I recently read a really good book, “Word by Word, the Secret history of Dictionaries.” I learned something I did not know. Dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. What this means is that dictionaries “describe” how words are used, and does not “prescribe”, or tell you how to use a word. As an example, most dictionaries have the word “irregardless” since it is being used so much.

I would expect the Church Handbook to be prescriptive. It would tell us what we should do. Yet the section on using the right hand in the new handbook sounds descriptive.

Members partake with their right hand when possible.

GH, 18.9.4, 7

What is missing to make this prescriptive is the word “must” or “shall”. So I then checked the reset of the section on the sacrament. There was plenty of prescriptive statements.

The bishop holds the priesthood keys for administering the sacrament in the ward. All who participate in preparing, blessing, and passing the sacrament must receive approval from him or someone under his direction.

GH 18.9.1

There is the word “must”, meaning this is something that has to be done. The Bishop has no choice in this. Next we have the word “should”

Because of the sacred nature of the sacrament, priesthood leaders should prepare carefully so it is orderly and reverent. Sacrament tablecloths should be white, clean, and pressed. Sacrament trays should be clean. Sacrament trays and cups should be ordered well in advance.

GH 18.9.3

Should is used as a less prescriptive term. Not at forceful as “must”, but still something to do. Of course the sacrament service does not break down if the tablecloths are not clean and pressed, though they “should be”.

Lastly we have “may”

If members of his ward are unable to partake of the sacrament because they are confined to a home, care center, or hospital, the bishop may authorize priesthood holders to administer the sacrament to them. He may authorize this even if they are temporarily outside his ward boundaries.

GH 18.9.1

Here the word may allows the option to the bishop. He can or cannot do this, it’s his choice. Now there is a some legal precedent in contractual law that “should/shall” has the same meaning as “must”, but I don’t see that here. The writers of the handbook seems to have selected three words to convey levels or requirements:

  1. Must: you have to do it
  2. Should: highly recommended you do this
  3. May: your choice

But we could have a leader that interprets the “should” as a must, and you could have one that uses the “should” as a suggestion. These words are not defined like they are in some of the tech manuals I work with. In the front of these tech manuals they describe these words, and exactly what they mean.

So lets get back to which hand to use for taking the sacrament. How would that sentence have changed if it had been written like this?

Members must partake with their right hand when possible.

Members should partake with their right hand when possible.

This puts a new meaning to it. It makes it prescriptive, telling the reader what “must/should” be done. The original then sounds very descriptive, like it is describing the way it is typically done, either out of habit or custom. Was this on purpose? Is this really a descriptive sentence, or is it a sly way to prescribe the way to take the sacrament without actually saying you must/should do it?

What do you think?

(For much more thorough and in dept look at this, see Zelophehad’s Daughters Blog )