Grammar Matters

By Rev. Jon Turner

On Friday, September 1, 2017, I became a full-time minister; employed at the Orange County Buddhist Church. For 35 years prior to that I had been a software designer and programmer. Now I write essays rather than programs. This month I wanted to discuss the importance of grammar and spelling but I accidenaltly misspelled “grammar” as “grammer”. I am so glad the spell checker caught that mistake. The irony of this mistake was not lost on me. Perhaps my typo proves my point.

It may surprise some, but grammar and spelling are also very important to programmers. If commands are not in the “right” order or if a word is misspelled then the program will fail to compile and run. I remember a friend once declared a variable as an “interger” rather than as an "integer”. An integer is a positive or negative counting number like {… -3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3 …} while the computer had no idea what an interger was and said so by issuing a compiler error. My friend was so upset.  She could not spot the problem. It was her first programming class and perhaps even the first program she had ever written. Luckily, I was able to immediately spot the spelling mistake. My eye was quite good after many years of programming classes.

The English language is also very particular about grammar and spelling. A small grammatical or spelling mistake can substantially change the meaning of a sentence. While other times the meaning is subtly altered by the placement of a comma or apostrophe. One very good example is “Mother’s Day”. Notice the apostrophe and its placement. It is not “Mothers Day”, a day for all mothers. It is also not “Mothers’ Day”, a day to celebrate everyone’s mother. This is how I had thought it was spelled and how I understood the holiday. But it is actually “Mother’s Day”, a day for your specific mother. It is very personal. It does not celebrate motherhood as an institution. Rather it is a day for you to celebrate your own mother. Interesting, right? This is by design, it is not an accident. In 1912, Anna Jarvis, founded Mother’s Day.

She specifically noted that “Mother’s” should "be a singular possessive, for each family to honor its own mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.”

Grammar is also important in Buddhism. For example, the word Amida. It contains the word “Mida” which is Sanskrit for “to measure”. It is the root for the English word “meter”. The letter “A” is a negater which can also be found in English. Like in the word “atypical” which means not typical. So Amida means not measureable or perhaps better yet, immeasurable. We now have Amida Buddha as the Buddha that represents the immeasurable or infinite reality.

In other words, Amida is not a person even though it is sometimes personified as a statue much like justice and equality are personified by the statue of Liberty. Many of our English Buddhist texts are translations from the Japanese originals which also adds another level of grammatical complexity since the two languages are quite different from another. One difference is that there are no pronouns in Japanese which I think is a good thing. I am often confused when I read a sentence like this one: “Both Julie and Dorothy loved her children.” Which children are they referring to? Are they Julie’s or Dorothy’s children?

But I am especially confused when infinite reality is referred to as “he” rather than as Amida. The pronoun “he” implies that Amida is a person, a living being. Obviously, this was introduced during translation form Japanese to English. We often use pronouns when using “Amida” over and over again. It often sounds too repetitive so we are tempted to use “he” instead of “Amida” to break things up a bit but I am afraid it causes too much confusion for many listeners.

Another major quibble is the use of the apostrophe with Amida. For example, I sometimes hear the teachings being referred to as “Amida’s teachings”. This is the singular possessive form that we saw earlier concerning Mother’s Day. It is possible that this is metaphoric language, referring to teachings that have arisen from infinite reality itself in order to make themselves accessible to everyday people. However, my first impulse is to think of a being who has given us his teachings.

It may seem like a triviality since we are just discussing pronouns and apostrophes but they really do have a large impact on those within our tradition. It certainly does on me. And it certainly did on the evolution of Mother’s Day. Grammar really does matter even for a Buddhist minister writing essays.

In gassho,

Rev. Jon Turner