choirs and preaching to them

I'm feeling a bit of pressure to put nice pictures at the start of my blog posts because the new homepage layout features whichever picture is first. Corpus tables make boring pictures, so I am using this as an excuse to share with you a delightful animation, Choir Tour:


CHOIR TOUR from Atom Art on Vimeo.

So, with that out of the way, @gwynf has asked me about preach to the choir versus preach to the converted, which was a nice coincidence because I'd recently looked it up myself. Either phrase means 'pointlessly make an argument to those who already agree with your point of view'. I felt like I've always said converted and that I'd learned choir in the UK. I think the first of those feelings is accurate (I do believe converted is what my mom said and it is what I say), the second probably isn't, since choir is clearly the preferred American phrasing:
From GloWBE corpus

Preach to the congregation is also found in BrE, but in much, much smaller numbers. (In this corpus: three!) A related BrE expression is sing from the same hymn sheet i.e. 'share an opinion or position'. Both AmE and BrE also have sing the same song/tune. (Thanks for pointing that out @UnexpectedBag.)

Maybe (and I know I'm going to make enemies here) I like converted better because I mostly really don't care for choral music. (Sometimes it's less the music that's the problem than the choir.) I don't want to preach to the choir because if I pay them too much attention they might guilt me into going to their charity concert at Christmastime and sitting miserably through it, thinking "I could die later today and I will have wasted my last hours here." I know I shouldn't admit to not liking choirs. They're like mobs. They could (orig. AmE) beat me up.

Anyhow, the word choir is worth discussing too. In BrE there are choirs all over the place. Many of my friends (who will soon be beating me up) are in them. And many, many of them are non-religious. Community choirs they're called, and they do everything from classical to indie music to gospel (for the music, not necessarily for the gospel). BBC (BrE) programmes Last Choir Standing, The Choir, and The Naked Choir give an inkling of the popularity of choral singing as a secular activity.

In the US, choir is more associated with church-affiliated groups and maybe some classical ones. My school didn't have a choir, it had a chorus. Other terms like chorale and glee club give a sense that the group is singing works that are not necessarily choral in origin. (At least, that's the sense they give me--but there's nothing to stop a chorus from singing non-choral works either. My school chorus memories are of a bunch of kids belting out cheesy Christmas songs at the tops of our lungs with no attention to cooperation or harmony.) Various websites out there argue about the differences between these various terms. The fact that they have to argue probably means that the terms aren't being used in any consistent way. I would take chorale and glee club to be much more old-fashioned terms.

A look at statistically-strongly-American (pay attention to the green ones) versus statistically-strongly-British words before choir in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English shows that choir gets more of a (orig. AmE) workout in BrE:


But then there's (AmE) show choir, a type of non-religious school singing-and-dancing group that was brought to the world's attention by the television (AmE) show Glee. I've written about that before--so please see/discuss at that old post.

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Before I (AmE) go hide (BrE/some AmE go and hide) from the angry singing mobs, I'll just note that I'm on BBC Radio 3's The Verb this Friday (11 Nov) at 22.00 (UK time). It's available online for a month afterward. I think we'll be talking about words for the generations, so to speak.

33 comments

  1. "Singing from the same hymnal" is one we use in the US too, or at least I see/hear it. Maybe not as common in UK, but definitely gets used.

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    1. "Singing from the same hymn sheet" is very common in the UK.

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  2. "Preaching to the converted" is the primary job of a preacher standing at the pulpit. I wouldn't take it to mean much other than encouraging the faithful.

    I think the sense of "preaching to the choir" is that you're not just speaking to people who agree with you but that you're speaking to people who agree with you so strongly that they're willing to give up nights and weekends to prove their belief and to help spread that belief to others. (Since, as you note, "choir" is so strongly associated with church singing groups in the US.) That is, these aren't the people who need encouragement or reinforcement, but the people who agree in nearly every detail and who are already enthusiastic in their belief.

    Which is a different connotation, at least to me.

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    1. In my experience, the converts are even more enthused than the choir!

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  3. Interesting. In a UK context, I would say "preaching to the converted" (which is what I've always said) is speaking to those who don't need persuading, or even (as is sometimes said of a certain style of rhetoric) "giving them some of that old-time religion" (whipping up enthusiasm among the faithful, rather than trying to convert the sceptical). On the other hand, to me "preaching to the choir" (which I seem to have heard only recently as an import from the US) might (whatever its origin) suggest something rather different, bearing in mind some of the Church of England choirs I've known something of, where the choir may be the least spiritually engaged and all too prone to, say, quiet little pranks during sermons to keep themselves from being too bored. There might even be some justice in assuming the choir was being preached to because there's no-one else in the congregation that day.

    And as for "singing from the same hymn-sheet", that is - to me - another relatively recent piece of David Brent style management-speak. But I'm just running that up the flagpole to see who salutes.......

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  4. I've always understood "singing from the same hymn sheet" to mean ensuring that there is no PUBLIC disagreement/inconsistency between representatives of the same or different organisations rather than merely sharing the same opinion.

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  5. Note that in many old church buildings the choir sit behind the preacher, so if he were to turn and preach to them he'd have his back to the people he was supposed to be preaching to. I don't know if this is also the case in American churches.

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    1. And in this sense the choir can be as much an architectural feature as a group of people

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    2. In the church where I grew up the choir was clear at the other end, up in the organ loft, so I only just realized that I've always visualized this as preaching to someone at the far end of the church. I think the choir has been close to the preacher though, off to the side in a lot of the smaller churches I've been in.

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  6. For me, preaching to the converted is an accusation. It may be good natured, but it's a criticism none the less. I would paraphrase

    either

    'You're wasting my time arguing that I should change to an opinion I already hold.'

    or

    'You're wasting your time arguing that some other person or people should change to an opinion they already hold.'

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  7. North American posters may not be aware of the importance of one individual Gareth Malone.

    He's the driving force and star of all but one of the TV shows described in the links that Lynne says give an inkling of the popularity of choral singing as a secular activity.

    The community choirs referred to echo an earlier phenomenon of choirs lending cohesion to industrial communities, much as brass bands used to do.

    In the North of England especially, choral societies worked up to an annual performance of Handel's Messiah with professional soloists and generally a professional orchestra. To this day, the large choirs performing at professional concerts are usually groups of this kind, with day jobs unconnected with music.

    Even less elitist were the male voice choirs attached to coal mining communities, especially in Wales. Their successors are going strong even now that the last Welsh coal mines have been closed. The musicality, zeal and political fire were discovered by Paul Robeson when he was acting in London and chanced upon a group of Welsh striking miners signing in the street for publicity and pennies. This became a close association: he sang with Welsh miners' choirs, supported Welsh miners, made a feature film with them, and performed a concert for them over telephone lines when his passport had been impounded.

    The difference between these community-bonding institutions from the past (though not defunct0 and the present-day 'community choirs' is that the latter do not impose trained voice standards, and are more likely to perform pop music than classical or religious.

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    1. The choirs based in mining communities were also encouraged because singing gave the men an opportunity to strengthen their lungs, which were always in danger from exposure to coal dust.

      Many choirs from the northern industrial areas were associated with Methodism, which had a strong choral tradition.

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  8. The fact that wives is the most common word preceding choir in the British texts sample is of no surprise. It's that Gareth Malone and his phenomenally successful and written-about Military Wives Choir

    (The women were consulted about the title and were happy with, although many were not legally married to their loved-one.)

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  9. I've certainly always said "Preaching to the converted"; and understood "singing from the same hymn-sheet" to be equivalent to "being on the same page" - i.e. management-speak for everybody understanding and agreeing to the boss' latest pet project.

    My daughter belongs to a local choir in her part of London (they are always looking for new members, so I have linked!) and they sing a varied repertoire; usually three or four formal concerts per year, and then a couple of informal ones, as this coming Sunday at Hinde Street Methodist Church.

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  10. 'Preaching to the converted' is the phrase I'm familiar with. It means trying to persuade someone who is already fully persuaded anyway. 'Preaching to the choir' I've come across but I think only as an American import. It seems to me to have a slightly different connotation, in that the choir may not be converted yet, but they're not the ones the preacher should be aiming at since they have to be in church anyway.

    Some years back there was a British comedy film about the fetish scene called Preaching to the Perverted.

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  11. Make of this what you will: I'm from New York City, and I've often heard "preaching to the choir," but I've never heard "preaching to the converted."

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  12. I agree with the comments above - definitely 'preaching to the converted'. And, along with 'all on the same page', 'singing from the same hymn-sheet' sounds to me like one of those business jargon phrases. In the UK we would sing from a hymn book in church, unless a special sheet is provided for a wedding or a carol service.

    Now, as to choirs and choral singing, you have touched a raw nerve! I have sung in choral societies and choirs for most of the past 50 years, and I have to say, Lynne, that you have fallen in with the wrong crowd if your impression is of earnest 'community choirs' singing with more enthusiasm than skill.

    Members of professional choirs are obviously well-trained musicians who can perform in any repertoire - I would include the choirs in cathedrals in this category. The boys (and increasingly, girls) who sing in cathedrals and large churches are getting a musical education that can lead them into professional study as singers or in other branches of music and showbiz. You might try a concert by The Sixteen, The Monteverdi Choir or even the BBC Singers if you want to hear really good secular choral singing.

    Amateur choirs, on the other hand, recruit from the general public, and one would divide these according to whether an audition is required. My blognomen will indicate that I don't have much musical training - but I can read music well enough to cope with the fast pace of rehearsal and performance required for my choral society. Community choirs typically take whoever turns up - fun and companionship score higher than expertise - and music is typically learnt 'by heart'. Incidentally, I understand that this is a corruption of the phrase 'par choeur', learning in a chorus, rather than 'par coeur'.

    The University of Sussex web site lists their 'Show Choir' which requires auditions, and the Chamber Choir, which does not. This is exactly the reverse of the usual situation, where a Chamber Choir contains elite singers and show tunes are belted out by enthusiasts. Am I sounding snooty? Most choral societies would consider it demeaning to sing show tunes - Carmina Burana or Opera Choruses are possible, if one wants an easy-listening concert. Gareth Malone, bless him, has definitely raised the profile of community choirs, but if your opinion is typical of the 'unconverted', Lynne, I wonder if he has killed off choral societies.

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  13. I find this really interesting, as I've never heard any of the other phrases besides preaching to the choir; to me, this means arguing a point to someone who agrees with you, without any other connotations. However, being from the US, I also feel that choir is a pretty common term for non-secular groups in schools (at least, at my high school's district, we had choirs and not choruses, chorales, or glee clubs) and also occurs in 'jazz choir', which obviously has no relation to choral music. Oh, but groups not organized by the school would just be called singing groups, or a capella groups, or whichever adjective describes them.

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  14. Preaching to the choir makes no immediate sense in Britain because we don't automatically associated choir with a church.

    What is more, we don't automatically associate preaching with a church. Ordained ministers of religion are normally described as vicars (occasionally rectors) or ministers unless, of course, they bear some higher rank such as bishop and the like. (There's also the old word parson, which seems to have lost all currency.) The word preacher is used in the designation lay preacher and in a description of skill such as He's a wonderful preacher.

    Without the context of a church or similar place of worship, I would normally take preaching to be an outdoor performance of persuasive oratory for some cause — not necessarily religious. (The preaching we read of in the Bible was indeed religious, but I don't recall any of it happening in a synagogue or temple — or even a secular building.) In an indoor context I would normally take it to mean 'argue intensely that X is the right thing'.

    Thus preaching (for me) has a rather negative connotation much of the time — which is why I take 'preaching to the converted' to be a critical put-down.

    Choir, by contrast, has largely positive connotations. While chorus suggests simply making sounds together or in unison, to call people or animals a choir suggests doing so in harmony. So we don't say *a choir of disapproval, and it would be rather fanciful to describe the somewhat random str-of-day birdsong as the the dawn choir.

    The one case where choir automatically suggests 'church' is in the compound choirboy, and the newer compound choirgirl. We wouldn't assume either word to refer to a young member of a school choir. Indeed, I can't see that we'd ever use the words that way.

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  15. American midwest here, and I only know "preaching to the choir." I agree with Dijeck Japen -- it doesn't really have connotations to me other than telling someone something they already know and agree with. Although I distinctly remember hearing it (I thought) for the first time as either a late teen or young adult and wondering if it really meant something along the lines of ignoring the larger church audience to speak to the singing group. I don't know if I never heard the phrase as a child or if I had just never paid attention to it before.

    Although I grew up in a church-going family and attended services of a variety of denominations, I was only familiar with a church choir through books and television. (So maybe that explains my lack of familiarity with the phrase.) No churches I went to had a formal choir -- just the church lady playing the organ and the congregation singing. I believe we referred to the singing organization at my school casually as both chorus and choir. In my younger years, all the students in my class went to "music" twice a week. (On opposite days, we went to "gym.")

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  16. My first thought was that "preaching to the converted" and "preaching to the choir" was the same thing but I think that there is actually a subtle difference at least in the context of trade unionism in Canada and perhaps the UK. In a trade union local - often referred to as "chapel" until about twenty years ago- preaching to the converted would be, as people have stated above, preaching to those who are already on your side and therefore represents an effort that yields little additional value. The choir, on the other hand, is made up of those who don't just support you - that's the converted - but are actively working with you, and need some reinforcement from time to time . So, a local meeting might start with 15 minutes of "preaching to the choir" which would remind people why they were involved in the labour movement and the benefit of continued advocacy. So there is a benefit to preaching to the choir.

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  17. I too (UK) have always said 'preaching to the converted' and have only come across the other version comparatively recently.
    As a long-time member of a choral society singing mostly the 'oratorio' repertoire, I second what Biochemist said. Under our previous conductors we never sang any secular music, but now we sometimes do. Many of our members are churchgoers of one sort and another, but by no means all.
    I'm not a regular member of a church choir, but I've had associations with them since I was a teenager, so 'preaching to the choir' certainly suggests to me the vicar addressing a church choir, but it's not an expression I would ever think of using.

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  18. I agree with David. I think of preaching as more of a "lay preacher" activity, whereas a vicar would be delivering a sermon. Preaching to the converted also has a faint taint of self-fulfilling smugness to me, in that they never have to deal with any opposing points of view, and may not even realise that there are any out there.

    Gareth Malone (bless him) has only had such a great effect because he has successfully fronted a televisioin programme; in much the same way that Strictly Come Dancing has increased the update of ballroom dancing.

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  21. Like other commenters, I (originally BrE) have interpreted "preaching to the choir" as referring to traditional church architecture (the "choir" being behind the preacher when facing the congregation). Funnily enough, I've sung in several church choirs (in both the UK and the US) where many/most of the singers were not particularly religious.

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  22. American speaker -- I've heard both "preaching to the choir" and "preaching to the converted" although the first is more familiar. Both mean exactly the same thing to me -- making an argument to convince someone who already agrees with you.

    According to Google ngrams, the "converted" version is older. It first shows up once in 1841 although then not again until 1886. After 1886 it appears pretty much every year, with usage increasing over time. On the other hand, the "choir" version first appears in 1930 but is fairly uncommon until about 1980 when it starts to rise as well.

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    1. The OED confirms your ngrams, and some of the examples make for entertaining reading:

      1c. to preach to the converted and variants: to advocate something to people who already share one's convictions about its merits or importance. Also (orig. and chiefly U.S.) to preach to the choir.

      1857 Times 6 Nov. 7/4 It is an old saying that to preach to the converted is a useless office, and I may add that to preach to the unconvertible is a thankless office.
      1867 J. S. Mill Exam. Hamilton's Philos. (ed. 3) xiv. 319 Dr. M'Cosh is preaching not only to a person already converted, but to an actual missionary of the same doctrine.
      1916 G. Sainsbury Peace of Augustans iii. 144 One may be said to be preaching to the converted and kicking at open doors in praising..the four great novelists of the eighteenth century.
      1970 Washington Post 24 Sept. a27/2 Foster spoke yesterday before a packed Air Force Association seminar... Admitting that this was like ‘preaching to the choir’, he nevertheless went on to detail a rather gloomy view of declining U.S. defense capabilities.
      1987 Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald Amer. 28 June e2/1 The people behind some ‘Say No to Drugs’ programs admit they often draw a clean-cut crowd and may be preaching to the choir.
      1996 Market Trader & Shopkeeper 11 Oct. 6/3 After the meeting I could not help thinking how easy it was to preach to the converted.

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  23. I sing in a church choir - they ARE odd folks sometimes - and it's always been choir (US, upstate NY), and it's mildly funny when the preacher literally turns and IS preaching to us.

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  24. US, have heard both versions, which I take to mean the same thing. In my mind churches have choirs rather than choruses, and outside churches "choir" and "chorus" are synonymous (as regards organized singing groups), with only faint differences in connotation, but with "chorus" the more common word.

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  25. And for me "preach" is basically a neutral word for giving a sermon, though it can also be used figuratively for other kinds of persuasive speech, often with strong connotations.

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)