Dear Dr. Boli: Yesterday afternoon, as I was out driving in the suburbs, I passed a church with one of those slogan boards where the inspirational phrase of the week can be spelled out in plastic letters. This was the slogan on the sign:


I have been worrying about this sign ever since. I thought I knew how the English language worked, but I expect an infinitive without the particle to after the verb can, and instead all I got was two substantives in a row. What does it mean? Has the English language evolved so quickly that it is now unintelligible to a woman of my generation? (Without divulging my exact age, I may mention that I was born as long ago as the Reagan administration.) Am I doomed to sit in sullen silence now while others banter in what I thought was my native language? —Sincerely, A Woman of a Certain Age.

Dear Madam: You are the victim of what is known as a pun, a sort of linguistic diversion in which words of an identical or similar sound are substituted for the words you expect, with the intent of producing a humorous effect. In order to understand the intended meaning, you must pronounce the words aloud, or at least hear them with the ears of your mind (so to speak), and then think of similar words that will convey a more intelligible meaning.

The pun is merely a tool in the writer’s linguistic tool caddy, and like any tool it can be used for constructive or destructive purposes. William Shakespeare, Sydney Smith, Dorothy Parker, Groucho Marx, and James Joyce all made a high art of the pun. Unfortunately, although members of the clergy are frequently addicted to the practice of punning, even the rudiments of the art seem not to be taught in our seminaries. For a pun to have any humorous effect, it is necessary for the substituted words to have a meaning on their own, and one that contrasts with, but at the same time illuminates, the meaning of the original phrase. This is the principle that eludes the punning clergy.

Can nothing be done about these offensively meaningless clerical puns? It is probably pointless to protest to the minister or priest who authorized the sign; you would only be told “I thought it was rather funny,” and against such profound ignorance of literary art there is no argument. There are, however, larger organizations that supervise the activities of some of the clergy, and you may be able to appeal to the diocese, presbytery, synod, or conference to which this particular church belongs. If the church belongs to one of the disorganized evangelical sects, however, little will be accomplished by a formal protest, and your only recourse may be cautious vandalism.