On christianity.stackexchange.com I asked this question:

"Is it true that John Paul the Second restored the practice of selling indulgences in 2000?"

and one supporter suggested that I replace selling with sold as in this way it will sound less accusatory.

While not being a native English speaker and at the same not doubting a bit about that supporter's command of English, I am still puzzled here about how changing the tense of the verb can make things sound less accusatory. In fact, I don't quite see how the question is accusatory in the first place. Perhaps, there is some subtlety in English grammar here that I am not aware about.

Can anyone, please, explain this to me?

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    Whoever said that "Is it true that John Paul the Second restored the practice of sold indulgences in 2000?" is more polite & less accusatory was ignorant of English grammar. This sentence is ungrammatical. It replaces a noun ("selling" = gerund) with an adjective ("sold" = past participle). The only way to make your sentence less accusatory is to turn it into a passive: "Is it true that the Catholic Church's long-outlawed practice of selling indulgences was restored in 2000?" The lack of an agent makes it strictly a Q rather than an implicit accusation of the late Pope.
    – user21497
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 4:22
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    @BillFranke: Why would sold be ungrammatical? It would just be an awkward sentence (and a different construction): not the practice of indulgences given out for free, but the practice of sold indulgences. I agree that selling is much better, but sold is perhaps not impossible. I can also see how it might be slightly less accusatory, as it links the Pope in a less direct way to the selling of indulgences; with selling, he might seem to be more involved in the practice of selling. Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 5:15
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    @Cerberus: Ungrammatical because the practice is "selling indulgences", which is a verbal (gerund) noun phrase & the OBJ of the prep of. There is no "practice of indulgences". It's not idiomatic &, IMHO, wouldn't be said by a native Anglophone. But I'm willing to be overruled. Making the Pope the agent (he "restored the practice", whatever the name) is no less accusatory with sold than with selling: the Pope restored the practice, so he's the responsible (guilty) party. This is a matter of semantics, not grammatical structure. What does the sentence mean? The same thing in both forms.
    – user21497
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 8:29
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    @Tim: I agree with your last sentence. I think that the person who told the OP to use "sold" isn't a native Anglophone & doesn't understand the difference between saying "Would you please shut the door?" & "Will you please shut the door?" (the first is slightly more polite) & using a real past participle ("sold", & Prof Lawler recently pointed out that "would/could/should" aren't past tense forms or past participles) instead of a gerund ("selling"). My point was just that keeping the Pope as the agent of "restored" keeps him responsible for something, even if we don't what it is.
    – user21497
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 10:15
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    @BillFranke: You said "ungrammatical". I said "grammatical, but awkward". Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 11:38

3 Answers 3


I posted as much in a comment, but on reflection I think it should be presented as a voteable answer, since differing opinions are being expressed.

Personally, I don't find sold indulgences seriously "awkward". It's a somewhat less common form, but to my ear it implies the speaker/writer is actually more precise than the average person who might have just used selling, and has chosen his words with great care. Similar usages include...

1: The proceeds of indulgences, first in the form of vow redemption payments and later in that of sold indulgences, were undoubtedly more substantial.
2: There is an ongoing practice of exchanged visits between the Fez families and their African friends.
3: They also demanded that the practice of unpaid labour for the chief be-scrapped.
4: The Panama Canal would not call for any change in our policy of untaxed navigation.
5: ...the devastating effects of the policy of banned abortion in Romania under Ceausescu

To paraphrase OP's advisor (and Cerberus's comment), sold can indeed be seen as less "accusatory", in that it places more emphasis on the things sold, rather than on the people selling them. This is a very fine nuance, but one which a competent, careful native speaker might well make.

  • I am afraid that, unlike in cases with exchanged visits, unpaid labor, untaxed navigation and banned abortion, "sold indulgences" would imply an irrevocable, once-for-all action. I mean, you can't sell again those indulgences that you've already sold out - you simply don't posses them anymore. You can only sell other, not sold ones. So, I would have a hard time even trying to envision what "the practice of sold indulgences" in fact is. However, the practice of exchanged visits can go on and on as visits can be repeated. Same with practices of taxation, making abortions and labor underpayment.
    – brilliant
    Commented Jun 9, 2013 at 4:11
  • Just to give a further thought, "visit", "labor", "navigation" and "abortion" are all nouns describing actions, while "indulgence" is a noun describing a physical thing, not an action.
    – brilliant
    Commented Jun 9, 2013 at 5:06
  • @brilliant: The fact that you might not be familiar with the usage, and might have trouble understanding it, isn't really the point. We're not discussing the pros and cons of a hypothetical usage that OP might adopt - we're talking about a usage that does exist (albeit not all that common). And as for that "further thought" - all those words have noun forms derived from underlying original verbs, but that's irrelevant. It's the gerund/past participle of the other word (sell, exchange, tax, ban) that we're looking at. Commented Jun 9, 2013 at 11:36
  • "And as for that "further thought" - all those words have noun forms derived from underlying original verbs, but that's irrelevant" - I think it IS relevant because "the practice of" requires a noun (or a noun phrase) denoting an action following right after it. But the noun "indulgence" is not a noun derived from a verb, it doesn't denote an action at all! Thus, "the practice of indulgences" sounds just as awkward as "the practice of houses" or "the practice of tables". "We're not discussing the pros and cons of a hypothetical usage that OP might adopt" - Just in case, I AM the OP.
    – brilliant
    Commented Jun 9, 2013 at 11:53
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    @brilliant: I don't think this discussion is going anywhere. If you think there's some grammatical principle involved here which allows the usage with policy, but somehow debars it with practice, I'm afraid you're trying to shoehorn English into a coherent logic system that simply doesn't exist. I'm a native speaker, and I'm telling you the usage is valid. If you don't like it, don't feel obliged to use it. But you certainly won't convince me that it's "invalid". Commented Jun 9, 2013 at 13:32

There's nothing inherently accusatory about "selling" vs "sold", but depending on context, it could be seen as a bit too direct for many native speakers' tastes.

For asking a stranger in a public context, I'd say your phrasing could be perceived as confrontational. If it's a rhetorical question in something you're writing, it's perfect. Concise and clear.


I don't see a big distinction, but there is a subtle one:

"He restored the practice of selling indulgences..." could be read to imply that the pope was the one actually doing the selling.

"He restored the practice of sold indulgences..." seems to distance the pope from the selling somewhat. The indulgences were sold by someone somewhere, but it doesn't sound like the pope was doing it personally.

To my ears it's a trivial distinction, but I can see where maybe someone might look at it that way.

I find the use of "sold" here to be mildly awkward, but I agree with FumbleFingers that it is fundamentally valid.

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