In linguistics, hypercorrection is the kind of mistake you make when you’re trying too hard to speak correctly. You know there’s a grammatically or phonetically tricky passage coming up in the sentence ahead, you prepare extra hard to get it right–but by overgeneralizing one grammatical error into an overbroad prohibition, you make a mistake you would have otherwise avoided. For example, you know it’s technically incorrect to say “Me and my wife are so happy to be here,” although we all say things like that sometimes. Then when you’re trying to speak extra-correctly under stress in a formal situation, you end up with sentences that are not just wrong but faintly ridiculous: â€œThank you for welcoming she and I.â€? It happens to second-language speakers, too. Germans speaking English know that their letter [w] is pronounced like English [v], then leap under pressure–because speaking a foreign language is always a high-pressure situation–to the further false assumption that English [v] is also equal to [w], and so end up talking about wegetables, a word that is not just incorrect, but is even harder for Germans to pronounce than the correct alternative, and which also sounds ludicrous. In the same way, I once heard a German climber talk about his trip to Josemite. I make hypercorrection errors, too. I tend to overgeneralize the phonetic shorthand rule that English [k] = German [ch] and sometimes mispronounce streiken ‘to strike’ as streichen ‘to paint,’ and unintended hilarity ensues.
Is there such a thing as religious hypercorrection? I believe there is. We sometimes avoid topics that are in themselves uplifting merely to maintain our distance from another church’s teachings or practices: talking about Mary in Sunday School makes some people nervous, for example, as does anything vaguely reminiscent of creedal formulations. Maintaining group cohesion is of course important, but it’s possible to make mistakes–to be hypercorrect–when negotiating the boundaries.
The most spectacular errors are liable to occur when we try to adopt a foreign religious vernacular. ‘Being born again,’ for example, occupies a very minor place in our native idiom, even if the phrase describes a phenomenon that is very much a part of our religious experience. We can look up the relevant scriptures about being born again in the Bible and Book of Mormon, even work up a sacrament meeting talk about it on short notice if necessary, but we don’t have much practice with it in our daily conversation. Instead we use different terms and categories to approach it–it fits into our religious grammar under different paradigms (“receiving a testimony” under the category of confessional proselytization, for one, or “gaining a testimony” under the category of achieving spiritual maturity). ‘Being born again’ is also a term strongly associated with evangelical Christianity, which is often perceived to be hostile and sometimes actually is hostile to Mormonism, hence our use of the term is fraught with anxiety. The risk of hypercorrection, saying something that is both incorrect and unintentionally silly, is high. The same is true of theological descriptions of the Godhead. It’s not that we’re either unitarian or trinitarian, it’s that we usually just don’t care, and correspondingly most of us don’t have a well-developed language to talk about the relevant distinctions, and we’re fairly happy with this situation. We like to think that the First Vision pretty much makes theological elaboration beside the point (and I confess that I’ve become more sympathetic to that view after reading discussions about the precise structure of deity on this or other Mormon blogs, and I’m not particularly interested in hashing out the details here). Calling ourselves trinitarian may require extensive modification or explanation–I don’t know, it’s not an issue that I personally care much about–but calling ourselves polytheists, for example, is both incorrect and fairly silly.
Is hypercorrection a useful concept for thinking about belief? Do any other examples of religious hypercorrection come to mind?