Another Test: The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants Use of Command Syntax and What It Tells Us About the Language in the Book of Mormon

In a recent post examining the language of the Doctrine and Covenants, I found that the Early Modern English style of using “did” for past tense, such a common feature of the Book of Mormon, was not common in the Bible and relatively rare in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants (see “Did You Notice? What the Doctrine and Covenants Tells Us About the Earliest Text of the Book of Mormon“). I mentioned that the next test would be to look at command syntax, which Carmack Stanford has examined with surprising results. Basically, he has shown that the complex grammar involving the verb “command” in the Book of Mormon is rather characteristic of pre-KJV Early Modern English (EModD), differing sharply from the Bible. The Book of Mormon favors complex “layered” structures like, “He commanded the blogger that he should stop writing such boring posts” instead of the more modern pattern, “He commanded the blogger to stop writing such boring posts.” When “command” governs a subsequent verb, the Book of Mormon strongly favors the former finite pattern, lacking the infinitive “to,” while the Bible and modern English strongly favor the latter infinitive form. The finite form is used 79% of the time in the Book of Mormon, but only 18% in the King James Bible.

Looking through the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants as a tool for examining Joseph’s language, I find 44 occurrences of the verb “command” plus a verb. 28 are in the infinitive form and only 16 in the finite form, for a 36% finite rate, way below what’s in the Book of Mormon and much closer to the Bible. More to come….

Update, Aug. 9, 2016: Analysis of the use of command syntax in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants as well as in our current edition shows strong differences in command syntax relative to the Book of Mormon. The results tend to be closer to the King James Bible’s usage, though there may be an influence from Book of Mormon language in the Doctrine and Covenants text, especially for the sections written prior to publication of the Book of Mormon.

Note from Aug. 10, 2016: I have revised my counting method to more closely follow Dr. Carmack’s preferred counting technique. Some of my previous numbers involved overcounting. If the infinitive “to” only occurs once after “command,” it’s one instance of an infinitive verb, even if additional verbs follows. Likewise, if there is only one “that” in a finite phrase, it counts as one instance even if more than one verb is governed by “command.” The overall rates change very little because my overcounting affected both finite and infinitive forms roughly equally. The same applies for layered versus simple. One important error, though, was taking Carmack’s rate of 73% layered in the Book of Mormon to apply to all uses of command. It actually applies to the finite verb cases. The overall rate of the finite case in the Book of Mormon is 58%. Sentences with “command” governing a verb are in finite form 79% of the time in the Book of Mormon, and 73% of those finite case are in layered format, for an overall layered rate of 58%.

The 1835 text has 40 instances of the verb “command” in some form directly governing one or more other verbs, with a total of 44 50 verbs that are so governed.  The governed verbs are in finite form 14 16 times, or 32% of the time, while they are infinitives 68% of the time. The 32% finite form rate is far below the 79% rate in the Book of Mormon (based on the Earliest Text), but somewhat higher than the 18% rate of the King James Bible.

Finite forms are often in the layered structure, e.g., “I command him that he shall….” instead of the simple form, “I commanded him to ….” However, “that” plus a finite verb can also occur in a simple, non-layered form, as in “I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift….”

A count of layered vs. simple format for command syntax in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants gives 31 35 occurrences of governed verbs in simple format and 13 15 in layered format, for an overall layered rate of 29.5% 30%. Carmack reports a layered rate of 58% 73% in the Book of Mormon, and 7% (37.5% of the 18.8% finite forms) in the King James Bible.

Of the 40 occurrences of “command” as a verb governing another verb, in 27 cases the command form was entirely simple, in 11 cases it was entirely layered, and in 2 cases a single instance of “command” was used with both forms. Thus, the verb “command” was used in layered forms 13 times (11 pure occurrences+ 2 mixed occurrences), and counting the mixed cases twice in the denominator, we get a rate of 13/42 = 31% for the rate at which the verb “command” is applied in layered formats. Similarly, the rate at which “command” is followed by finite verbs is 33%.

In tracking command syntax, I attempt to follow Carmack Stanford in identifying forms of the verb “command” that govern at least one other verb. Sometimes an instance of “command” governs two or more verbs, and in two cases the results are mixed, meaning, for example, that “command” governs both a finite verb and an infinitive, as in: “I command you, my servant Joseph, to repent [infinitive] and walk more uprightly before me, and yield to the persuasions of men no more; and that you be firm [finite form] in keeping the commandments…,” which has one three infinitive verbs [to occurs once + verb(s)] and one finite verb [be] in a “layered” structure (e.g., “command you that you” + finite verb, which is often the auxiliary/modal verb should/shall + another verb).

The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants’ first two occurrences of command syntax come from quoting Genesis 3 (“commanded that they should be brought unto Adam” and “The woman whom you gave me, and commanded that she should remain with me”). I exclude these from the statistics since they do not help us understand the language of Joseph Smith and the scriptures he created, but that exclusion has very minor impact on that statistics.

Our current printing of the Doctrine and Covenants is different in many ways, lacking the Lectures on Faith, having a variety of textual changes, and also having revelations given after the printing of the 1835 edition. Analysis of its command syntax shows the verb “command” in some form was used to govern one or more verbs 56 times, with a total of 60 70 verbs being so governed.  Of those 60 70 verbs, 46 53 occur in a simple form and 14 17 in a layered form, for an overall layered rate of 14/60 17/70 = 23.3% 24.3%. These verbs occur as infinitives 45 52 times and as finite verbs 15 18 times, for a finite verb rate of 15/60 18/70= 25.0% 25.7%. These rates are closer to the low rates in the King James Bible and remote from the high levels of the Book of Mormon.

The 56 instances of the verb “command” governing other verbs occur in purely simple forms 42 times, purely layered forms 11, and mixed forms 3 times. They govern only infinitives 41 times, only finite verbs 12 times, and mixed forms 3 times, showing a finite rate of 25.4%.

Though it may be a statistical fluke due to small sample size, the command syntax in the modern printing of the Doctrine and Covenants seems to show a high finite rate (over 50%) in the earliest sections recorded before the publication of the Book of Mormon.  Sections 5 (the earliest occurrence of relevant command syntax) through 19 (recorded shortly before publication of the Book of Mormon) show 15 occurrences of finite form command syntax and 8 in the infinitive, for a finite rate of 65%, rather close to the Book of Mormon. After that, the finite syntax plummets.

If that observation is correct and if it has any significance, then one might speculate that during the days of preparing the Book of Mormon and its manuscripts, it may have been that at least this aspect of Book of Mormon language was fresh and strong in Joseph’s mind, and subtly influenced other writings or dictation at this time. Following publication of the Book of Mormon, perhaps his own language became more controlling.

The question, of course, is whether Book of Mormon language was influencing Joseph, or whether it was entirely the other way around. If he was a prophet and was obtaining revelation to dictate the text of the Book of Mormon with a tightly controlled process, I can see the logic of a the language of the translation affecting him strongly during this period. On the other hand, one can assume it was just his natural language all along, affected by his desired to sound archaic and scriptural, and that those constraints gave us the language of the Book of Mormon, which then may have changed naturally as he matured. Or perhaps other hypotheses need to be explored.

As with the exploration of the subtle use of “did” in the Book of Mormon for past tense, and its general absence in the Doctrine and Covenants, this tentative and possibly error-prone examination of command syntax suggests that an appeal to Joseph’s natural language and his desire to imitate the KJV fails to account for the high level of layered, finite command syntax in the Book of Mormon. However, the presence of high levels of finite syntax during the early days of the Doctrine and Covenants that overlapped the Book of Mormon translation and preparation process could suggest that such high levels do not necessarily require miraculous guidance. On the other hand, those trends could also be explained as a side effect of the miraculous guidance that gave Joseph the text to dictate to his scribes in the first place, which may have subtly but strongly influenced how he formulated command syntax when giving other scripture during that time. As always, further work is needed, and this present work may contain a variety of errors requiring revision. Your feedback is welcome.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

19 thoughts on “Another Test: The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants Use of Command Syntax and What It Tells Us About the Language in the Book of Mormon

  1. …and back to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while Professor Marvel tries to pull the curtain back around him and continue projecting the image of The Great and Powerful Oz.

  2. Here is something all apologists should read every morning before they get to work. It will remind them that the apologetic approach can be used to prop up falsehood and error.

    From Elder Oaks: "All of the scores of media stories on [the Salamander letter] apparently assume that the author of that letter used the word 'salamander' in the modern sense of a 'tailed amphibian.' One wonders why so many writers neglected to reveal to their readers that there is another meaning of 'salamander,' which may even have been the primary meaning in this context in the 1820s…. That meaning… is 'a mythical being thought to be able to live in fire… A being that is able to live in fire is a good approximation of the description Joseph Smith gave of the Angel Moroni:… the use of the words white salamander and old spirit seem understandable. In view of all this, and as a matter of intellectual evaluation, why all the excitement in the media, and why the apparent hand‑wringing among those who profess friendship or membership in the Church?"

    As we all know, the Salamander Letter, which Oaks is defending here with the typical apologetic of "it doesn't meant what we think it means" was a forgery. A fraud. A work of deception. No amount of twisting, churning, stretching, and pulling the facts could change that.

    Keep this in mind.

  3. Absolutely agree, Everything, and I thank you for this salient and much needed reminder. Sometimes–though certainly not always–the arguments against the Church and the Book of Mormon turn out to be based on entirely bogus arguments, specious evidence, and even forged documents that don't deserve our attention. In the end, there was no need to use logic to overcome the attacks based on the Salamander Letter because it was completely bogus.

    As for the incredibly intricate text of the Book of Mormon, a puzzle remains as to how it was generated. The primary assumption that the world makes is that Joseph forged it himself or with the help of a peer. But neither of those possibilities can explain how he was able to dictate this text. Arguments based on Solomon Spaulding or Sidney Rigdon being the secret authors are increasingly falling into the camp of the Salamander Letter in terms of their credibility. Do you have a more plausible explanation of its origins? One that could give us a testable hypothesis?

  4. The primary assumption that the world makes is that Joseph forged it himself or with the help of a peer.

    Just for the sake of clarification, Jeff, for many of us here in "the world," this is not an assumption. It's a conclusion, based on what we see as overwhelming evidence.

  5. Critics are the classic pot calling the kettle black.

    I would like to know what over whelming evidence there is that J.Smith forged plates and bought everyone off, or masterfully hypnotized everyone when the need arose. I have yet to see any evidence.

    All I have seen is: probably, could have, may have, might have, possible. Also second, third, fourth hand information.

    I think LDS critics have studied how Atheists argue against Christianity because the LDS critics arguments are identical to Atheists arguments against Christians. How convenient.

  6. Anon 112, KJV translation errors and italicized words found in the BoM is hard evidence of plagiarism. Look it up for yourself. Jeff acknowledges it, fairmormon does as well.

    "FairMormon does not take a position that God revealed 1769 KJV errors to Joseph, nor does FairMormon "concede" that Joseph copied KJV text over to the Book of Mormon. What FairMormon does do is acknowledge that there is scholarship that supports either position."

  7. What hypothetical evidence in favor of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon would ever cause you to say, "Well, that is actually impressive. Maybe it's worth a second look?" Short of God coming down with a fleet of angelic Nephite scholars to answer all questions and provide mountains of peer-reviewed evidence to your eternal satisfaction, can you think of any scenario where a find of some kind would soften your stance against the Book of Mormon? Or are you too committed to your political and social reasons for having revulsion toward the Church to ever be open to anything else?

  8. Anon 10:38, I think all of us doubters would be mightily impressed with a Central American inscription, written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, independently authenticated and dated to 600 BCE, that translated into I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents….

    Pushover that I am, I would personally be satisfied with a Mayan inscription reading And it came to pass…. Or a 1600-year-old skeleton at the base of Hill Cumorah with a steel sword lodged in its ribs. Or the bones of a 1900-year-old horse unearthed amid the wheels and yoke of a chariot.

    The truth is out there, Anon 10:38. All you need to do is find it.

    Knock yourself out.

  9. Anon 216: "KJV translation errors and italicized words found in the BoM is hard evidence of plagiarism".

    Sorry, it isn't. First, some biblical critical text readings are suspect. It depends on the methodology. But that aside, for the fraud view, which you espouse, then legitimate KJV translation errors can be evidence of plagiarism. For the divine view, it is a different matter. There are two competing views on the divine translation. The first one, which is espoused by FairMormon, is that JS was the translator, as we typically understand the term. The second one is Skousen's view that JS read words given to him. So he's only a translator in a limited, physical sense. For that view, the translation into English had already been carried out in the divine realm. The manuscript evidence, as well as syntax, morphology. support the second view. Phrasal evidence supposedly pointing to the 19th century can also be found in the 1600s. There is 100x the evidence for the second view, but people like Brant Gardner keep espousing the first view and using it on the FairMormon website. There's very little textual support for that view.

    So, with the textually supported view that JS read words given to him, that he had nothing to do with a translation into English, KJV translation errors and italicized words are understandable. First, italicized words could have been changed, deleted, or kept in a divine translation. Second, true KJV translation errors could have been changed or kept if they were deeemed inconsequential. Third, some translation "errors" deemed to be so by the critics are not actually errors.

    So if you've already concluded the BoM is a fraud, then these matters seem to support that claim. But they are not conclusive.

    I read through Runnells' treatment of this and some of it is quite lame. It certainly is unbalanced and naive in portions. I don't know that anyone has done a thorough balanced treatment of the issue. What are some of the KJV errors that you are referring to. Please provide some examples.

  10. Skousen's view [is] that JS read words given to him. So he's only a translator in a limited, physical sense.

    Um, no — in this view, Smith was not a translator at all.

    He was a medium.

    Mormonism as founded in occultism. Is this where Skousen is leading the Church? Is this where LDS apologetics really wants to go?

  11. Darn you, Steve! Now that I know the Mayans had a word meaning "happen," I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.

  12. Orbiting, whatever you want to call it, medium, intermediary agent, transmitter, relay, etc. Who cares. Doesn't matter one bit what we call it, as long as the notion is clear about what happened — that JS read words delivered to him from on high. You dragging in the occult, when Skousen has asserted that JS read words since at least 1998 with his term "tight control", is a juvenile way to discuss the matter. Please be respectable.

  13. OK, Anon 6:57, in the interest of respect, I'll retract my reference to occultism.

    Since we all agree that JS did not "translate" the BoM in any of the usual senses of the term, that in fact he did so in a way that did not seem to require looking at the gold plates at all, then what are we to make of his claim that "by the wisdom of God, they [the plates] remained safe in my hands, until I had accomplished by them what was required at my hand"?

    What exactly did JS "accomplish by them"? Nothing that I can see. Mighty odd that they would be divinely revealed to him and that he would have to struggle to keep them safe when all he needed to produce the BoM was a rock from a well.

    Why call JS the translator at all? If Skousen et al are correct, God was the translator and JS a relay (to use your term) between translator and transcriber. To refer to JS as a translator, as the Church routinely does, seems at best misleading.

    It is also odd that the same rock he used to con the gullible into paying him to find buried treasure should have the ability to reveal another testament of Jesus Christ. Go figure.

  14. I might give the Book of Mormon a second look as history if there were any solid evidence connecting it to actual history. By that I mean, not just some parallel that seems reassuring if you're already committed to the text on religious grounds, but something that would force you to take the text seriously as history even if you had no religious reasons whatever to care about it at all. Something like horses and chariots and swords, and a hill with a whole lot of bodies and weapons on and around it. If you believe in the Book for other reasons, then sure, you can say that the Americas are big, and that stuff might just not yet have been found. But if you want to make non-believers take the Book seriously as history, you need that kind of evidence.

    Once you have enough of that kind of evidence to establish that, Yes, there really was this culture at this place in this time period, then the game changes. Once we're sure a people actually existed, then we know they had to have some kind of customs and technologies, and history becomes a matter of trying to guess the details of how they lived. For that sort of guessing of details, even quite weak and tenuous evidence can be enough to tip the balance of probability in favor of one hypothesis over another. And so even quite tenuous evidence can be a respectable contribution to scholarly history — if it concerns details about something we know did exist. Until you have firm evidence for the basic existence issue, however, tenuous parallels are worth nothing at all.

    It's like the difference between trying to figure out how a bunch of fossilized bones originally fit together in a dinosaur skeleton, and hypothesizing the anatomy of a dragon. When you actually have a bunch of giant bones, then even tenuous parallels with the anatomy of other creatures elsewhere may be worthwhile indications of how those bones once fit together. But even though a dragon enthusiast might identify similar parallels between dragon legends and real flying creatures, this would not count as evidence for historical dragons.

  15. Who cares about "came to pass". Weak evidence either way. Every literate culture has a way to designate that something occurred.

    Anglin and Orbiting, there's a lot of language in the Book of Mormon that wasn't in use in the 19c. "The more part of X" is one (23x). See Holinshed's Chronicles for examples. The earliest text also has "a more part of" once, which you can find in Fabyan's Chronicle, and "the more parts of" twice (where "more" = 'greater'), also uncommon in the textual record.

  16. I hate to keep repeating this, but I keep seeing comments here that ignore its importance: the fraud theory of the Book of Mormon is that the text was composed in a badly faked archaic style.

    That's not a far-fetched hypothesis carefully constructed to fit difficult evidence. On the contrary, it's the immediate reaction that literate non-Mormons have to the Book of Mormon. Whoa, somebody was trying to sound like the King James Bible, but they really overdid it; and they also let a lot of 19th century Americanisms slip in.

    So of course the text of the Book of Mormon is not like Smith's own dialect, and of course it's not like the King James Bible, either. It's a mish-mash of overdone archaism and anachronistic vocabulary. This is not a mystery at all — unless you want to avoid the conclusion of fraud.

  17. I agree, James. The BoM is in no way a EModE text by the very fact that it contains Early, Mid, and Modern English all at the same time.
    It's like an American doing a British accent. He may stumble from Cockney to Scouce to Welsh in an attempt to sound "British". If you suddenly detected what sounded like Yorkshire would you declare authenticity? Of course not, it's just an American trying to sound "British"

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