The Clever Power of Grammar

PZ Myers commented on aspects of religious pronouncements and self-justification in his blog post, Why you should never trust a priest in an argumentHe had read Michael Nugent’s Is the Vatican cooperating fully with the Irish Government? in which Nugent draws attention to some particularly slippery legalese from the Vatican.

Reading aloud with a friend the part in which Nugent quotes the Vatican:

The most significant sentence in the Vatican’s response to the Irish Government about the Cloyne Report comes on the second-last page, just before the concluding remarks. It says: “From the foregoing considerations, it should be clear that the Holy See expects the Irish Bishops to cooperate with the civil authorities, to implement fully the norms of canon law and to ensure the full and impartial application of the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland.

I was continuing on when suddenly a discrepancy was noted: “Was there a comma in there? That makes a difference, you know.”

An Adverb and a Comma

First of all, I should be clear that this little issue might matter only because of the source (the Vatican) and the audience (the Irish government). Under most circumstances, I’d write this off as, perhaps, sloppy grammar or a clumsy, rhetorical accident. I assume that Nugent had the same view. Choice of words and punctuation carry tremendous weight in official documents.

Well, it just so happens that there was a comma (see above) between “authorities” and “to”. One comma in the right place can alter the meaning in a dramatic and disturbing way. I hadn’t noticed the comma while I was reading and so had missed alternative interpretations.

I read it again, noting the shift.

Nugent, I should emphasize, had drawn attention to a shift in vocabulary, that is, the way in which an adverb (“fully“) might provide the Vatican some abrogation of responsibility. He made an excellent case. But more significant than the word “fully”, I think, is the addition of that single comma!

I suspect you might not believe me. Please read on.

Two Versions

Compare these two versions of the Vatican’s response regarding the Cloyne Report. First the original:

“…it should be clear that the Holy See expects the Irish Bishops to cooperate with the civil authorities, to implement fully the norms of canon law and to ensure the full and impartial application of the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland.”

Now I will offer a modified version — a version which might be construed by a listening audience or a reader (like me) who is slow to pick up on the meaning:

“…it should be clear that the Holy See expects the Irish Bishops to cooperate with the civil authorities to implement fully the norms of canon law and to ensure the full and impartial application of the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland.”

Did to catch the change? You can see that these two sentences have exactly the same number of words and that they are in the same order. But these two sentences quite possibly could not be more divergent!

You should know ahead of time that this will get much worse, but let’s get through this. Stripping away all but the most essential words, you may see right away that:

“…expects [them] to cooperate, to implement the norms and to ensure…”

is completely different from

“…expects [them] to cooperate to implement the norms and to ensure…”

If you don’t see it right away, don’t feel bad. I’ll clarify. The latter, without no comma — easily the way a listening audience would most certainly construe the sentence — implies that Bishops are to cooperate in order to implement the norms of canon law and to ensure (etc). The cooperation phrase is linked directly to implementation and assurance.

A Comma to Remove Responsibility

But that is not the way the text reads. The first version, as actually issued by the Vatican, merely lists cooperation along with implementation and assurances of application of child safety norms.

The addition of a single comma transforms what would sound like cooperation with the intent to implement — this is the way it sounds when read out loud — into something a lot less participatory, cooperation separate from implementation. At this point, we could add the word “fully” selectively and really do some damage.

But wait! I promised you…

It Gets Worse

It gets a lot worse! This wasn’t immediately obvious to me at first, but this entire clause — about which I’m whining about commas and choice of words and so on — is introduced with fudge language par excellence:

“It should be clear that…”

That seems fairly innocuous, doesn’t it? Why am I complaining about a mild phrase like that, you might wonder? Well, this little tacked-on, declarative statement at the beginning of the clause just happens to announce nothing more than the mere existence of the following conditions after the subordinating conjunction. The entire phrase, intact:

From the foregoing considerations, it should be clear that…

This “should be clear that” business just happens to minimize exactly everything that follows to mere existence, rather than to introduce an expression of intent on the part of the Vatican. It transforms what follows to something completely non-binding, regardless of the wording!

So, forget about problems with diacritical marks and, with all due respect to Michael Nugent, some  adverbs! The writer of that Vatican paragraph breaks intent by stating, essentially, a bland fact that if you had read the foregoing you would construe particular points, which the Vatican may or may not agree to. He then proceeds to list those construals. He might as well have said “from the foregoing considerations, it should be clear that the foregoing considerations are listed thusly…“. That would have at least been a clear statement. Grammatically, that is exactly what was done.

Insult to Injury

To pile additional vagueness atop subversive subordination, the writer doesn’t even use the pronouns you or one in the subordinate clause, but “it”!

it should be clear…

Just, “it”. As though neither you or one are actual, physical people reading and understanding! Or perhaps it is supposed to indicate an abstract truth of some kind which one would be regarded as fool to question: It should not be un-clear, some thing should be understandable, passively, to no one in particular. It floats in space somewhere, etc., etc.

You may have read the Vatican’s statement and taken away the idea that the Holy See declared an expectation of some kindRead it again, having parsed these carefully constructed sentences for yourself. Did they declare anything? Are they resolved to “cooperate” — “fully” or otherwise — or is that merely “clear from the foregoing considerations”? Are they even now, while we discuss this, establishing a crack supervisory team “to ensure” some outcome, or is that just in the list of things you would construe “from the foregoing considerations”?

The Vatican, I reckon, would rather prefer to “be understood” — passively, no actor in particular performing any particular action, than to make themselves understood; I think they would prefer to “be understood” as having “been construed”, with ambiguous, non-committal language, rather than to publish active tense sentences which any reasonable person could, with some confidence, take as a real commitment.

It would be nice also if you were to have assumed that it is clear that the foregoing considerations indicated that certain points of consideration were discussed!



One thought on “The Clever Power of Grammar”

  1. Depending on what “the foregoing considerations” happened to be, “it should be clear” *might* not have been a non-committal hedge, but it certainly sounds like one; and of course you’re dead right about the comma. But “it” is the claim, not the reader.


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