Hypercorrection

September 21, 2006 | 14 comments
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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: “Thank 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?

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14 Responses to Hypercorrection

  1. Bryce I on September 21, 2006 at 8:53 am

    Not exactly what you’re looking for, maybe, but most endowed members don’t talk about things taught both inside and outside of the temple very freely outside of the temple. Erring on the side of caution is probably the wisest course, but it makes our meetinghouse discussions less rich, and is a disservice to unendowed members.

  2. john f. on September 21, 2006 at 11:47 am

    So, how often are you actually talking about streiken?

  3. Ardis on September 21, 2006 at 11:54 am

    Hypercorrection may sometimes be in play when we tell our history. We recognize the commitment of the pioneers, for instance, and it feels vaguely disloyal to say anything remotely harsh about them, so we hypercorrect them into something more than they were. (E.g., we’ve made the Martin and Willie handcart companies into the royalty of pioneers — who wants to claim mere wagon ancestors when some handcart descendant is basking in the glory of grandma’s amputated feet? — when the unwise decision to leave the frontiers so late should really be a blot on the career of whoever was responsible. [I recognize that "who" is a current matter of debate, and I'm not taking sides.])

    Hypercorrection may also be involved in the recent phenomenon of referring to presidents of the church almost exclusively as “the Prophet,” a title that used to be reserved for Joseph Smith. We respect/ revere/ cherish /honor the leader, and he *is* a prophet, seer and revelator, after all, so rather than risk implying disrespect by using a lesser title, we leap instantly to the highest title, even when the occasion is as non-prophetic as an article about favorite desserts.

    Hypercorrection might also explain the hardening of good advice or cultural custom into commandments by which we judge and put each other down: “She went to an R-rated movie, so I will not allow my son to date her.” “He wears a pastel shirt on Sunday, so he isn’t worthy of passing the Sacrament.”

    Hypercorrection may explain the decision a few years ago to require the poor sister missionaries on Temple Square to wear solid dark skirts or jumpers with white or pastel blouses: no prints, no light colored dresses even in summer, nothing but the ugliest, plainest, unstylish styles. The mission president evidently wanted his sisters to be instantly distinguishable from tourists, and maybe somebody had been wearing something inappropriate, so they uniformed the sisters — but instead of mandating the feminine equivalent of business and professional clothing, they hypercorrected by mimicking the dark, masculine conservatism of the elders’ suits.

  4. Margaret Young on September 21, 2006 at 12:36 pm

    As a linguist’s daughter and a teacher of creative writing, I talk about hypercorrection a lot–though I don’t use that specific term. I tell my students that their writing needs to flow and that their first drafts should not even take editing into consideration. I’ve had students who can’t get beyond one sentence because they have to keep correcting, modifying, re-working. When my dad does language instruction, he insists on using methods approaching hypnotism to relax the learner. I personally have never studied Spanish, and I first learned it with (surprise) Cakchiquel Indians. Dad heard me give a prayer and said afterwards, “That is the worst Spanish I’ve ever heard. You sound just like an Indian.” I inherited an ability to learn languages from my father, but I do grammar intuitively, without really thinking about it. I am willing to make a fool of myself and I make a lot of friends that way. When I spoke Cakchiquel this summer in Guatemala, my Indian friends were eager to help me. Great way to learn a language; great way to establish bonds. In the religious arena, hypercorrection surely leads to the same thing it leads to in language learning and creative writing: a halting, fearful, self-conscious, labored result. One way we deal with our propensity to hypercorrect in Mormonism is over supplementation of already correlated materials–statements from GAs, scriptures, etc. Thus, we get a lot of very similar sermons and not nearly as much personality and FLOW as we’d like from our speakers, teachers, and students. I would love to hear one talk which did not include the phrase, “As Elder so and so has said…” I love personal voices. I love risk-takers. I am always touched by someone’s willingness to reveal himself/herself and be “a fool for God.”

  5. KLC on September 21, 2006 at 2:36 pm

    I think you could call the prayer voice a hypercorrection. Some feel that talking with God on behalf of a congregation demands more than an ordinary tone and vocabulary.

    I think general conference speak also has a quality of hypercorrection. Sometimes it seems like the only people who have permission to speak plainly in GC are the prophet and a few senior apostles.

  6. Kevin Barney on September 21, 2006 at 2:43 pm

    I think your hypercorrection idea does provide a promising way to think about our interactions with others about religious things. An example that comes to my mind is a tendency for some LDS to view the cross in very negative, even evil terms. As a teenager I once (to my later, more mature horror) lambasted a girl for wearing “the instrument of Jesus’ torture” around her neck. That strikes me as a pretty clear overcorrection. True, we don’t use the cross in our tradition, perhaps out of Seeker simplicity or perhaps as a way of distinguishing ourselves from Protestant Christianity. But the symbolism of the cross is perfectly understandable and doesn’t require this kind of extreme overcorrection, yet some of us have a tendency to do that.

    One could argue that the whole phenomenon of Mormon neo-orthodoxy is to some extent a hypercorrection to earlier, more traditional Mormonism.

  7. Wilfried on September 21, 2006 at 3:00 pm

    Thanks for the linguistic input, Jonathan!

    A related interesting phenomenon is the influence of English on local languages in the international Church. Missionaries make transfer errors when speaking the local language (lexicon and syntax), but because of the use of those structures in a typical religious context and register, investigators and members may adopt those unwittingly. E.g. the formulaic “These things we pray for”, became in literal Dutch translation by missionaries: “Deze dingen bidden wij voor.” Erroneous in Dutch, but now often used by Dutch-speaking natives in Church. I guess it can be viewed as a form of hypercorrection. I’m sure there are many examples of this international mormonspeak in various languages.

  8. Capt. Obsidian on September 21, 2006 at 3:40 pm

    Slightly off topic… As a new missionary in Portugal, the only native I could easily understand was a Portuguese Elder who was an AP at the time. He had grown up around American missionaries and had adopted some of their linguistic mannerisms. He actually spoke Portuguese with an American accent. (He also spoke English quite well and was fond of saying, “Hooolllyyy freakincrud,man!”) I think his (unconscious?) adoption of these mannerisms is very similar to Wilfried’s example of the grammatically poor prayer ending that has found its way into Dutch congregations.

  9. manaen on September 21, 2006 at 3:41 pm

    Reverse hypercorrectness: not drinking caffeinated drinks around non-members solely because they believe the Church prohibits them although it doesn’t.

    As a psych major, I completed an English minor in order to be able to communicate ideas much better than the published articles in psych journals. The English majors liked to say that other people would stop talking when they learned they were in the presence of an English major. My response was that when people would leave the room when they learned I was a psych major.

  10. JKC on September 21, 2006 at 3:45 pm

    So is hypercorrection virtually the same thing, in a religious context, as building a hedge about the law? In that case, it could be said that part of Jesus’ ministry was to correct (or perhaps, de-correct?) hypercorrection. I would certainly think that that will be part of his second coming as well, to “set in order the house of God” as the D&C puts it.

  11. Jonathan Green on September 22, 2006 at 3:48 am

    These are all good suggestions, but hypercorrection is a bit different than an overrigorous or pedantic insistence on correct practice–think of it as an attempt at pedantic correctness that goes spectacularly astray because you don’t know exactly what the correct standard is. I think Kevin’s example is quite good, better than the ones I came up with: we know we don’t use the cross as an element in our architecture or worship, so we don’t know quite what to do with it in the situations where we’re confronted by it. The solution is not to start wearing crosses ourselves, but to watch carefully for stepping into messes of our own devising when we do talk about the cross.

  12. The Only True and Living Nathan on September 22, 2006 at 6:01 pm

    I can’t believe I can come along after eleven comments (unless another has slipped in while I’ve been typing) and be the first person to mention the Mormon “grace vs. works” overcompensation.

  13. Jonathan Green on September 22, 2006 at 6:51 pm

    TOTL Nathan, please elaborate. That part of the original post got dropped because I knew you could do a better job than I could.

  14. The Only True and Living Nathan on September 25, 2006 at 11:25 am

    Aw, shucks, you’re just buttering me up…

    I mean the unspoken Mormon idea of “If THEY [i.e. Protestants] are saved by grace without works, we’re saved by works without grace!” And rather than giving a leaden rendition of the first couple of chapters of Stephen E. Robinson’s Believing Christ, I simply refer y’all there.

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