May 26, 2013

Trinity Sunday Comma Problem

The Book of Common Prayer (p. 228) gives this collect for Trinity Sunday (First Sunday after Pentecost):
Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I had to read this collect many times before I figured out what it is saying. The first time I read it, it seemed that your servants grace was the object of have given. This presented two problems: (1) It doesn’t make sense and makes one think servants should include an apostrophe. (2) The comma after grace stops the reader cold and makes one realize that he or she has been led down the garden path.

The object of have given is, of course, grace. Grace has been given to us, who are your (i.e., God’s) servants. In other words, your servants is in apposition to us. Since we can eliminate your servants without misunderstanding us, your servants is nonrestrictive. It should therefore be set off by commas (see Section 5.21, The Chicago Manual of Style, Sixteenth Edition):
Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us, your servants, grace, …
My guess is that, when this collect was punctuated, it was thought that adding two commas would break up the text unduly. This, however, was a mistake, and the commas should be inserted should our next prayer book carry this collect forward. This is particularly important, as most worshipers hear the collect without simultaneously reading it. Thus, they can easily be led down the garden path, interpreting servants as servant’s or servants’. Perhaps a better rendition would be
Almighty and everlasting God, you have given grace to us, your servants, …
Yes, I know I am obsessive, but I resent unnecessarily unclear text.

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