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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tim Challies' review

Today Tim Challies reviewed the book Why Is My Choice of a Bible Translation So Important? by Wayne Grudem and Jerry Thacker. In this book Dr. Grudem continues to confuse syntax and semantics in his objections to use in Bible versions of the centuries old singular "they". He keeps repeating in debates, on radio programs, and in books that the "they" of a singular "they" changes a biblical text singular to a plural. He has been corrected on this point numerous times, but he never seems to acknowledge what he has been told. Singular "they" is syntactically plural but semantically singular. It refers to a preceding referent which is singular and often indefinite, as in this English sentence:

"Everyone will get over the flu faster is they follow their doctors' instructions."

Millions of English speakers use the singular "they". It is not a new phenomenon of English. It has been used in the KJV, by Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, and many other great writers over the centuries. Dr. Grudem has such a wide following of people who believe him. It is frustrating to hear him continue to repeat things which are simply not true of the English language. Too many people then simply repeat what he has said, because they respect him. But we should only repeat things which are true.

Here is the truth:

Generic "he", the pronoun Dr. Grudem wants used in English Bible, is syntactically masculine but has been historically gender-inclusive or gender-neutral, whichever term you prefer. It has a conflict of grammatical gender with semantic gender. Semantics always wins out when there is such a conflict because people communicate meaning when they speak or write. They do not communicate forms. Rather, they use forms as vehicles by which meaning is communicated.

Another truth:

Singular "they" is syntactically plural but semantically singular. It is understood and spoken by millions of English speakers. It has been spoken and written by English speakers since at least the late 1300s. There is nothing inferior about it, in spite of what prescriptive English teachers might say. It is neither worse nor better than the generic "he"--until we deal with connotative meaning and discover how people are impacted by generic "he" or singular "they." Language forms which are used by people are not good nor bad. They simply are, again, until we deal with the impact of connotative meanings.

Bibles need to be translated using the English forms that the majority of speakers in the intended target audience use.

Please, Dr. Grudem, we appreciate you and respect you. But please stop repeating what you say about the singular "they". It's not true and it is misleading many people, some of whom repeat what you say elsewhere such as on their blogs or from their pulpits.

3 Comments:

At Tue Feb 28, 05:35:00 PM, Blogger Rey said...

Thank you.

 
At Tue Feb 28, 07:23:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne wrote: Singular "they" is syntactically plural but semantically singular. It is understood and spoken by millions of English speakers.

Wayne, this is a bit like saying "aint" is fine in a Bible version because so many people say "aint." But there's a difference between standard and colloquial English. The colloquial usage of "aint" just isn't acceptable in formal prose. Same way with the "singular they." It's a colloquialism. It may not be confusing in colloquial speech (although sometimes it is), but we just don't expect it in writing. When we see it in writing, it seems to be plural in meaning, because in standard English it is plural, and in writing we expect standard English. So I say Grudem is right, and you are wrong about this "singular they" business.

One other thing you need to consider, is the fact that your examples all involve the use of "they" where the antecedent is a sematically plural noun like "everybody." It is easy to slip a "they" in when this is the case. But the TNIV uses the "they" in places where it strikes people as being obviously ungrammatical, such as: "If a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault, just between the two of you alone. If they listen to you ..." This just doesn't work.

 
At Wed Mar 01, 07:50:00 AM, Blogger thehararite said...

Son of Abraham,

Perhaps it is just me, but I don't see anything ungrammatical in the example that you gave. I would say the same thing. It is much preferrable to "he or she". I understand from the singular "brother or sister" that "they" refers to a single person.

By the way, Wayne, I continue to appreciate the kind manner in which you write about people with whom you disagree. You show that you want to maintain unity in the body and respect for your fellow brother or sister. It helps remind me not to think badly of them (woops, a singular them), despite the disagreement.

 

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