Grammar Week: Context is important

It is grammar week. I am not sure who decided this but there you are. We should be thinking about grammar and how we us it this week. Did I just mean we should be thinking about how we use it this week only, or did you get that I meant this week we should be thinking about it? Context and how we use or misuse it I the subject of this post. Free Dictionary online defines context as 1. The part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning. I should have been careful where I put the word week.
When we do not clearly state our intent or omit important parts of a statement others may misinterpret our meaning. I have found this can lead to embarrassing mistakes or it can make a reader mad at us and misunderstand the point we are trying to make. This month I have had both situations happen because I was not clear. I knew what I was talking about, but readers of my words did not.

My friend Faith of Faith’s Book Blog and I are reading Living Dead in Dallas as a co-read. We also belong to the yahoo group Mostly Books (come join us, we are fun) and have used the group’s board to talk about the book. Last night, after finishing the book I went to the board to leave Faith a message. I was in a hurry and wanted to write a quick subject line. One that would let the other members know this was a post to Faith about the book. I wrote: Faith Dead in Dallas, and thought nothing of it. Oh what I hit I got! Naturally the other’s gave me a bad time and were all rather good natured about it. Faith did let the members know she is alive and well in New Jersey but still I was mortified! What a horrid subject post! What if one of our members saw this post and thought Faith had died. We had a member pass a few months ago and I remember how my stomach lurched when I saw the subject line “we lost a member”. Though members come and go, I knew the subject line was not informing the group about a member who unsubed. See, this is my job as the moderator, so it was a double mistake that I would write Faith Dead in Dallas. I should have taken the time to write Faith: I finished Dead in Dallas. Even though I knew what I was talking about, the context of my sentence was unclear and subject to misinterpretation. Again I apologize to Faith and have learned an important lesson on making sure I write with clear meaning and intent.

Earlier this month I was in a hot and heavy class debate over Jesus and his message. I go to a state college that sits right in the heart of the Southern Bible belt. Many times I have to educate Christians on the history of the church or history of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus. To put it in context, NPR has reported that 30% of American Christians think Judaism came after Christianity; I believe these people live in the school district of the University of North Carolina, where I attend class. A classmate and I were arguing about Jesus’ intent. I wrote “ Jesus was a Rabbi who was taking the Jews to task for being too Roman”. My meaning was clear but apparently my words were taken out of context by another student who happened to be Jewish. Sometimes we write a clear message but because we do not expand on our intent others do not understand our message. My Jewish classmate thought I was arguing that Jesus was trying to make Christians out of the Jews and took me to task for this. She wrote a very long rant chewing me out for my views. I wrote her back and asked her to read my post as if I was a Jew, making a point about Jesus being a Jew not a Christian. She read my post again and apologized for her rant. She misunderstood where I was coming from. Though my statement was clear my point was not. I should have said “Jesus was a Rabbi who was not trying to change the religion; rather he was trying to save it”. This would have made my statement stronger and not subject to misinterpretation.

So you see dear Reader, even though we always know what we mean, care must be taken when writing to others. We do not want our words taken out of context; we must strive to write with clear meaning and intent. Happy Grammar week, may you always be understood.

If you like Grammar I suggest checking out the Podcasts Grammar Girl’sQuick and Dirty Tricks and Karen Reddick, The Red Pen Editor. Both are fun and educational.

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

10 thoughts on “Grammar Week: Context is important”

  1. Unfortunately I belong to a genneration who was not formally taught grammar, as a result I am often guilty of faux pas. The government hear recently announced a new national curriculum with a new emphasis on grammar and basic numeracy, interesting to see how that pans out.Sometimes I think people are so sensitive about religion that they misunderstand and over react before they stop and think. Personally I thought your original statement was pretty clear in it's meaning, but I guess clarity is always good.

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  2. And on a comment on grammar what do I do but stuff up and use the wrong here/ hear, sorry, I think I need to spend some time on grammar week reviewing some basic principals.

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  3. Sharon,Oh I am sure I slip more often than I care to know. Spelling is not always my error, it is using the wrong word. That always makes me blush.You and I must have attended the same school. I only remember having grammar taught to us in one class. I am getting a crash course in college. My son took a few years of grammar and the difference in our writing is telling. I hope grammar continues to make a comeback.

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  4. I live in the bible belt too– know how you feel. It is like those people are still living in the darkages, isn't it.Are you familiar with the book: Eats, shoots and leaves. There is one for adults and a cute one for kids.

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  5. Lesa, Yes, at times it does feel as if time stopped around the 1400s for many of my classmates. I took a Human Sexuality class as a sociology requirement. I could not get over some of the ideas many of my classmates held. Our text had "graphic" pictures (nude), oh what an uproar that caused LOLI wanted to read ESL but read it was more of a British grammar book. Is that wrong? If so I would love to check it out.

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  6. Funny– bet that class was a hoot!I have only read the kids ESL– Don't think my library has the adult one. I heard a great interview with the author on NPR a few yrs ago— I'm an anglophile so didn't think one way or the other about the Brit angle. I checked on wiki today and the synopsis said it was geared toward Brit and US writers– supposed to be amusing for a grammar book– the author was entertaining on NPR so if I ever see it I will read it.Lesa

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  7. Lesa,I just jumped onto Paperback Swap. Found ESL and Talk to the Hand (rudeness is my big pet peeve). I ordered them both. Do you use Paperback Swap? I love this site as a place to get books that I may not ordinarily purchase.

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  8. I have actually been thinking a lot lately about word choice when writing and trying to be as concise and clear as possible. C.S. Lewis said in a letter to an aspiring writer that it is a good practice when writing to go back and read what you have written as if you were a person totally unfamiliar with the subject and see if it makes sense from that point of view…if not..try again. People's defensiveness when it comes to the topic of religion seems to know no bounds. If there is one topic of conversation that it is hard to have a calm, rational discussion on..that it!

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  9. Literary A.D.D. I agree, religious debate or religious talk can put people on edge. I try to be respectful when talking to others, yet there is always at least one in the crowd who becomes offended. It is something I will have to learn to deal with as I move closer to teaching comparative religion.

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  10. Got here from the WP Related Posts — it’s a great feature but one I suspect greatly underused!

    Anyway, enjoyed this post very much, Sari. It underlined the importance of context is subtle ways: for example, I was a little flummoxed by ESL until I realised it was about the Lynne Truss book and not English as a Second Language!

    Ideally those who enter academia should already be aware of the importance of context –after all, in essay writing that should come first in order of priority — but it’s true that in everyday discussion it’s often taken for granted — hence the source of much confusion and misunderstanding. If only Life could be a series of academic essays !

    Not.

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