The devil made them write it

Church newsletter scribes, bless their hearts, say the darnedest things …

“Don’t let worry kill you off; let the church help.”

“Don’t let worry kill you off; let the church help.”

Freelance writer Jaime O’Neill is a frequent contributor to CN&R.

I spent most of my working life teaching writing to lower-division college students, and what I tried to impress upon those young minds was the danger of inadvertent errors in writing that could make them look foolish. While I was busy doing that teaching, there were also a great many others employed in the same pursuit. Though nearly all of us surely wish we’d been more successful in our efforts, there is an upside to our failures. If we’d been entirely successful, the world would have lost the kind of unintentionally funny lines written by church ladies across the nation as found in church newsletters from coast to coast.

For instance, one such woman wrote: “Potluck supper Sunday at 5 p.m. Prayer and medication to follow.” Had she written that line in one of my classes, I would have circled the word “medication,” and the world would have lost a small chuckle at the unintended insult to the cooking of the congregation’s potluck contributors.

Or take this example: “Ladies Bible Study will be held Thursday morning at 10 a.m. All ladies are invited to lunch in the Fellowship Hall after the B.S. is done.” Had that writer been in one of my classes, I would have warned her about the dangers of that particular abbreviation, and with my warning, the world would have lost a tiny bit of humor, a commodity that is often in even shorter supply than good writing.

The woman who wrote that “the eighth-graders will be presenting Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the church basement on Friday at 7 p.m.” didn’t become a theater critic until she wrote her next line: “The congregation is invited to attend this tragedy.” And so began the education of those eighth-grade thespians to the harshness of theatrical life everywhere.

And the church bulletin writer who alerted the congregation to a meeting of Weight Watchers might have thought twice before directing those who would attend to “use large double door at the entrance.”

Writers always need to be mindful of leaving words out. A missing word in the following sentence truly changes the intent: “Scouts are saving aluminum cans, bottles and other items to be recycled. Proceeds will be used to cripple children.”

That same problem turns up in this line: “Please place your donation in the envelope, along with the deceased person you want remembered.” That would be a neat trick.

Then there is always the problem of unfortunate sequencing and inadequate transitions, as in lines like: “Don’t let worry kill you off; let the church help,” or “Ladies, don’t forget the rummage sale. It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Don’t forget your husbands.”

A similarly unfortunate problem with transition from one sentence to the next inadvertently doomed the marriage of a pair of newlyweds when the church flyer announced: “Irving Benson and Jessie Carter were married on October 24 in the church. So ends a friendship that began in their school days.”

And it probably didn’t help congregants who suffered low self-esteem to read: “Low Self Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7 pm. Please use the back door.”

Turnout was probably much better in response to the following: “The ladies of the Church have cast off clothing of every kind. They can be seen in the basement on Friday afternoon.”

The church pastor was probably not flattered by the following sentence sequence: “Barbara remains in the hospital and needs blood donors for more transfusions. She is also having trouble sleeping and requests tapes of Pastor Jack’s sermons.”

And the choir was surely not pleased to read the blurb announcing that “There will be tryouts for the choir next Thursday. They need all the help they can get.” Presumably, the choir director joined the Low Self-Esteem Support Group after reading that announcement.

Then there’s that old English teacher caution against creating dangling modifiers, little clauses that attach themselves to the wrong nouns, as in a sentence like: “Eight new choir robes are currently needed due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones.” The phrase “some older ones,” unfortunately, dangles, and thus attaches itself to the members, not the robes.

A similar problem distorts the meaning of the following notice: “For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.”

And was there a skeptic behind the word processor when the following announcement was written: “The sermon this morning: Jesus Walks on Water. The Sermon tonight: Searching for Jesus.” Perhaps congregants were encouraged to bring scuba gear.

If you had an English teacher or two in your past who helped you to avoid making such embarrassing errors in your writing, you just might want to thank the Lord. If not, you can always blame the devil because, when it comes to bad writing, the devil is always in the details.