by a verb. It states something in simple logical sequence. Of all sentence structure this is the most easily understood. We use it with children for that reason. We use it in the height of emotion. We say, "I love you," "Black is beautiful," and so on. Such sentences become catch cries that move people. They are easily remembered. They may be repeated with out boring. Yet many communicators shy from them. They want to qualify with dependent clauses, explain with adverbial phrases, link two main clauses together, make the sentence complex and difficult.

2. Use a new sentence for each new concept. Mingling concepts within the one sentence frame obscures meaning. The mind has to evaluate which of the two or more concepts has priority, and while doing this either drops out altogether or falls behind.

3. Keep the simple, short words for the points of emphasis. Reinforce ideas by using the simplest of words and sentence structure to drive your point home. Go from the simple to the complex and then back to the simple again. Do it with both words and sentences.

It is said of Jesus that the common people heard Him gladly. It wasn't only what He said, but also the way He constructed His speech. He chose words the people understood to match illustrations they understood. His revolutionary ideas found acceptance through the simplicity of the words He spoke, as well as through His compassion, His honesty, His inspiration.

We have the best of examples in our Lord. He was not called the Word for nothing. Those who heard Him under stood Him completely. He could only be the Word as He communicated accurately the message of divinity to humanity. His power lay in His words. And so may ours. We stand closer to Christ as we use the language with simplicity, purity, and understanding. The Holy Spirit has greater hope of directing us to the needs of others and directing them to their own needs through correctly used language.

It's something worth praying about, something worth working for.

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Walter R. L. Scragg is president of the Northern Europe-West Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists.

July 1977

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