Mr. Crankypants is peeved but not Rev.

Mr. Crankypants has been reading Unitarian Universalist blogs, and has been noticing how many bloggers misuse the honorific “reverend.”

The most common honorifics are used separately from each other. Thus we speak of “Dr. Smith,” or “Mr. Smith,” but after Mr. Smith becomes a doctor we do not speak of “Dr. Mr. Smith.” The honorific “Reverend,” however, like “Honorable,” belongs to a group of honorifics that most properly appear with other honorifics. Thus when Dr. Wang is ordained she becomes Rev. Dr. Lily Wang; when Mr. Jones is ordained he becomes Rev. Mr. Jenkin Lloyd Jones. We commonly understand that “Rev.”, like “Mr.”, is an abbreviation; completely spelled out, “Rev. Ms. Cuervo” abbreviates “the Reverend Ms Cuervo,” just as “Hon.” abbreviates “the Honorable.”

Note that the honorific “Reverend” is used only the first time a person is mentioned; thereafter that person is referred to as Mr., Ms., or Dr. Soandso. For clarity, it is best when the first mention of the clergyperson uses both “Rev.”, followed by Mr., Ms., Dr., etc., followed by the person’s first name and last name, i.e., “Rev. Mr. Supply Belcher”.1

Mr. Crankypants has observed many improper uses of the honorific “Reverend” in the Unitarian Universalist blogosphere (and in the wider blogosphere, for that matter, an interesting case where Unitarian Universalist bloggers are no worse than other religious bloggers). Below are three hypothetical examples of ways the honorific “Reverend” is misused, along with Mr. Crankypants’s comments and corrections.

(1) Then the reverend married us.

A common error. “Reverend” is not a noun, it is an honorific that must modify a proper noun. This confusion probably arises from the honorific “Doctor” which sounds exactly like the noun “doctor.” The person who is addressed with the honorific “Reverend” may be a minister, pastor, rector, elder, etc.; but there is no such thing as a “reverend.” Similarly, the person who is addressed with the honorific “Honorable” may be a mayor or other political leader; but the holder of the executive office in a city is not an “honorable.” One also wonders why the clergyperson in the example would want to get involved in a polyamorous relationship with someone who uses such bad English style, but let it pass. The corrected sentence should read: “Then the minister officiated at our wedding ceremony.”

(2) Our minister is Rev. Darth Vader. Tomorrow, Rev. Vader will preach on the errors of Jediism.

An error so common it is often not perceived as an error. But think of the case where the proper honorific for the clergyperson is “Very Rev.”; it would sound awkward if subsequent mentions of the clergyperson included the complete honorific, and awkward if they did not. Because there are no “Very Rev.” Unitarian Universalist clergypeople, Unitarian Universalists can get away with making this error, assuming they can tolerate looking idiotic to people like Mr. Crankypants, but it would be better to rewrite these two sentences as follows: “Our minister is the Rev. Dr. Darth Vader. Tomorrow, Dr. Vader will preach on the errors of Jediism.”

(3) And now, Rev. Johnnie will tell the children a story.

A common and unforgiveable error. Even if the clergyperson’s last name is “Johnnie,” the sentence should read “Rev. Mr. Johnnie will tell…” and even then it would be better if Mr. Johnnie’s first name were included. The honorific “Reverend” is a formal term, and no amount of having the kiddies call their minister “Rev. Johnnie” will make it any less formal as an honorific. Instead it sounds like those horrible television shows for children where the host is named “Mister Bobbie,” and the man playing “Mister Bobbie” is either a simpleton or a probable child molester. It’s only a short step from the example given above, to saying something like this: “And now, Reverend Johnnie will tell the pwecious little kiddies a vewy important story!” — a sentence which cries out to be completed with a self-satisfied, self-conscious, half-demented giggle. Assuming the minister had already been introduced, the corrected sentence could read, “Mr. Amirthanagayam will now tell the story” (and yes, even if Johnnie’s last name is that long one should say the whole name); or, if one wished to be informal, the sentence could read: “Johnnie will now tell the story.”

So Mr. Crankypants has decreed. So may it be, whether you like it or not.


1Yes, Jim, this is a real name: Supply Belcher was a late 18th C. American composer of hymn tunes.

25 thoughts on “Mr. Crankypants is peeved but not Rev.

  1. CC

    (((Our minister is the Rev. Dr. Darth Vader. Tomorrow, Dr. Vader will preach on the errors of Jediism)))

    Hmmm… He must be a Unitarian Jedi then, since he’s willing to talk about Jediism’s erorrs, because the Reverend Dr. Darth Vader WAS a Jedi in the movies.

    Good job with the refining your beliefs through reason, Mr. Vader!

  2. Paul Oakley

    Thanks for this, Mr. Crankypants.

    Coming as I do from a fundamentalist background where “reverend” was a word reserved for God alone (Psalm 111:9 KJV) and where the only and egalitarian substitute was to call the minister Brother Soandso, the same as we called the elders, the deacons, and male members (pardon the pun) generally (women members were Sister Soandso), any use of Rev. still seems stilted to me. Even the RCC, EOC, and TEC use of “Father” is easier on my ears than Rev., whether the Rev. is used properly or not.

    Antinomian me says eff the rules. People say say what they say re Rev., and it communicates, so leave it alone. But to be a good antinomian, it is helpful to know what rules one has has available to break… :)

  3. Christine Robinson

    I agree with all you said…with one further comment, that the honorific is “the Reverend Soandso.” No Reverend without ‘the’…another reason why you wouldn’t repeat the whole thing twice in two sentences.

  4. Ann

    My, you were cranky this afternoon, “Rev. Dan”! Too much Easter candy? There is a whole Wikipedia article on the phrase “the reverend,” which never mentions adding “Mr.” or “Dr.” It was no doubt the rule to do so a century or two ago, but, like UUism, the English language has to evolve. (Most of the discussions I’ve found are about requiring the word “the” before “Reverend,” which you did not do in your examples.)

  5. Amy

    Spinning off CC (or should I call her Your Worshipfulness): Beliefs might, just might, be alignable with reason. Grammar is not.

    Hearing “the reverend married us” makes me feel like I’m chewing tin foil*, but “the minister married us” is one of the many lovely ambiguities to which English is so prone. The “one word for one concept” project in language failed a long time ago (and was bad philosophy from the get-go), and besides, if we didn’t have all these double meanings and redundancies, we wouldn’t have any puns. What a sad loss to ministerial life that would be.

    *Disclaimer: contains no tin

  6. Jean

    Wow. My mind is spinning. I just have one question, Mr. Crankypants: Can I still call my brother “Dan”? Or, when I slip and forget, “Danny”?

  7. UU Jester

    The folks at my new congregation call me Rev. Craig or Reverend. I know it isn’t grammatically correct. But I like the sound of it– they like the sound of it– so I’m sticking with it. You may call me by whatever grammatically correct (though stilted and archaic sounding) title you wish. When I sign public documents (like the occasional newspaper article), I write the Rev. Craig Schwalenberg. It works for that venue. The former works for its venue.

    And if it makes Mr. Crankypants crankier, then I’m even more for it.

  8. Mr. Crankypants

    CC @ 1 — “the Reverend Dr. Darth Vader WAS a Jedi in the movies”

    Vader converted to Reformed Evangelical Jedi as part of going over to the Dark Side. REJ was formally established during the Sith Wars by Darth Bane; Vader used the 778 BBY REJ prayer book revision, so technically he was part of the REJ Evil Charismatic Telos (or REJECT). One of the precepts of REJECT is pointing out the errors of what they call Apostate Jediism (AJ), what we call just plain ol’ Jediism.

    Paul Oakley @ 2 — You write: “the only and egalitarian substitute was to call the minister Brother Soandso”

    Which is exactly what the Universalists used to do. Mr. Crankypants would like to see us go back to that, and get rid of the rather pompous Unitarian method of calling clergy “Rev.” — but, as the Calvinist bookseller once said, it’s a fallen world.

    Ann @ 4 — Mr. Crankypants does not allow his friends to drive drunk, nor does he allow his friends to cite Wikipedia on any topic except software and some information technology topics. Please don’t drink and drive; please don’t cite Wikipedia. (Go ahead and cite the AP Stylebook, though.) (P.S. See the fourth sentence of the second paragraph above.)

    Scott @ 5 — You know how much Mr. C. loves to cause a big fuss; why do you think he wrote this article?

    Amy @ 6 — Mr. Crankypants will cede you your point, if only because of your lovely image of chewing on tin foil.

    Jean @ 7 — Mr. C. doesn’t really care what you call Dan, but Mr. C. is interested that your head is spinning.

    UU Jester @ 8 — Yes, but you’re in upstate New York. These kinds of things happen all the time in upstate New York, so of course Mr. Crankypants isn’t cranky.

    P.S. Love the duckie couple. Did you marry them? (oh, you know what I mean, officiate at their wedding).

  9. Amy

    Rev. C. @9: Having gained your approval on one point, I will push my luck and argue that “Rev. Ms. Amy,” like many grammatically correct forms, is silly and redundant. Fond as I am of the feminist banner “Ms.,” why use it there? Its only functions in conjunction with “Rev.” are to inform everyone that I don’t have a doctorate (already evident by the absence of Dr.) and am female (already evident by my unambiguous name). So I think “Rev. Amy,” though an unnecessary formality, is an apt substitute for “Ms. Amy” for those of Southern spirit who wish their children to call me something more formal than simply “Amy.”

    If it makes you feel like you’re chewing tin foil whenever you hear it, here’s a mint julep to wash it down.

  10. Amy

    Oh, and as long as I’m exploiting my mysterious air of authority by laying on the Rev. when I sign letters to the editor, I’ll wield my arbitrary power as Senior Minister and insist that everyone at church call us Sister Amy and Brother ___ from now on. (I’m sorry, I don’t know your first name.) I like it!

  11. Mr. Crankypants

    Amy @ 11 — That would be “Brother Mr.”

    Yes, “Mr.” is Mr. Crankypants’s first name.

  12. Mr. Crankypants

    Amy @ 10 — No no no no no. “Rev. Ms. Amy” is wrong wrong wrong.

    It would be “Rev. Ms. Amy Zucker-Morgenstern.” Subsequent references would be to “Ms. Zucker-Morgenstern.” In cases where you wish to be less formal, it would be “Amy,” with no honorific.

  13. Amy

    Oh. One of the prerogatives of sabbatical is not having to read closely.

    My mother thinks our 3-year degree should be a doctorate, like the J.D. (that way, she could say both her kids had doctorates), so sign me

    –Sister The Right Very Rev. Dr. Ms. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

  14. UU Jester

    Which ducky couple? The Jester Ducky and the Chef Ducky? (No, I did not officiate at their wedding, though I did have a hand in writing their ceremony.) The Devil Duckies couple? (Not yet, but in September, I will be marrying them– officiating at their wedding ceremony.)

  15. Abs

    Ok, Mr. Crankypants, now can you solve this naming dilemma for me: why, oh why, do parents insist on calling the children’s librarian “Miss Abby”?!?!?! >blechptooey<

    Especially when the Abby in question is both married and far too old to be referred to as "Miss Abby."

    Please help.

  16. Paul Oakley

    Abs @ 17 – Are you in the South or are the parents in question from the South? It is an old Southernism to refer to married women as Miz followed by their first name. Possibly the Miz is simply a contraction of Missuz (Mrs.) And in the late 20th century and 21st century Yankees and educated Southerners tended to hypercorrect Miz to Miss. But it was always a respectful form of address.

    Jimmy Carter’s mother was publicly, consistently, and with respect called Miss Lillian. My brother’s third-grade teacher was called Miss Flossy at a time when calling a teacher by a first name was considered disrespectful in any other form. My partner’s mother was called Miz Inez by the women in her Presbyterian church.

    We just have to accept the hypercorrection to “Miss.” But know that people using this form are not being overly familiar and are definitely not being disrespectful.

  17. Dan

    Paul Oakley @ 18 — Alas, I happen to know that Abs is in New England. She is a victim of the cult of informality that dominates most of the United States today. As she says, bleckptooey.

  18. Mr. Crankypants

    Abs @ 17 — Since slapping upside the head is probably out of the question, Mr. Crankypants recommends a frigid stare.

  19. CC

    I am now imagining Mr. Crankypants going “My first name is Mister. My middle name is period. My last name is Crankypants” a la Mr. T.

    And, like really anything involving Mr. T, that is awesome.


  20. Mr. Crankypants

    Mr. Crankypants would phrase it a little differently: “Mr. Crankypants’s first name is ‘Mister,’ his middle name is ‘period,’ and his last name is ‘Crankypants’.” Otherwise, CC, you are essentially correct.

    By the way, how do they address you? Is it “Ms. Chick” to those who don’t know you well, but “Chalice” to your friends? Or do you prefer your friends to call you “CeeCee”? Inquiring minds want to know….

  21. kim

    As head of the UU Chalistry (virtual, so far), I have been titled Mother Abbess. Care to comment on the correct ways to use that term?

  22. Benjamin

    Mr. C — I agree with you about the horrible affront to all things good and beautiful that is “reverend” used as a noun. (I heard it today on NPR, for crying out loud.) I do have one tiny quibble.

    No denomination that I know of (with one exception, noted below) uses “the Rev. Mr.” for an honorific. It’s simply “the Rev.” or “The Rev. Dr.” “The Rev.” _replaces_ the “Mr.” It doesn’t get added to it.

    The exception is permanent deacons in the Roman Catholic Church, who are styled “the Rev. Mr.” Roman Catholic priests are simply “the Rev.” or “Father”. (The extent to which the usage in Episcopal and Orthodox churches is similar I can’t say.)

  23. Dan

    Benjamin @ 24 — “Rev. Mr.” is a perfectly good form of address in English, and has been used extensively in books and newspapers for many years. It is perhaps less common now, but it is still acceptable usage for a clergyperson of any denomination. I have in my files a photocopy of a letter written by Dan Huntington Fenn when he was the director of the office of ministry at the old American Unitarian Association insisting on “Rev. Mr.” as the correct form of address, so it has been used by Unitarians.

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