I receive a daily email from Oxford University Press which contains small parts of a book they publish titled Garner’s Modern American Usage. Today’s excerpt contained this:
living in sin. This phrase is on the wane. Even the Church of England has proclaimed that "living in sin" is a "most unhelpful" way of describing unmarried couples who cohabit. The Church estimates that four out of five couples live together before marrying. A major Church report in 1995 therefore concludes that the phrase should be dropped. Ruth Gledhill, "'Living in Sin' Is No Longer Sinful, Says Church Report," Times (London), 7 June 1995, at 1.
Word usages both reflect and influence the way we think about things. Here is a good example. Now “even’ the Church of England has declared that ‘living in sin’ is (and notice the delicate wording here) a most unhelpful way of describing the condition of those who ‘shack up.’ (To use a euphemism which, itself, is a rather interesting phrase.)
Suppose, though, we are not interested in being ‘helpful’ (whatever that might mean) but instead would like to be accurate. Is it ‘living in sin’ when the unmarried live together and (implied) engage in sexual relations outside of marriage?
Someone will no doubt say that are all ‘living in sin’ in some way or other, meaning simply that we all sin. But, of course, that does not change the fact that engaging in sexual relations outside marriage is a sin.
Without going into a complete defense of this claim, it is the case that it is based on the historic Christian faith. If the historic Christian faith is true, then ‘living in sin’ is an accurate description of what we are talking about here.
As ‘the Church’ (of England) points out, many people engage in this behavior. That, of course, is irrelevant as to whether or not it is a sin. But if you would rather not make people feel bad by accurately describing their behavior, then, as the report says, ‘the phrase should be dropped.’
But if you are interested in the truth (which, apparently, the Church of England is not) then perhaps we should keep using the phrase. And there is a benefit even beyond this.
Calling a sin a sin is a way of exerting social pressure. Social pressure is not a bad thing – it can be very good. Using a negative name for bad behavior can be a peaceful way of discouraging bad behavior. But it seems the Church of England doesn’t want to do that, either.
Perhaps we need more, not fewer, negative names for bad behavior. And this could create a lot of jobs for linguists!