Friday, February 16, 2007

Over use of "precisely"

My contribution to the blogger-cooler discussion of Pet Peeves in the use of language features some easy targets. It seems I am not the only one who is irritated to an irrational degree by "Revelations", for example. So here is a more controversial example of a pet peeve that has developed in recent scholarly writing. It is the over use of the word "precisely", especially in contexts where it is modifying a conjunction as in "it is precisely because this issue is so important that I am trying to be precise about it".

The usage is widespread, but I think Tom Wright uses it more than most. Future generations who are trying to distinguish authentic Wright from pseudepigraphical Wright will be looking at percentages of the use of "precisely" in the writings in question. The article Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire, for example, features precisely eleven examples:
The book thus invites us to approach what has been called Paul's theology, and to find in it, not simply a few social or political "implications", to be left safely to the final chapters of a lengthy theological tome, but a major challenge to precisely that imperial cult and ideology which was part of the air Paul and his converts breathed.

Politically, it cannot but have been heard as a summons to allegiance to "another king", which is of course precisely what Luke says Paul was accused of saying (Acts 17.7).

What the older history-of-religions argument failed to reckon with was the Jewish understanding that, precisely because of Israel's status within the purposes of the creator god, Israel's king was always supposed to be the world's true king.

Paul endorsed this train of thought, and he believed it to have been fulfilled in Jesus. He knew, of course, that Jesus was very different from the other Messiahs who flit through first-century history, but it is precisely part of the characteristic tension of his whole theology to claim that this crucified Jesus was and is the Jewish Messiah promised in scripture.

Simultaneously, and precisely because of the inner dynamic of just this Jewish tradition, Paul was announcing that Jesus was the true King of Israel and hence the true Lord of the world, at exactly the time in history, and over exactly the geographical spread, where the Roman emperor was being proclaimed, in what styled itself a "gospel", in very similar terms.

When, therefore, God's righteousness was unveiled, the effect would be precisely that the world would receive justice: that rich, restorative, much-to-be-longed-for justice of which the Psalmists had spoken with such feeling.

And the point of having "citizenship in heaven", as has often been pointed out, is not that one might eventually go home to the mother city; Rome established colonies precisely because of overcrowding in the capital, and the desire to spread Roman civilization in the rest of the empire.

Before we pick up the stones of our post-enlightenment sensibilities to throw at Paul, or at any interpreter who dares to suggest that Paul might have done any such thing, we should recall that precisely this move was a standard way in which many Jewish groups in the second-Temple period would define themselves over against one another.

Paul is thus not only located on the map of second-Temple history, but, by employing an inner-Jewish rhetorical strategy in which one's opponents were cast as pseudo-pagans, he is able to use the device in a quite new way, setting up precisely this polemic so as to serve a new purpose, namely his anti-Caesar message.

Just as the Messiah had obeyed the covenant plan of God, and was now identified as the Lord of the world, so the Messiah's people were to find their covenant identity precisely "in" the Messiah, in his dying and rising, in his faithfulness, in the covenant membership which would be God's gift bestowed upon faithfulness.

It is precisely because they are assured they are indeed the people of the one true God, formed in the Messiah through his death and resurrection, that the Philippians will have the courage and confidence to trust him as saviour and lord and so to renounce the imperial claims of Caesar.
My least favourite example of the usage is in the phrase "precisely because" since it is rare that it adds anything substantial to the clause. I suppose the point is to add some stress to the clause in question, as in "It really is because . . . . ."; "It is because of this very thing that I wish to stress. . . ." so it becomes a shorthand for adding emphasis. I don't want to give the impression that I am unfairly criticizing Wright's prose. Indeed it is precisely because I so admire his writing style that I can't help noticing this widespread feature of scholarly prose making such a marked impression on his writing. The usage is becoming difficult to avoid; it's one of those little language trends that we can't help finding ourselves pulled into. Although I would never consciously use it myself, it is a creeping usage that is becoming ever more pervasive.


Bob MacDonald said...

Words ending in -ly tell the reader how to think and thereby discourage thinking.

AKMA said...

I suspect I'm guilty of this one -- I'll have to be especially careful hereafter.