Invented facts from the Vicar of St. Bene't's, part 1

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"Thought for the Day" is a four-minute reflective sermon delivered each morning on BBC Radio 4 at about ten to eight by some representative of one of the country's many religious faiths. On the first day of October the speaker was the Reverend Angela Tilby, Vicar of St Bene't's in Cambridge, England. (Bene't is an archaic shortened form of Benedict.) Developing a familiar theme from prescriptivist literature, she preached against adjectives. It was perhaps the most pathetic little piece of inspirational prattle I have ever heard from the BBC (read the whole misbegotten text here).

"Adjectives advertise," claims the Rev. Tilby, and "brighten up the prose of officialdom", but she was always "encouraged to be a bit suspicious" of them when she was a girl: "Rules of syntax kept them firmly in their place" (as if the rules of syntax left everything else to do what it wanted!). This was good, she seems to think, because "For all their flamboyance they don't really tell you much." Adjectives "float free of concrete reality" like balloons, and are guilty of "not delivering anything except, perhaps, hot air." Which aptly describes her babbling thus far. But now, inflated with overconfidence, she risks some factual statements. And steps from the insubstantial froth of metaphor into the stodgy bullshit of unchecked empirical claims about language use.

I shall deal with only one such claim in this post. Another will be dealt with later.

Because adjectives are so airy-fairy, the Rev. Tilby holds, "you don't find many adjectives in scientific prose and when you do they are precise and exact." I'm sure that Language Log readers will realize instantly that it is time for what Mark Liberman calls a breakfast experiment.

Keep in mind, as I undertake the experiment, that in most kinds of English prose about 6% of the words are adjectives (see Douglas Biber et al., Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, London: Longman, 2002, p. 506). In academic prose it's a little higher, around 8%.

I turned to the home page of what is arguably the most important general science journal in the world, Nature, picked the second article title from the top of the page ("Cheater resistance is not futile", by Anupama Khare, Lorenzo A. Santorelli, Joan E. Strassmann, David C. Queller, Adam Kuspa, and Gad Shaulsky, doi:10.1038/nature08472; it just looked somewhat more interesting to me than the first one), and did just a little bit of counting.

You'll notice that the last word of the title (futile) happens to be an adjective, so that's 20% in the title. The first word of the opening sentence of the abstract (cooperative) is also an adjective, and so is the second, and so is the 5th (that's over 15% so far). Here is the whole of the abstract, with the adjectives underlined (I've been very conservative, not counting many items that traditional grammars classify as adjectives: articles, demonstratives, numerals, other determinatives, genitive pronouns, or nouns functioning as attributive modifiers):

Cooperative social systems are susceptible to cheating by individuals that reap the benefits of cooperation without incurring the costs. There are various theoretical mechanisms for the repression of cheating and many have been tested experimentally. One possibility that has not been tested rigorously is the evolution of mutations that confer resistance to cheating. Here we show that the presence of a cheater in a population of randomly mutated social amoebae can select for cheater-resistance. Furthermore, we show that this cheater-resistance can be a noble strategy because the resister strain does not necessarily exploit other strains. Thus, the evolution of resisters may be instrumental in preserving cooperative behaviour in the face of cheating.

That's over 9% adjectives. A bad sample? I took the first paragraph of the text and did the same:

Dictyostelium cells propagate as unicellular amoebae in the soil. Upon starvation, they aggregate into multicellular structures and differentiate into viable spores and dead stalk cells. Stalk-cell differentiation supports spore maturation and dispersal, but this altruistic behaviour can be exploited by cheaters that make more than their fair share of spores in chimaeric fruiting bodies. The genetic potential for cheating is high and cheaters abound in nature, but cheating behaviour can be restrained by various mechanisms, such as intrinsic lower fitness of the cheater, pleiotropy of the cheater gene, high genetic relatedness in natural populations, and kin discrimination.

That's 16 adjectives in 97 words of that paragraph, or over 16%. In total, the title and abstract and opening paragraph of the first scientific paper that I picked — genuinely a random choice — are nearly 13% composed of adjectives, well over double the frequency that you find in most prose.

Now, I could check a few hundred more words, of course. But wait: why me? Why am I doing the work for her? What am I, an unpaid assistant curate of St. Bene't's? Did the Rev. Tilby do even as much elementary checking as I have done so far — glancing at a couple of hundred words in a random paper — before spouting her ridiculous remark? Of course not. Her method is a time-honored one in amateur writing on language: she just makes stuff up. On the basis of nothing but prejudice about science, she invented her data and went straight to the microphone with it.

Her suggestion that in science the adjectives are "precise" is further evidence of uninformed stereotyping. There's nothing precise about the meanings of words like cooperative, social, viable, altruistic, fair, lower, high, natural… These are vague terms, in the classic technical sense: there are clear cases for their application, and clear cases of what they should not be applied to, but also a border area where the appropriacy of applying them is in doubt.

There is of course nothing wrong with vague terms, with denotations partly set through common sense and reference to context; we use them literally every minute that we speak or write. Their logic and semantics can be studied with ruthless precision (see, for an example of the technical literature, Stewart Shapiro's lucid and masterful Vagueness in Context). Science is replete with them, and has to be. (Think of global warming, for heaven's sake: there's a truly vague concept. How warm? How global? Yet it's an important one, and serious science is being done every day to flesh it out and give it clearer content.)

It is merely one more sign of the the Rev. Tilby's contempt for truth, and cluelessness about science, that she thinks science is all precision. Scientists live their lives floating in a probabilistic soup of uncertainty and unclarity, murky associations and ill-defined tendencies, statistical degrees and extents.

Tilby sees herself as a minister of religion and thus a professional talker; and she therefore assumes (the crucial fallacy) that she is an expert on language; so she doesn't need to check a thing. As a vicar, she thinks she can go into the Radio 4 studio and simply invent her facts.

It is not that she lied; it is worse than that. It's not that Tilby knew what the facts about adjectives in scientific prose were, and stated untruths about them to mislead her audience: she simply didn't care whether she was uttering untruths or not. It wasn't lies; it was bullshit, in the sense defined by Harry Frankfurt. And as Frankfurt notes, the purveyor of bullshit is worse than a liar, in virtue of caring less about truth. The liar at least keeps track of what's true and recognizes its special status. That is precisely why it is "a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive": the committed liar tries to remain consistent. The bullshitter doesn't care even that much.

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66 Comments »

  1. bulbul said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    I vaguely remember the late M. Scott Peck complaining about preachers and priests who instead of preaching the Gospel talk about psychology. Now we got reverends preaching against adjectives. When did we run out of sins?

    she just makes stuff up
    It seems to me the whole process of bullshitting is a little more complex than that. If the Rev. Angela Tilby were confronted about the claim you've addressed here, I'm fairly certain she would argue that she had read it somewhere and she wouldn't be lying. She wouldn't be able to produce any evidence, mind you, but I still think describing the whole process as "making stuff up" is not entirely accurate. "Bullshitting", now that's exactly it.

  2. Ray Girvan said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    She seemed to be heading initially toward a critique of particular adjectives that have become standard buzzwords in officialese, which could have been a valid point well made, but lost it half-way through the second paragraph.

  3. fs said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    An adjective qualifies a noun or pronoun.

    Maybe I'm just stupid, but since when do adjectives in English modify pronouns?

    [I'm sure you're not stupid, fs. Heck, you read Language Log, which is one of the key signs of an open and active intelligence. But you may have overlooked phrases like poor me and lucky you. —GKP]

  4. Ray Girvan said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    fs: since when do adjectives in English modify pronouns?

    Rarely, they do: "the real me" springs to mind as an example.

  5. Patrick said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

    Careful, you don't want to end up like Simon Singh. Calling an English spade a spade is apparently quite dangerous these days.

  6. Etienne said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

    To fs:

    Unless you consider such utterances as "Poor little me" ungrammatical, I think it must be conceded that (at least some) adjectives in English can indeed modify pronouns.

    To Geoff Pullum:

    I think you are unfair to Tilby. She indeed did not look up any facts. I think this is not because she doesn't care about the truth regarding language, but rather because the very existence of a field such as linguistics is probably not something she is aware of. And to be maximally fair, it seems to me her brand of ignorance is comparatively harmless. Ignorance such as hers could have far more noxious consequences when found among grade-school teachers, for instance (True story: a trainee teacher quite seriously asked me once if the use by some of her pupils of non-standard verb forms was a sign of mental retardation.)

    [I'm not asking her to know any linguistics, or even to know that linguistics exists. Ordinary dictionaries will tell you (with a few errors) which are the adjectives. She could just have looked at a scientific paper and a political speech and done a bit of counting, couldn't she? You don't need a linguistics degree for that.

    However, the fact that the average vicar is unaware that anyone ever studies language in a way that involves looking things up and counting things and checking claims is part of what I'm irritated about. And yes, I am quite sure that some fairly typical trainee teachers do not know the difference between dialect variation and mental retardation. What all this says is that things are grim as far as public awareness of the language sciences is concerned. —GKP]

  7. Kate G said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

    Would "What colour is the table? It is blue." count as an adjective qualifying a pronoun?

    [No, Kate, it wouldn't. It's an example of an adjective in predicative complement function. It's a required part of the structure of the predicate, not an optional part of the structure of a noun phrase. —GKP]

  8. John Cowan said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    What's more, the Rev begins by speaking of the new Supreme Court as "the highest court in the land", but how you make such a claim without employing an adjective — nay, a superlative adjective! — is quite beyond me.

    I observe that people who rail against adjectives are less likely to complain when they appear in VPs than in NPs.

  9. Thomas Westgard said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    Why would anyone need to shorten something as short as "Benedict?"

    Thos. Westgard

  10. Michael W. said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    Even if her facts were right, she's doesn't seem very consistent: "it is arguably the adjectives which set the tone" and yet "They are not the important words … they don't really tell you much … in fact their content is often vain and void." She's not arguing very strongly, there.

    I might even quibble with her religious 'evidence', since one of the most famous uses of adjectives in English comes from what Christians view as a description of God: "Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace".

  11. bulbul said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    Etienne,

    but rather because the very existence of a field such as linguistics is probably not something she is aware of
    First of all, do you really believe that? She is a university graduate, for Chomsky's sake, and a former tutor at Westcott House Theological College. As such, she must me aware of the existence of the scientific field of linguistics. And without digging to deep into her background (Google tells me she graduated from Cambridge and taught early church history, that's as far as I go), I am pretty sure that as a theology major she must have taken courses in NT Greek and OT Hebrew, so she must be familiar with the field of philology and its basic concepts. Hell, she knows what an adjective is, that it modifies nouns and that there's such thing as syntax. So I don't think this is not about Angela Tilby's awareness of the discipline of linguistics. It's more about her mistaken idea of what it is and what it does.

    Re your true story: I know a professor of phonetics / phonology who believes that non-standard pronunciation (speaking with a regional accent) is a developmental disorder.

    Also:
    For all their flamboyance [adjectives] don't really tell you much.
    Shorter Rev. Angela Tilby: Adjectives are soooooo gay!

  12. Thomas Thurman said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    Why would anyone need to shorten something as short as "Benedict?"

    St Bene't's is supposedly the oldest building in Cambridge; I think the name has just got worn down over the centuries. And I know a living person called Benedict who goes by Bene't. Then again, he does live in Cambridge.

  13. John said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    I wonder if there's a good reason why public speakers seem to be more likely to bullshit about certain fields of inquiry (say, linguistics or psychology) than others (say, history)?

    For instance, if Rev. Tilby had begun her sermon with, "We are approaching the anniversary of the date when King Harold defeated the Norman invaders," then she would be made a laughing stock, and it wouldn't do her any good to say, "Well, I'm sure I read that once, I can't remember where. And anyhow, I was just using that as a rhetorical device, it doesn't really matter much whether or not the Normans *actually* defeated Harold or not…"

    I guess historical facts seem easier to verify (for most people) than linguistic facts? But this seems backwards; I'm a lot more sure about adjective counts in modern English than I am about what happened a thousand years ago.

  14. MJ said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

    It seems plausible to me that the reason we so rarely see adjectives with pronouns is that pronouns are more like pro-NPs– they stand in for noun phrases, they don't themselves take determiners, they don't tend to take PP complements or relative clause adjuncts, etc. Now, "one" seems more like a pronoun, and it definitely is amenable to adjectival modification: 'I want the big round fluffy one.'

  15. Dan Milton said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    I should thank Geoffrey Pullum, I suppose, for teaching me a word.
    "Appropriacy refers to whether a word is suitable for the context it is being used in" (www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/knowledge-wiki/appropriacy).
    Perhaps he, or someone, can explain what this piece of jargon (107,000 Google hits) conveys that the standard word "appropriateness" (7,500,000) wouldn't.

  16. bianca steele said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

    I've known members of the clergy whose sermons were a marvel of clarity and elegance. I've known some others who could have used a copywriter. (And I've known some who embraced science and recent scholarship wholeheartedly, and surprisingly knowledgeably.) I think you are too hard on Ms. Tilby, whose writing seems appropriate to her genre.

    [But I never said her writing wasn't appropriate to her genre! I think it's highly appropriate. (That's not necessarily praise: Thought For The Day is a feeble little daily sermonette, and is frequently vapid and unmemorable.) What I said was that she was straightforwardly making up alleged facts and citing them without showing the slightest interest in whether she was saying anything true. —GKP]

    However, I do think her opening could be improved. Not being English, I didn't know whether the Supreme Court had existed for only a day, or for ten or a hundred years, and "Today marks the birth of . . ." doesn't tell me which.

  17. Tim said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    I count almost a 7% adjective rate in Tilby's own article.

  18. Sili said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

    I know this is not the blog for that particular jab, but some of us would be so unkind as to suggest that bullshitting is a requirement for the vicar's line of work.

    "Bent" is a perfectly good Danish name (26863 holders pr 1/1 2009).

    "Global Warming" may be vague (and "Climate Change" even more so, unfortunately), but astrophysicists are even worse: "Dark Matter" and "Dark Energy" which are both essentially 'anti-dark'. But "Black Hole" is easier to say than "gravitationally completely collapsed star".

  19. Stephen Jones said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    [No, Kate, it wouldn't. It's an example of an adjective in predicative complement function. It's a required part of the structure of the predicate, not an optional part of the structure of a noun phrase. —GKP]

    What about I'll take the blue one. The adjective is required not optional but it's not in predicate position.

  20. Etienne said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

    Bulbul:

    I have known plenty of University *professors* (INTER ALIA in Anthropology, Philosophy and History) who hadn't the foggiest notion as to what linguists do (and probably still haven't the foggiest notion, sadly), so the claim that Tilby, by virtue of being a University graduate, must know what we linguists do strikes me as wildly optimistic.

    Hence (to Geoffrey Pullum) I stand by what I wrote earlier: I do not think it fair to assume that she "doesn't care" about the truth concerning language (as you do in the last paragraph of your posting). It is likelier to my mind that she genuinely cares, but is simply *wholly unaware* of a field of study dedicated to the scientific study of language. Such ignorance is lamentable enough: it is neither necessary nor just to assume bad faith on her part as well.

  21. Nicholas Waller said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

    It is possible you are slightly maligning the BBC; her piece was "on" the BBC but not "from" the BBC, in the sense that she and the Chief Rabbi, the Archbishop of Canterbury, editor of the Sikh Messenger, and the Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding at the University of Glasgow – all recent or regular contributors to the Thought for the Day slot – are not BBC spokespeople, employees or officials.

  22. bulbul said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    Etienne,

    I have known plenty of University *professors* (INTER ALIA in Anthropology, Philosophy and History) who hadn't the foggiest notion as to what linguists do

    So do I – hell, I don't know what the frack it is I'm doing and I am a linguist. But your original claim regarding Rev. Tilby was quite different. If I may:

    but rather because the very existence of a field such as linguistics is probably not something she is aware of

    I can only repeat what I said – her use of linguistic termini technici suggests that she is aware of the very existence of a field such as linguistics. It's just that she doesn't have an idea as to what it does and judging by this, she couldn't be bovvered to find out.

  23. bulbul said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

    That's why you don't find many adjectives in scientific prose
    We've seen how this stacks up against reality. But what about the next part?
    Nor do you find so many in the Bible
    Well:
    Using morphology databases available in BibleWorks7, I exported a list of all word-forms occuring in the Greek New Testament (Scrivener, SCM). Since the coding is quite simple ("lemma@xxxxx" where the first letter following the @ encodes the part of speech), so all I had to do was run a simple Perl script and here are the results:
    Greek NT – unique word-forms: 18 289
    Greek NT – adjectives: 2 186
    % of adjectives: 11.95%

    Since Hebrew is a different game, for OT, we'll go with Greek (the Septuagint, BLM) again:
    LXX – unique word-forms: 51 015
    LXX – adjectives: 6 067
    % of adjectives: 11.89%

  24. Kenny V said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    Of course she doesn't care about the truth, she's clergy.

  25. Peter Taylor said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    Bianca Steele, the use of the present tense in the rest of that opening sentence should resolve the ambiguity.

    The marked-up Greek NT I have (Tauber) gives 9162 adjectives out of 138019 words for 6.6%. (For what it's worth, I get 804 adjectival lemmata out of 5393, which is 14.9%.)

  26. Thomas Thurman said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

    Not being English, I didn't know whether the Supreme Court had existed for only a day, or for ten or a hundred years, and "Today marks the birth of . . ." doesn't tell me which.

    FWIW, it began on October 1, 2009.

  27. Etienne said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    Bulbul: the use of linguistic terminology doesn't imply knowledge of the existence of linguistics, alas! After all, such terminology is widely-used by language teachers, many of whom are so stunningly ignorant of what it is that linguists do that for all intents and purposes they may be said to be wholly unaware of the existence of linguistics (I'm speaking from personal experience). Considering how potentially useful many branches of linguistics could be to language teachers, their ignorance does make it more than possible that individuals for whom such knowledge would have little practical use within their profession (such as a Vicar, for example…) would be equally ignorant.

  28. Ray Girvan said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

    Etienne: the use of linguistic terminology doesn't imply knowledge of the existence of linguistics

    Besides, there's nothing in that TFTD that I'd specifically call linguistic terminology; it's just everyday grammatical terminology within the scope of anyone with an average-good education and a grammar peeve.

  29. Layra said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

    Her issue is that she is ignorant of the relevant data, and it is entirely possible that she is ignorant of existence of the field of linguistics. And yet that she doesn't know that other people have collected data doesn't excuse her from not having collected any data herself. Even if there were no field of linguistics, it's not that hard to simply find an article and count the adjectives.
    So it is a matter of not caring about the truth, and not merely one of ignorance.

  30. chris said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 8:58 pm

    FWIW: The shortening of "Benedict" in this way wasn't restricted to Cambridge. The name "Bennet" appears to have the same origin.

  31. mollymooly said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

    FWIW: The shortening of "Benedict" in this way wasn't restricted to Cambridge. The name "Bennet" appears to have the same origin.

    There are places called "St Benet's" in London, Norfolk, and Oxford. I wonder has the Cambridge site has always kept its apostrophe continuously, long after others had dropped it, or was it (re)inserted more recently as a (pseudo)historical affectation.

  32. Oskar said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 9:31 pm

    Adjectives "float free of concrete reality" like balloons, and are guilty of "not delivering anything except, perhaps, hot air."

    You know, it's true, good writers shouldn't be using adjectives at all!

  33. Ray Girvan said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

    mollymooly: I wonder has the Cambridge site has always kept its apostrophe continuously, long after others had dropped it, or was it (re)inserted more recently as a (pseudo)historical affectation.

    I don't know about previously, but a skim of Google Books finds "Bene't" to have been in continuous use since the early 1800s.

  34. Rubrick said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

    …and are guilty of "not delivering anything except, perhaps, hot air."

    What kind of air was that, again? Since "hot" obviously floats free of concrete reality, I have no idea what sort of air she's referring to.

  35. fs said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

    Ah, right. Thanks to all who corrected me. Indeed we do have many constructions in which adjectives modify pronouns, don't we… I was perhaps drawing an unwarranted contrast with languages like Japanese in which pronouns essentially are no different from nouns in how adjectives can modify them.

    暖かくて親切なあなたはこの情けない私を許してくれました。
    *Warm kind you forgave this pathetic me.

    I believe the above gloss would be considered ungrammatical by most English speakers, wouldn't it?

  36. Ray Girvan said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

    fs: considered ungrammatical

    In its entirety, I guess so, but I think the individual constructs are unusual, but OK colloquially. Compare "stupid me" and "wonderful you".

  37. fs said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 12:24 am

    Ray: Hmm. What's interesting is that many of these examples (including GKP's "poor me" and "lucky you") seem to actually be clauses of some sort. I can say "Lucky you." But I can't say "Lucky you were rolling in dough.", at least without that sentence being interpreted as "[It is] lucky [that] you were rolling in dough."

    Is this some sort of a stative verbal form of the adjective? There are (somewhat archaic) examples involving common nouns rather than pronouns: "happy day", "treacherous fate", etc., often prefixed with "O".

  38. Bob Ladd said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 1:34 am

    fs: Nice point about things like lucky you being more like clauses. This also applies to expressions like you idiot!, which seems to mean something like "you are an idiot" – note that you can't say *you idiot need to change the oil filter. Curiously, however, it doesn't apply to the plural you used this way – you idiots! has the same force as you idiot!, yet it's perfectly grammatical to say you idiots need to change the oil filter. For we it's different again – we linguists is fine in we linguists like to make pronouncements about pronouns, but it's hard to get a clause-y reading of, say, we idiots!. And for I both possibilities are impossible – nobody would say either *I idiot! or *I linguist like to make pronouncements about pronouns. BTW this isn't a fact about first vs. second person – in German it's perfectly OK to say ich Idiot.
    In any case, the grammar of lucky you does seem to be somewhat different from a straightforward case of an adjective modifying a pronoun.

  39. Phil said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 5:34 am

    I reckon the adjective-rate in the Ministry of Justice 'Strategic objectives, outcomes and indicators' page (http://www.justice.gov.uk/about/strategic-objectives-indicators.htm), which seems to be one of the ones she's complaining about, at about 13%. But that includes a lot of pretty darned non-negotiable ones, given that it's a document about such things as the criminal justice system, the Legal Services Commission, the Office of the Public Guardian, civil, administrative and family justice systems, Royal Assent to the Constitutional Renewal Bill, and so on.

    Presumably she has a problem with them aiming for 'a more effective' [adjective=bad] criminal justice system, but none with 'increasing the … effectiveness' [verb and noun = good] of the criminal justice system. Twerp.

  40. Ray Girvan said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 7:06 am

    fs: Hmm

    Well, here's a live example obtained by Googling:

    I tell myself, “Look at wonderful you, sitting at the kitchen table … and the person on the phone will sneer at Stupid Me.

  41. Nick Lamb said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 8:15 am

    The BBC seems pretty determined to keep this slot for religious figures, for example it decided not to allow even one "Thought for the day" slot to be occupied by an Atheist philosopher, or any other sort of non-believer. Although it's a somewhat prominent slot it isn't very long, and a great many of their listeners are religious (more than 50% anyway) so it doesn't seem out of proportion. Since the BBC itself is a corporation and incapable of religious belief, and its charter forbids it from supporting a particular position in such matters, it can't brief the people chosen on what to say, other than presumably warning them that they oughtn't to swear unnecessarily, defame anyone with legal recourse (our long dead ancestors are fair game) or advertise a commercial product or service.

    Incorporating the Advertising Standards Authority rule (if a reasonable person would think you're claiming something is true, you must have evidence that it IS in fact true) which allows the audience to complain about both lying and bullshit – would be an intriguing change to the BBC's charter but not one I can imaging being applied to this particular slot.

  42. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 9:34 am

    Track 8 on one of the most successful albums of all time starts:

    "Sweet wonderful you / You make me so happy with the things you do"

  43. Cecily said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    @Nick Lamb, when the Atheist Bus Campaign was in full swing (and as the slogan was "There's probably no god..", it should have been agnostic), some Christians complained to the ASA about it. This was a risky strategy, as it could presumably have led to a future prohibition on religious ads. Anyway, "The ASA council concluded that the ad was an expression of the advertiser's opinion and that the claims in it were not capable of objective substantiation". See http://www.asa.org.uk/asa/news/news/2009/Atheist+bus+ad+campaign+not+in+breach+of+advertising+code.htm

  44. bianca steele said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    Peter Taylor:
    As I hadn't heard of the new English Supreme Court, I thought it was at least as likely the change had taken place last year as that it was an event in the news right now. To me, "today marks . . ." isn't usually used to mean "today is when . . . is going to happen," when the elided event is a real event (which can be further narrated, analyzed into sub-events, and so on). I'd guess the English will be considering the House of Lords the only "real" highest court for some time to come.

  45. bianca steele said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    As an example, I would say: Today marks the beginning of my life as a homeowner. But not: Today marks our closing on our new house. The latter is a legal event, so maybe that is the difference.

  46. Nick Lamb said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    Cecily, the Weak atheist and agnostic position may look confusingly similar to an outsider, but they're not to an atheist. The specific thing that sets atheists apart is that they don't believe in gods. Only the Strong atheists claim to have proof that there is no god. For the rest gods are not a logical impossibility, merely something they reject for lack of evidence.

    As a Weak atheist "God probably doesn't exist" reflects my view fairly accurately given the necessity of a short punchy slogan.

    Disclaimer: Not all atheists agree that the Strong/ Weak distinction exists, or that it's useful. Some just don't like the terminology.

  47. Nick Lamb said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 10:20 am

    bianca, the House of Lords hasn't functioned as a final court of appeal for a very long time. The Law Lords aka Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (who are Lords, but make up only a small fraction of the House) previously functioned in roughly the way that the new Supreme Court will, it's even mostly the same people (10 Law Lords became justices in the new Supreme Court and ceased to sit in parliament).

    Mostly what this does is formalise a separation that had existed in practice for some time, providing the appearance and legal framework to go with the practical fact of independence of the Court.

  48. Harry said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    "Average trainee teachers do not know the difference between dialect variation and mental retardation"??

    Now who's "making stuff up"?

    The Rev is being ridiculous of course, but surely we know already that people that feel passionately about stuff they don't actually know much about are given to "mouthing off" with all sorts of made-up facts they couldn't begin to quote you chapter and verse on, and which other people should have the sense not to take too seriously?

  49. iakon said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    Further to Dan Milton's comment re the word 'appropriacy':

    In my English this word is related to 'appropriation', not 'appropriateness'. In other words, from the point of view of my English (dialect), the word is used inappropriately in the post.

    Googling reveals that somewhere in some English dialect, 'appropriacy' and 'appropriateness' are synonyms. Just where is this dialect, and how extensive is the usage?

  50. Peter Taylor said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    Bianca, I agree that "marks" isn't the best choice of verb, but my point is that "Today marks the birth of the Supreme Court which replaces the House of Lords as the highest court in the land" (my emphasis) wouldn't make sense if the birth were a past event.

  51. bianca steele said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

    Peter, "under the system instituted last year, the Supreme Court replaces the House of Lords as the highest court in the land" doesn't actually sound as wrong to me as "today marks the birth of the Supreme Court." Having accepted that one verb, however, was not ideally selected, insisting that the next verb was seems beside the point. As Nick Lamb pointed out, the whole phrase is more or less shorthand for something more complicated that most listeners probably are already aware of, and it may well be that the change is not as earthshattering as "ensur[ing] the total separation of the judiciary from the executive" sounded to me.

  52. Ray Girvan said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    iakon: Googling reveals that somewhere in some English dialect, 'appropriacy' and 'appropriateness' are synonyms. Just where is this dialect, and how extensive is the usage?

    Among people who write books on language – see appropriacy, Google Books – it appears the norm.

  53. Leonardo Boiko said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    @Nick, @Cecily: I think the «Strong Atheist» position isn’t real; it’s just a strawman used by religious people and agnostics alike. No atheist (that I heard of, either famous or in-person) has absolute (i.e. philosophical) certainty of anything. «Science deals only in degrees of doubt». The difference between atheists and agnostics is, atheist have practical (day-to-day, commonplace) certainty that gods aren’t real, which is different from philosophical certainty. An atheist won’t do anything to please an hypotethical god anymore than he would do for Santa or faeries. An agnostic might.

    If you call «agnostic» anyone who has a bit of philosophical doubt that perhaps god (and Santa, and faeries) might perhaps be real, then everyone is an agnostic, and the word is meaningless.

  54. Mark Mandel said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    Rev. Tilby's screed, with the adjectives removed according to her prescription. I have been conservative and left mentions and quotations, replacing actual uses of adjectives with a row of underscores.

    ===

    The ___. Angela Tilby

    Today marks the birth of the ___ Court which replaces the House of Lords as the ___ court in the land, and ensures the ___ separation of the judiciary from the executive.

    Trying to find out ___ led me to the Ministry of Justice's website and to a list of that now ___ ministry's ___ Objectives. I was struck by the number of adjectives in the list: 'efficient', 'effective' – that's about ___ and ___ justice; 'effective', 'transparent', 'responsive' that's about ___ justice; 'controlled', 'fair' that's about migration; 'cohesive', 'empowered' and 'active', that's about the kind of communities we hope for. And so on. Of course there are plenty of nouns and verbs as well, but it is arguably the adjectives which set the tone. I am still not quite ___ what the ___ court will actually do. Adjectives advertise, and they have done that ever since the days of washes ___ . They brighten up the prose of officialdom. The website of Cambridge City Council trumpets the hope that Cambridge will be a 'vibrant, socially-mixed, safe, convenient and an enjoyable place to live'. Heavens. Barely a noun or verb in sight. We are all infected by the pandemic of adjectives. I checked a ___ sermon and I found armies of them dancing across the page, usually in threes – they are very community-minded.

    Yet when I was at school we were encouraged to be a bit ___ of adjectives. Rules of syntax kept them firmly in their place. An adjective qualifies a noun or pronoun. They are not the ___ words like verbs: 'being or doing words', or nouns: 'names of persons, places or things'. For all their flamboyance they don't really tell you much. They may make you feel ___ , ___ and ___ , but in fact their content is often ___ and ___ . They represent aspirations, ___ ones, perhaps, but they don't come with dates, times or budgets; they are wonderfully ___ because they float ___ of ___ reality. They soar like helium balloons, raising our sights, but not delivering anything except, perhaps, ___ air.

    That's why you don't find ___ adjectives in ___ prose and when you do they are ___ and ___ . Nor do you find so ___ in the Bible and when you do they are firmly in their place as ___ words that qualify ___ realities.

    When the angels praise God instead of using three adjectives they use only one but repeat it, 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts'. Not many of the adjectives we sprinkle over our ___ prose would bear such repetition. And a ___ exercise, and one to bear in mind during the party conference season, would be to take a ___ pencil and cut them all out. Then you will see what is really being said about people, places, things, deeds and actions.

    ===

    I trust that everything is now perfectly clear.

  55. iakon said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

    Ray Girvan: Thanks. Looking through the items on that site you refered to, I recalled that someone used the word 'jargon' earlier on this thread. I wonder when Linguistics appropriated it from Law.

  56. marie-lucie said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 8:20 am

    (Bene't is an archaic shortened form of Benedict.)

    I think that the story is more complex.

    "Benedict", the name by which the current Pope is known in English, is an adaptation of his official Latin name Benedictus, an adjective meaning 'blessed' (literally 'well-said'). In other countries the Pope is known by a local version of the name, as in Italian Benedetto and French Benoît. Unlike the English name, these names have come down from Latin through an unbroken chain of sound changes shared by many other words.

    On its way from Latin to French, the adjective benedictus has had intermediate forms, such as Old French beneist and Middle French benoist, in which the s eventually disappeared from the pronunciation. The Modern French adjective benoît has a relative, the noun benêt (from earlier benest) which was probably a regional variant at first.

    Old French was spoken at the time of the Norman conquest. It is most likely that Saint Bene't/Benét continues an Old French or Anglo-Norman version of the name. As in OF, the accent mark (which is what the apostrophe continues here) indicates the typical French stress on the last syllable, while the alternate form Bennet(t), which has lost its link to the saint's name and evolved on its own, represents the English adaptation with stress on the first syllable.

    The French forms do not mean 'blessed' any more: the adjective benoît and the noun benêt refer to silly or stupid but harmless persons. This semantic evolution derives from the fact that retarded children were considered 'blessed' because they were innocent of evil and would remain so, unlike those who would grow up into normal, sinful adults.

  57. Picky said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 9:34 am

    Lawks, that's interesting, marie-lucie. The stuff about the apostrophe being somehow the ghost of an acute accent – is that a possibility, or has it been established? Are there, I wonder, other accent relics hanging about?

  58. marie-lucie said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    Picky, when typing on a computer that only has the English keyboard, it is impossible to do the accented letters, so the next best thing is to use the apostrophe after the letter. Accents are so rare in English (eg on learne'd and age'd) that a lot of people don't know exactly where to place them (ask any French teacher). My conclusion is that the apostrophe in Bene't, which in English has no justification such as elision (as in isn't), is actually a misplaced accent mark, preserved at Cambridge through the centuries for the sake of tradition while its significance was forgotten.

  59. Picky said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    I very much like your theory, but a few points on the other side and in favour of it being a mark of elision …

    The church is pre-Conquest – now I'm not sure it has always been dedicated to St B, but if it has that argues against the Norman French explanation.

    The parish itself is called St Benedict's – so that argues for elision in the church name.

    The Saxons had their own Benedict in St Benedict Biscop, so they would presumably be familiar with the full non-Benet version of the name.

  60. Terry Collmann said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    I'm loath to disagree with you, m-l, but surely there's elision in St Bene't, since he's lost his dic …

  61. Cecily said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:13 am

    @ marie-lucie, October 6, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    "when typing on a computer that only has the English keyboard, it is impossible to do the accented letters, so the next best thing is to use the apostrophe after the letter."

    Not necessarily. AltGr+e creates é, and similarly for other vowels. And in Word you can create pretty much all the others with Ctrl and various characters that look slightly like the accent you want – pretty intuitive when you get the hang of it. See http://www.edu.dudley.gov.uk/ict/software/word/accents.htm.

  62. marie-lucie said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    Picky, I see your points, but if the church in question has always been known as "St Benedict", why would its Cambridge keepers insist on calling it "St Bene't" (which is not just a local nickname, since it is part of the Vicar's official title)? Is it a common custom to refer to a church (in an official context) by the nickname rather than the whole name of the saint it is dedicated to? Why the accent or apostrophe on the second e, when the Latin stress would be on the "-dict" but the English stress on the "Ben-"? Why the apostrophe at all, if the name is not of French origin?

    All right, assuming that it isn't from a French name, then there may have been a time when "Benedict" was stressed as "BeNEDict" (since many English words had different stress in older times, but that would suggest a diminutive "Ned"). It is also possible that "Bene't" is a written abbreviation (something common in manuscripts, hence the reference above to an "archaic shortening") which may have gone along with a shorter pronunciation. But that shorter pronunciation would have coincided with the Old French version of the name once the church was staffed by French-speaking clergy.

    Since the church is in Cambridge, it is likely that someone has written about its history and documented how the church's patron saint was referred to at various times.

    And is there a clue about an older stress pattern for "Benedict" in other documents, such as Shakespeare's "Beatrice and Benedict"?

  63. Picky said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    It is possible for a saint's abbreviated name to become at least the de facto name of an institution – I'm thinking of Barts Hospital in London. (And very ancient British men may remember the fictional Tom Merry & Co of St Jim's.)

    Anyway, as you say, m-l, somewhere there's a history that would help.

  64. Picky said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    Another Benet's is St Benet Paul's Wharf, in London, the church of the College of Arms. According to the White Lion Society (Friends of the College of Arms): "A church building dedicated to St. Benedict … has stood on this site since the year 1111 A.D. The name was abbreviated to St Benet in common parlance (or Bene’t in writing) and formally changed to that in the early part of the nineteenth century"

  65. Picky said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    Henry Harben's A Dictionary of London (1918) published on http://www.british-history.ac.uk discusses many St Benet's churches in London, and has them being called St Benedict's in the 13th century or thereabouts. So I'm afraid, marie-lucie, it looks as though it is quite possible for a church to become officially known today by what was originally an abbreviation. Ah well, it was a nice idea!

  66. marie-lucie said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 10:04 pm

    Thank you for looking things up, Picky. I am glad to get more information on the subject. So, it looks like I was probably wrong, but still there is the fact that the abbreviation happens to coincide with the French name at the time, so the two factors might have been at work to reinforce each other.

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