The synod decided

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According to yesterday's Sunday (Irish) Business Post, "Bishops agree sex abuse rules":


[Tip of the hat to Anne.]

Update — they changed the headline online:


  1. Spell Me Jeff said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 10:31 am

    If this were a US newspaper, I would assume (as so often happens) that the ambiguity was intentional.

    I'm curious to know if "rule" in the sense of "to be awesome" is a common lexeme in Ireland.

  2. Stan said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    I believe this is the original image. Nouns gonna verb, as I said when I saw it.

    Rule in the sense Spell Me Jeff describes is common enough in Ireland, but mainly among young people. There's a fair chance the ambiguity was unintentional. If I find out for sure, I'll report back.

  3. HP said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 10:53 am

    @Jeff: At the very least, it should be familiar as an Americanism from movies and TV.

    OTOH, this American is completely thrown by "agree" as a transitive verb, which M-W describes as "chiefly British."

  4. dw said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    I'm originally from England, not Ireland, but FWIW I wouldn't have noticed the humorous meaning if it hadn't been pointed out. My guess is that this was an oversight.

  5. Barrie England said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 11:07 am

    Even if we take ‘rules’ as a noun, it is worrying that bishops should think that there should be rules for sex abuse rather than that it should stop.

  6. Chandra said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    Like HP, as a person much more familiar with North American English, I find it difficult to parse this headline in any way other than the crash-blossomy one. I don't know if I've ever seen "agree" + OBJ before without a "to" or "upon" in between.

  7. Yerushalmi said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    Chandra: or "on".

  8. richard howland-bolton said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    And vide, of course, numerous graffiti (from the 70's or even 60's) of the 'TOTTENHAM BOOT BOYS RULE! OK' sort. (And as an aside I've always thought of that 'OK' as being a rather tentative coda to such a brash claim).

    And then there were the variations like 'THE QUEEN RULES! OK' and 'DYSLEXICS RULE KO' and the ever popular 'LIBRARIANS RULE OOOK'

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

    I don't feel very confident trying to reliably recall the usage patterns of my fellow AmE teenagers 3 decades ago, but it seems at least possible that the now well-established U.S. teen usage was originally an outgrowth of the U.K. teen usage referenced by richard howland-bolton which we would have known via the vector of U.K.-origin rock songs (I can hear the Jam singing "Standards Rule OK" in my head right now . . .). On the other hand, there were various Briticisms we learned via rock songs (e.g., the verb "to suss") that didn't really get domesticated and lexicalized – if you used it, other rock-savvy AmE teens would understand, but it would seem affected.

  10. Spell Me Jeff said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

    When I first read the headline consistent with its intention, I took the transitive construction as an elided preposition or verb particle, common enough in headlines. The first sentence in the screen shot, OTOH, is obviously transitive. This gives me license to reanalyze the headline as also transitive.

  11. jan wohlgemuth said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

    @ Barrie: Saying it must stop would also be a rule, wouldn't it?

  12. Ellen K. said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

    I'm North American, but I don't find the missing "on" (if it were American English) in the correct interpretation any more problematic than the missing comma or "that" in the incorrect interpretation. Headlines have their own grammar.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    P.S. That is, missing either a comma or a "that" after "agree", in the incorrect reading.

  14. HP said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

    I should have clarified that I wasn't questioning the apparent transitive use in the headline, but the consistent transitive use in the article itself.

  15. onymous said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

    Another US English speaker here who finds the use of "agree" rather than "agree on" or "agree to" baffling. This use of the word just doesn't exist in my idiolect, even in headlinese.

  16. Will said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

    @Ellen K., headlines do have their own rules, but I don't think I've ever actually seen that particular elision (agree + obj, with no preposition) in a U.S. headline before. It certainly is occasionally used (a quick google search for "agrees rules" returns mostly headlines, and mostly from non-U.S. sources, but does return a few U.S. headlines). It's rare enough in any case that like HP and Chandra, the only interpretation of this headline that works for me is the crash blossom one, even when taking into account headline-speak.

  17. MattF said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    As an ex-headline writer, I don't think adding 'on' to the second line would be a good thing– note that the first two lines would then read 'Bishops agree on sex', and I doubt whether anyone would bother reading the third line.

  18. Chandra said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 1:57 pm

    @Will – Exactly. I'd be willing to bet the large majority of N.A. readers would have great difficulty parsing this correctly, without the explanation of this particular usage of "agree" in BrE. Headlinese or not, the pull of the common slang expression "X rules" is too strong.

  19. Lazar said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    As with my fellow North Americans, the British transitive use of "agree" doesn't come naturally to me.

  20. Adrian Bailey said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

    I think the "… that sex abuse rules" reading is a bit of a stretch, but I found the headline amazing enough anyway – it gives the impression that the bishops have agreed that a certain type or amount of abuse is acceptable.

  21. bfwebster said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

    But, of course, the real question is whether the newspaper editor crafted this headline knowing full well the crash blossom interpretation.

  22. Sili said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

    At least it didn't happen in Oklahoma.

  23. Faldone said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

    I do copy-editing of, among other things, Statements of Work, agreements between my company and our customer, and I frequently see the construction: "this contract is agreed by the parties." One thing about Statements of Work is that if I wanted to make any changes other than, say, correcting a typoed document number ti would set the whole agreement process back may weeks and it would delay our income. Thus, I have to let that usage stand.

  24. Frans said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

    What about the first sentence?

    Irish Catholic Bishops have privately agreed new guidelines which will establish for the first time a common approach to compelling priests accused of clerical sex abuse to stand down from ministry.

    Anybody else missing the same preposition as in the headline?

  25. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

    @Adrian Bailey: the headline amazing enough anyway – it gives the impression that the bishops have agreed that a certain type or amount of abuse is acceptable

    Agreed. My thoughts exactly.

  26. Kelly said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

    I'm an American, and I have never encountered the transitive use of "agree." Before I read the comments, I assumed that a word had been omitted from the headline.

  27. msH said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

    I, too, completely missed the true crash blossom (with 'that' rather than 'on' as the missing word) but still thought the air of scepticism was intentional.

  28. Lane said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    I too thought that the humor was that the bishops had agreed (to set up) rules on sex abuse (when to abuse, whom, how, what circumstances, how to avoid getting caught etc).

  29. bloix said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 7:03 pm

    I am an American lawyer. When I began to represent English clients about a decade ago, I found transitive "agree" completely baffling. Now it seems standard to me.

  30. Qov said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

    Canadian here. My dialect requires a preposition after agree if the headline isn't to be interpreted as the bishops reaching consensus on the awesomeness of sex abuse.

    When I was a kid we said "X Rules, Y Drools!" where X was an entity associated with the speaker and Y its opposite or opponent e.g. "Girls Rule, Boys Drool!"

  31. SRK said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 10:07 pm

    FWIW, I'm an Australian, and I only get the crash-blossom reading – and that's after reading through the comments. Saying the headline out loud, I hear it as "Bishops agree: sex abuse rules". If there's an elided word, it's "that", not "on" or "to. The transitive use of "agree" is clearly infelicitous to my ear (I don't think I've ever encountered that use).

  32. jmmcd said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

    I'm Irish, and 30ish, and the "X rules!" ("X is awesome!") usage is very familiar since Beavis & Butthead (an MTV cartoon of the 90s) at least. People a generation older than me wouldn't be familiar with it.

    The thread about "surely they should just agree that sex abuse should stop" is silly. Surely anyone who has ever read a newspaper story on this topic sees immediately that the rules concern the response to cases of sex abuse, not the abuse itself.

  33. J. Goard said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 12:22 am

    I'm another American learning about transitive agree for the first time here.

    I don't have the same problem as some other commenters with the use of [agree+S] (no that) — I'm sure that this issue has come up several times among linguists, and that there's significant variation in which verbs can omit the complementizer.

  34. LDavidH said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 5:06 am

    Here are some recent British examples of transitive "agree":
    "Chelsea have agreed a pre-contract deal with Sao Paulo's Lucas Piazon"

    "Christina Aguilera and Jordan Bratman have agreed a divorce settlement."
    "Assuming that you have put in an offer and had it agreed, "

  35. Eeden said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 6:33 am

    @jmmmcd, I'm also Irish, a fair bit older than in my 30s, and the "X rules" usage is very familiar to my from back in the 70s. However, having moved to Ireland from America, at first it baffled me, as I had never heard it in America.

    I didn't find the transitive agree odd at all, in a newspaper headline at least.

  36. Ellen K. said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 8:03 am

    @jmmcd: It seems clear to me that a lot of the people posting either havn't read anything on the topic or whatever they've read or heard about it is far from their thoughts when they parse the headline. And that difference in familiarity with the topic I think is why it's so easy for me to get the correct meaning of the headline, despite being completely unfamiliar with transitive "agree", while others just aren't able to get it. It's obvious to me what a headline with the words "bishops", "sex" "abuse" and "rules" is about even without looking at how they grammatically connect. So it's natural for me to connect them in a way that gets that meaning, even if it's grammatically odd. On the other hand, those without that background will go with the reading that fits their grammar best.

  37. David J. Littleboy said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    As an almost 60 American, I have no problem with "rules" in the vernacular sense (it's not really "in my dialect", but it's a perfectly sensible, understandable, and useful construct), but I consider transitive agree to be an abomination.

  38. Paul said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 9:26 am

    Yet another North American speaker that finds this atrocious, both for the crash blossom reading, and for the fact that the bishops had to agree on a procedure to have abusers step down…..

  39. David J. Littleboy said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    Hmm. The crash blossom reading isn't attrocious at all: it's a brilliant Freudian slip sort of thing that let's slip a deep, and well-known, truth about bishops. Quite wonderful, really.*
    The facts concerning the abuse in the Catholic church, however are attrocious in the extreme, of course.

    *: Real easy for me to say: I'm not Catholic.

  40. Ellen K. said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 9:53 am

    I'm thinking some of you all live in a magical world where somehow, the bishops just know who the abusers are, and so there are not need for rules on correctly identifying abusers.

  41. bfwebster said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 9:55 am

    And, of course, it has now shown up over at "Probably Bad News":

  42. joanne salton said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 10:24 am

    There is no special need for a witch hunt concerning the drawing up of rules, as far as I can see.

    Also, I am fairly sure that not many British/Irish people would notice the joke (I didn't at first). It after all only really has that meaning if you say it to yourself in a Beavis-and-Butthead type voice.

  43. mollymooly said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 11:06 am

    For the benefit of those few who will read down to comment #43 without clicking through to the source article: the original headline has now been amended to "Bishops agree new rules on sex abuse". Of course, the URL fragment "bishops-agree-sex-abuse-rules" preserves their shame.

    FWIW, I (Irish) concur with Lane and jmmcd.

  44. Mark F. said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

    It's entirely reasonable and appropriate for them to have rules and procedures for dealing with sex abuse cases. I agree there's an amusing uncharitable interpretation that those rules are specifying just how much sex abuse is OK or whatever, but in the larger world we certainly have homicide rules specifying different levels of severity and what the procedures are for trying cases.

  45. Zythophile said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

    @ David J. Littleboy: "I consider transitive agree to be an abomination." I consider having people "protest" something instead of "protesting against" it, or "write" someone instead of "writing to" someone an abomination too, at least in British English, but I'm broad-minded enough to let you colonials do what you like with our language.

  46. Stephen Nicholson said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

    @Ellen K. For me, personally, I know what the headline is saying, but it still seems "wrong." (Though clearly it's a regional thing.) I don't find this unusual. When I read something with a genuine typo, I'm usually still able to understand what was meant.

    I mean that, while I'm simply unable to parse the transitive agree (though more examples in my daily life would doubtless cause that to change), I still understand the headline. Does that make any sense to you?

  47. Chandra said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    "It seems clear to me that a lot of the people posting either haven't read anything on the topic or whatever they've read or heard about it is far from their thoughts when they parse the headline."

    Not necessarily. I've read and heard plenty about this topic beforehand, and I knew perfectly well that the first interpretation my brain made of the headline could not possibly have been correct. I'm familiar with the quirks of headlinese and can usually figure out what they mean. However, in this instance the construction was so unfamiliar and unexpected that I simply couldn't make sense of the headline until I read the first line of the article.

  48. Dave said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

    I agree *with* jmmcd, Ellen K., and Mark F. about the people whining about the intended meaning. Of course you need rules about sex abuse, and of course they're not as simple as "don't do it" or "get rid of those who do". Sex abuse has to be clearly defined, as does the procedure for when it is suspsected, and when it is proven.

    However, in case anyone's interested, I too had no idea of the transitive *agree* construction until seeing these comments. When I saw the headline I did pick up on the intended meaning, just from context, but the joke one was pretty salient as well.

  49. jmmcd said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 6:27 pm

    To eliminate the "uncharitable" reading (a certain amount of abuse is ok in the right circumstances), try reading this:

    "Nuclear industry policy makers agree on new earthquake rules".

    (If you like transitive "agree", just omit "on".)

  50. Mark Dunan said,

    April 5, 2011 @ 7:49 pm

    I've never seen agree as a transitive verb before. It looks completely alien to me, whereas the humorous reading (with "that" being the omitted word) was immediately apparent.

  51. LDavidH said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 2:09 am

    As a NNES, I find this discussion most interesting: it's yet another example of two nations divided by a common language. Isn't it time we all acknowledged that BrE and AmE are distinct enough to be considered separate languages? (Especially as it seems to be very difficult for most speakers on either side of the Atlantic to accept that things are different on the other side…)

  52. LDavidH said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 3:18 am

    When we lived in Albania and had American colleagues, my children insisted, in all earnestness, that BrE (their mother tongue) and AmE were two different languages, and would always tell people they spoke three languages: English, Swedish and American. They could switch in an instant between speaking BrE to their mother and AmE to their playmates, and liked to interpret from one to the other ("Tea is ready!" "She means supper is ready" etc).

  53. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 11:03 am

    To all those AmE speakers with no transitive agree – are sentences like So it's agreed, then or All was agreed also ungrammatical to you?

    @ Zythophile – are you sure write me is an AmE innovation, not a usage lost from BrE?

  54. Stephen Nicholson said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    So it's agreed, then sounds fine to me. I've also heard it before. All was agreed doesn't sound fine to me. I don't know if I've ever heard it before or not.

  55. Dave said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

    "It's agreed" (for AmE) could easily be a red herring. It may be elliptical for something like "It's agreed that that's what we'll do", or the like. That is, the "it" may be an expletive pronoun, and the true underlying object of "agree" may be a clause, not a noun phrase.

    That said, for me I'm not sure even "It's agreed" is great for me. I do however have the somewhat surprising "So we're agreed", which is puzzling in its own right.

  56. Will said,

    April 6, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

    AmE speaker here.

    "It's agreed" sounds perfectly fine to me, though I don't know how I would linguistically deconstruct it to mesh with the way I use "agree" in general.

    But "All was agreed" is awkward for me. It certainly parses better than "Agree X" without a preposition, but it sounds pretty weird. I'm not sure I even accept it as grammatical.

    "So we're agreed" is completely natural to me. But part of that at least is because this phrase has attained an idiom status. I don't really parse the constituents when I hear or say this, and I don't think most speakers do either.

  57. John Swindle said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 3:14 am

    What happens when North American or Australian readers stumble onto British or Irish news stories on the web? How do we know to stop reading the headline before it introduces us to an unknown word or usage?

    Yeah, the one about the bishops was funny.

  58. dw said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 5:22 am

    @ David J. Littleboy:
    "I consider transitive agree to be an abomination."

    FWIW, I consider "agree" followed directly by a verb phrase (without an interposed "that") to be an abomination.

    Actually I don't consider it an abomination: it's just not part of my native idiolect. Perhaps you could calm down.

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  60. Bloix said,

    April 11, 2011 @ 11:27 am

    We are agreed [on the terms]. I don't see how that's transitive. You can't say, "The terms agreed us."

  61. James Wimberley said,

    April 11, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

    I disagree the American argument that agree must be intransitive.

  62. AlanDownunder said,

    April 11, 2011 @ 10:32 pm

    For once, I'm with the septics.

  63. Bread & Roses said,

    April 12, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

    @Ellen K: I'm thinking some of you all live in a magical world where somehow, the bishops just know who the abusers are, and so there are not need for rules on correctly identifying abusers.

    Unfortunately I live in a world where sometimes the bishops know perfectly well who the abusers are, and facilitated the abuse, by turning a blind eye, helping them hide ( or sending them to more powerless communities than they were previously serving. (Have you heard what happened in Alaska?

    Of course they don't know in many cases. And yes, they need rules for processing these things. But I think my cynicism is well-founded.

  64. Dave said,

    April 12, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

    "We are agreed [on the terms]. I don't see how that's transitive. You can't say, "The terms agreed us.""

    It may not be. But if it's not, then it must be an adjectival usage of "agree", because otherwise it's a passive, and in English only transitive verbs can passivize.

    Either that or it's a syntactic "nut", and hence "surprising."

  65. Bloix said,

    April 12, 2011 @ 6:14 pm

    Dave – well, yes, my point was that "we are agreed" can't be transitive, because it if were, then it would have to be passive voice, and since there's no way to convert it to active voice, it can't be passive voice. So, to come round again, it can't be transitive.

    What is it? I don't know. Perhaps it is adjectival, as you propose. Agreed certainly can be adjectival – the agreed terms, for example.

    There are formulations where transitive agreed (in the UK usage) is passive – the terms are agreed, the schedule is agreed.

    But "we are agreed" just doesn't work that way.

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  67. Rosita said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

    For formative language years were spent in Australia, with one British parent. Neither of the dialects of my youth would allow me to read that headline in any way but the "wrong" one. The word "agree" is just not used that way in my world. It would need a preposition after it. It would make sense to me if it read: "Bishops agree on sex rules". As another reader pointed out, this still gives an impression that is not borne out in the text that follows. Bad sub-editing.

  68. Scott Knitter said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 10:22 pm

    I want "agree" to be transitive stateside. In my editing work, I could then reduce the length of techno-legal documents by pages at a time by cutting the redundant and boring verb phrase "mutually agree upon" to "agree." Best I can do is "agree on," assuming an attorney doesn't insist on putting "mutually" back in.

  69. Chad said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 11:45 am

    It may be an American thing, but I feel like the corrected version still has its words in the wrong order. Using those same words, I'd write "Bishops agree on new sex abuse rules."

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