Grammar: Key to the Art of Freemasonry
Steven B. VanSlyck, WM
Arts & Sciences Lodge No. 792
Copyright 2015, Steven B. VanSlyck

        Interactions among members of the whole or any part of society are based on what is called “the social contract.”[i] This is the concept that one’s moral and other obligations arise out of understandings among and between all of us and upon which we collectively form the society in which we live.[ii] The social contract is the instrument by which humanity wrests itself from the rule of nature and claims the right of self-determination.

        The social contract informs everything we do. It underlies the basis of every other agreement which is susceptible to human governance, including the agreements which form the rules of human language and which arise out of social convention and learning.[iii]

        Language is “the ability to acquire and use complex systems of communication,” and there are some five to seven thousand languages in human use today, depending on how one defines the term.[iv]

       One language is, of course, Modern English, which arose out of Middle English, Norman French, Old English, Old Norse and various other Germanic languages, trailing back, eventually, to Proto-Indo-European and into the mists of time.

        The rules of English (and of any language, human or otherwise) fall into six classes: phonological, semantic, syntactic, pragmatic, prosodic and idiosyncratic. Tonight we are concerned primarily with the syntactic rules, which govern grammar and syntax.
        Grammar is a set of rules that set forth the correct standard of usage in a language. These rules dictate how we should say things correctly. For example, agreement between words in relation to other constructions in the sentence.

       Syntax is the study of sentences and their structure, and the constructions within sentences. Syntax tells us what goes where in a sentence.[v]
        The sentence “a verb should agree with their antecedent” is an example of bad grammar, whereas “a with antecedent should verb agree their” is nonsense by reason of bad syntax.

        What does all this have to do with Freemasonry? Well, Mackey reminds us that grammar is the first of the seven liberal arts and sciences, and refers us to Sanctius, who described the Triad, the first three of the seven:

       God created man the participant of reason and as he willed him to be a social being he bestowed upon him the gift of language in the perfecting of which there are three aids: the first is Grammar, which rejects from language all solecisms and barbarous expressions; the second is Logic, which is occupied with the truthfulness of language; and the third is Rhetoric, which seeks only the adornment of language.[vi]

        Claudy observes that grammar and rhetoric mean not only language, but all methods of communication.[vii] Greg Stewart describes grammar as a body of rules describing the patterns and elements of English, its morphology and building blocks, and the construction of meaningful phrases, clauses and sentences. He tells us that grammar was recognized early on as an important aspect of communication and the transfer of knowledge.[viii]

        In short, it is exactly to the extent that one understands and observes the rules of English grammar, not to mention logic and rhetoric, that he will be able to command respect and speak intelligibly – and for Freemasons, who are practicing an oral tradition, an understanding of language is essential. It is part of what defines us.

        Much has been written about grammar. For example:

        Grammar is the art of writing and speaking any particular language correctly. If [anyone expects] that he can acquire a facility of expressing himself with accuracy without a knowledge of this science [then] whatever he may think of his own acquirements[,] men of learning with whom he may have occasion to converse or correspond will soon perceive his deficiency. This science merits our most serious attention as it may in fact be considered as the gate or avenue which leads to all the others and it particularly concerns us as masons to know its rules for without this we cannot be acquainted with the beauties of our own lectures nor speak with correctness and propriety.[ix]

        Let’s unravel some examples of masonic (or at least purported masonic) usage. Lest there be any confusion, be assured that none of these examples are taken from actual masonic rituals. And although we are discussing grammar, keep in mind that grammar goes hand-in-hand with meaning. How could it not? We are, after all, talking about language.
  1. “The Holy Saints John”
       In the author’s experience, the grammatical accuracy of constructions like this draws more unwarranted challenge than any other. It happens because people don’t understand the differences between a proper noun and a proper name, or how to tell when a word is a modifier.

       In discussing nouns we must necessarily also discuss how they are represented on paper, which in turns means we have to talk about capitalization. We were taught about nouns in third grade. A noun generally is a label for a person, place or thing, – e.g., rock, paper, scissors, brother, city, lodge, grand lodge. A proper noun is a single word that identifies a specific person, place, or thing – e.g., Steve, Fargo, Hawaii. A general noun can be made into a proper noun by giving it a definition. When this is done the noun is capitalized to signify that it is, in fact, a proper noun. In masonic writing, the word Lodge might be used as a proper noun, and capitalized, in order to discuss the masonic lodge as a particular – and previously defined – concept. Indiscriminate capitalization, however, is used to bully the reader, saying, “Look at me, I’m important!” or “I’ve got a secret!”

        A proper name is two or more words that identify a specific person, place, or thing – e.g., “Steve Smith,” “North Dakota,” “USS Cavalla,” or “Grand Lodge of Ohio.” This last can be shortened to “Grand Lodge” if we have previously identified that we are talking about the Grand Lodge of Ohio specifically).

        In English, nouns are pluralized by appending an “s.” It is placed at the end – a proper name is never split open so as to insert something arbitrarily in the middle. So why, in our example, “the Holy Saints John,” is the “s” in the middle? Because it’s not a proper name. There isn’t anyone named “Saint John.” John is not the subject of the sentence – saint is. John is just a modifier. In this context, we are discussing two saints, plural, with the qualifier that both are named John.

        Confused? No need. Just remember that “Saint John” isn't anyone's name. And neether is “Holy Saints John,” even though it is capitalized. It can’t be – it’s a plural. No plural can be a proper noun or proper name. And except in certain, well-recognized contexts, only proper nouns and proper names are capitalized in English.[x]

        Within those contexts, however, a proper name can be pluralized. There might actually be two people named Steve Smith.[xi] In that case it would be perfectly appropriate to refer to the various Steve Smiths. We should also consider multi-word titles, which are treated as proper names for purposes of pluralization. Titles such as “Grand Master,” “Worshipful Master,” and “District Deputy Grand Master” (which can be shortened to “District Deputy”). These words are capitalized in this paper because each is a masonic concept with a well-known and accepted definition. The plural form of each of these is obvious: “grand masters,” “worshipful masters,” “district deputy grand masters,” “district deputies.”

        [Digress and discuss “grand lodges of Ohio” as an appropriate plural when “of Ohio” modifies “grand lodge” whereas “Grand Lodge of Ohios” is never appropriate, there being only one such entity. Point out rules regarding capitalization of plurals when they are not proper names.]

       A title such as District Deputy Grand Master (assuming district deputies come in no other flavor[xii]), can never properly be pluralized as “District Deputies Grand Master” any more than one can properly refer to “Worshipfuls Master” or “Grands Master.” “Master” does not modify “Grand,” “Master” does not modify “Worshipful,” and “Grand Master” does not modify “District Deputy.” None of these titles are properly pluralized by cutting them open and jamming an “s” into the middle.
  1. “. . . which is to signify that you have as yet received light in Masonry but partially.”[xiii]
        This one comes from one of publisher Ezra Cook’s innumerable purported exposés. It was written by Jacob Doesburg and published in 1922. When I hear people complain about phrases like but partially, I am reminded of the legal secretary who, after mailing a letter I had drafted and authorized her to sign my name to, told me she had modified my wording, changing my original sentence from, “I am not a little surprised” to “I am a little surprised.” In one innocent moment of attempted helpfulness, she had destroyed the entire purpose of the letter. Not, like but, is a negative qualifier. In my letter, not a little surprised meant I was, well, stunned, expressed as understatement to give it force. Without the not I was just mildly amused. There’s a difference. In Doesburg’s text, the phrase “but partially” unpacks to “only partially.” You have, in other words, only received partial masonic light.

        Why is it written this way? Well, why do anything? Certainly it would’ve been simpler to say, “you’ve only received partial masonic light.” But there’s no music in that. And as arrogance rules the young, the value of rhetoric is ignored. The point? Only is a weak word, especially in the middle of a sentence. But combines with partially to give the sentence strength and drive the point home.

        [Discuss here the merits of “through the deacons only” (weak) as compared to “through the deacons alone” (strong)?]
  1. “I, A. B., of my own free will and accord, * * *, do hereby and hereon most solemnly and sincerely promise and swear. . .”[xiv]
        In this little gem, from William Morgan’s Illustrations of Masonry, we are introduced to those old twin standbys of jargon, hereby and hereon. What do they mean? Why are they here? What purpose do they serve?

        In most good writing, these two words are refused admission or, if they do get in, find themselves evicted soon after. Why, because they take up space without paying rent! But that is not the case here. Hereby unpacks to “right now, by this obligation, which I just told you I am taking voluntarily,” and hereon unpacks to “on this book,” which in the context of the ceremony means “on this holy book, which underlies my faith and my belief in God and evidences the sobriety and seriousness in which I am acting.” Now that’s some heavy lifting. It says this man means what he says – because under the social contract only the most despicable of men would take a false oath upon what he had previously identified as the holy book of his own faith.
  1. “We are admonished to keep the secrets of Masonry within the breast except from him or them to whom of right they may belong.”[xv]
        Walter Heller and The Philalethes bring us this one. Those who wish to “simplify,” “update,” or “modernize” masonic phraseology would find themselves downright giddy if offered this one. It unpacks to “except from anyone who already has a right to them.” And the rationale underlying the way this phrase is written is exactly the same as in the previous example: language can be stupid, simple, boring and glum, or it can be expressed with wisdom, clarity, strength and beauty. For those to whom the meaning is not immediately clear, all that’s needed is a moment of examination: I will keep these secrets . . . except from . . . any person . . . or . . . any group of people . . . who is . . . or are . . . already entitled to them.

        Note the clause “to whom of right.” It works just like a government security clearance. The other person may already have the information, but that doesn’t matter. It cannot be communicated without first confirming his right to it.

        More to the point, however, is the grammar: except from him / or them / to whom / of right / they (i.e., the secrets) may belong. The phrase all but sings. Each word pair further qualifies (that is to say, adds to) the warning while the phraseology itself, by employing one syllable word pairs in sequence, acts to catch the ear and weave the meaning into the fabric of the whole.
  1. “. . . justly entitled to the same . . .”
        In 1843, Congress took 23,040 acres from the Stockbridge Indians of “Wiskonsan” and granted that land to such individual members of the Stockbridge tribe “as are justly entitled to the same.”[xvi] I’ve heard that this phase is also found in some masonic ceremonies. Same as who? What does “same” mean in this context? Key to understanding the meaning is, as with all languages, context. There is no “same as who.” Congress is not making comparisons.

        Consider the website offered by Adobe Lodge No. 41 of Tucson, Ariz. Its members area requires a password, saying, “The login to this area may be requested by those that are as justly entitled to the same as I am myself.”[xvii] Now, the uncareful reader misreads the phrase, confusing it with similar but profoundly different usages which refer to people who are the “same as me,” “same as I am,” or “same as I am myself,” or “same as I’m gonna be.” This is unfortunate, because by misunderstanding the meaning, one misses the point entirely. In this context, the word “same” refers to “the thing just mentioned”[xviii] and unpacks to “the login to this area may be requested by those who are as lawfully entitled to the login as I am.” You don’t get in unless you have the same access rights as the webmaster. Presentation also matters. “Entitled to the same” in this context is a single unitary phase, and splitting it commits a fraud on student and teacher alike.
  1. “I give it you strictly in charge . . .”[xix]
        In an address to the first graduating class of Chicago’s Kent College of Law in 1895, the college’s founder and dean spoke about the duty of fidelity a lawyer owes to his client, saying, “I give it you strictly in charge never to allow this relation to be reversed.” Superficially, “to give in charge” simply means to charge, i.e., to assign a duty worthy of careful attention. We are charged, for example, in Ruth 1, to “Honor widows that are widows indeed . . . and give these things give in charge, that they may be blameless. But if any provide not for his own . . ., he had denied the faith and is worse than an infidel.” Fundamentally, “to give in charge” is to deliver a message wrapped up in an obligation which must be accepted first, and expressing the expectation that the obligation will be voluntarily accepted.
  1. “Brethren”
        In “dictating how we should say things correctly,” the rules of grammar naturally embrace selection of the correct word. Word meanings change over time. When the Wife of Bath asks her husband at bedside, “Is every knight of [Arthur’s court] so dangerous [as you],”[xx] she is ridiculing her husband and calling him, well, silly. The humor in this is only apparent when one realizes that the words dangerous and silly were exchanging meanings at the time, much as intercourse and conversation did later. Spellings also change over time. But the appropriateness of particular usages should be given careful attention, especially in Masonry.

       Brethren, like oxen, children, men, women, geese, teeth and others, is an irregular plural. Its regular plural is, of course, brothers. Both usages, however, find their way into sentences in which they do not belong. Only brothers is properly employed to express a natural relationship, such as between siblings,[xxi] while brethren is used in the figurative sense, “the more noble and glorious purpose” if you will, of designating those whose bond arises out of religious or fraternal relationship.[xxii] Brethren is the term to use when speaking with approbation and regard, or when addressing the group, while brothers is available for more relaxed duty: “My lodge brothers are my brethren.” It is not grammatically correct, however, to use either word (or any word), as a substitute for the correct one: brothers does not, for example mean membersbrother(s) treats of the relationships between one man and another; the relationship of one man to a group is one of membership: “How many members were at the meeting?”

        There is much more I could write on the of topic language generally. Why, for example, is comparing the youngest entered apprentice to the worshipful master a valid comparison? How does one choose between me, myself and I? Why is it correct to say [bau] in one place but only [bo][xxiii] is right in another? What is the difference between [PEH-dal] and [PEE-dl]? Why, in the ceremonies, should masons use [neehter] instead of [naither]?

      The beauty of any language is found in the art of expressing it. The beauty is wasted, however, if the message is weak, absent, misunderstood, or frivolous – and nothing in Masonry is frivolous except to the frivolous mind. But before strength, beauty and clarity must of necessity come grammar, that we might reject from our message “all solecisms and barbarous expressions.” Because just as a strong, beautiful and useful building requires the correct selection and careful use of the materials of which it is composed, so only by correct and nuanced grammar can a strong and beautiful message be composed and conveyed, and clearly understood by those having the wit and will to do so.

        Thank you.


[i] The social contract is a theory or model originated during the Enlightenment which attempts to address the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual., accessed May 17, 2015.

[ii], accessed May 17, 2015.

[iii], accessed May 17, 2015.

[iv], accessed May 17, 2015.

[v] T. Avants and A. Benahnia, English Grammar and Syntax: Grammatical Functions and Syntactic Values, iUniverse, Inc. (United States: 2003), p. 57.

[vi] Albert G. Mackey, M.D., A Lexicon of Freemasonry, Richard Griffin and Company (London: 1860), p. 114.

[vii] Carl H. Claudy, Introduction to Freemasonry, Vol. 2, The Temple Publishers (Washington DC: 1958), p. 101 (quoting Claudy’s own work, Foreign Countries).

[viii], accessed May 17, 2015.

[ix] James Hardie, A.M., The New Freemasons Monitor, 2d ed., George Long (New York: 1819), p. 115.

[x] Which is not to say that proper nouns or proper names can never be pluralized or, if pluralized, that they cannot be capitalized. They certainly can be – but the result is no longer anyone’s name and is therefore not a proper name or proper noun.

[xi] I’ve only met one, however. He was one of the crewmembers I served with in USS Cavalla (SSN 684).

[xii] If there were are various kinds of district deputies, perhaps “district deputies, education,” “district deputies, ritual,” and “district deputies, administrative,” then in that event we have a shorter title, “district deputy,” which is appropriately pluralized before appending the modifier.

[xiii] Jacob O. Doesburg, Revised Freemasonry Illustrated: A Complete Exposition of the First Three Masonic Degrees, Ezra A. Cook (Chicago 1922), p. 182.

[xiv] William Morgan, Illustrations of Masonry (1827),, accessed May 17, 2015.

[xv] Walter E Heller, MPS, “A Ritualistic Mind’s Eye View of a Master Mason,” The Philalethes, Vol. XXXI, Dec. 1978,, accessed May 17, 2015.

[xvi] Sec .4, Ch. 101, “An Act for the Relief of the Stockbridge tribe of indians, in the Territory of Wiskonsan,” Third Session, 27th Congress of the United States, March 3, 1843.

[xvii], Google cache accessed May 19, 2015.

[xviii] Unabridged. Random House, Inc., accessed May 19, 2015.

[xix] Marshall D. Ewell, LL.D., “The Duties of an Attorney at Law” (synopsis), The Law Student’s Helper, 2d ed., vol. III, no. I, The Collector Publishing Co. (Detroit: Jan. 1895), p. 329.

[xx] Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” The Canterbury Tales; from Rev. Walter W. Skeat, The Student’s Chaucer, Oxford University Press (New York: 1894), p. 579.

[xxi] John Mulligan, A.M., Grammatical Structure of the English Language, D. Appleton & Company (New York: 1852), p. 43.

[xxii] Eduard A. Maetznerp, English Grammar, vol. I, John Murray (London: 1874). 288; —, “Lessons in English Grammar, No. IV,” The Popular Educator, W. Kent and Co. (London: 1856). p. 59.

[xxiii] “The strong men shall [bo] themselves.” Many English words share the same spelling. They are, nonetheless, different words with different meanings.


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