Dale’s Rules for Life: Beware the Infinitives

If you’ve been following along with Dale’s rules then the next one may puzzle you a bit. The next rule happens to be thirteenth in the list. I’m not sure if that is important. Anyway. The next rule is “beware the infinitives.”  By infinitives, I mean words like every, always, all, and never. The kinds of words that leave no room for exceptions.

Every child, and perhaps every parent, has gotten in trouble with these infinite words. “Every other kid has a sting-ray bicycle!” To which a parent wisely points out those that don’t. Even though we may or may not have learned this lesson a long time ago the infinitives can still get us in trouble.

To be fair we rarely mean “every, always, all, and never” literally. I mean that would be silly of us to turn an observation or preference into a law. Some things are immutable, at least as far as we know. Such as the laws of science, gravity, inertia, and other physical properties. However, we often deploy the infinitives as a means of emphasis, manipulation, or as a false vow.

Using infinitives for emphasis is fair game. We may not mean literally always but something more along the lines of more often than not. Always is just a shortcut for the longer, but more correct, string of more often than not. Even the Bible deploys infinitives in this way.  For instance, consider Paul’s encouragement to “Rejoice always.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). So the “always” in rule 12 “always leave room to be wrong” adds an emphatic tone.

Where “every, always, all, and never” are to be avoided is when we use them for manipulation. This could be the classic and previously mentioned “every kid has one” argument. But it could also be something more damaging such as stereotypes. “Every (fill in the blank) is (fill in the blank).”   Paul addresses this in his letter to Titus.

Paul wrote, “For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain. One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith,” (Titus 1:10–13, NASB95) To be clear, the true testimony is that these “prophets” said those unloving stereotypical things, not that what they said is true. It’s an all too common pattern still found in the world regardless of your location, race, language, sex, age or any other affiliation.

Manipulation by infinitives also comes in the form of false vows. Perhaps you’ve said something along the lines of “I’ll never (fill in the blank)” or “I’ll always (fill in the blank). Sometimes this is just for emphasis, but more often than not we are making a solemn vow which is impossible for us to keep. All those that said in the teen years “I’ll never be like my parents” raise their hands. How many of us kept that vow?

Beware the infinitives of every, always, all, and never is a rule meant pull me down for the heights of hyperbole and up from the depths of self-pity. It encourages me to see things as they really are, to keep my words, thoughts, and opinions grounded in reality instead of perception. To see each person as a person instead of through the lazy blinders of stereotype. While the rule gives room for emphasis it keeps everything else grounded in reality.

Dale Heinold
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