Luke 17:3 -- TNIV singular "they"
So watch yourselves. If a brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.Some have objected to this wording on exegetical and/or linguistic grounds, namely:
1. Exegetical: The underlying Greek has ho adelphos sou, which, it is claimed can only be translated accurately as "your brother." Dr. Grudem believes this. When challenged as to whether you should also forgive a sister who sins against you, Dr. Grudem answers, "Yes, by application, but not by accurate translation of the Greek of this verse." In other words, according to Dr. Grudem, what Jesus said only refers to forgiving a (spiritual) brother, not a spiritual sister. By application, the principle would apply to forgiving sisters, as well.With regard to the exegetical claim, it should be noted that many exegetes believe that ho adelphos sou of Luke 17:3 is gender-neutral. That is, it refers to either a male or female sibling. Some Greek lexicons do allow for gender-neutral meaning for adelphos in contexts such as this.
2. Linguistic: While recognizing that there is increasing usage of singular "they" when it takes an indefinite pronoun antecedent, such as "everyone," "anyone," and "nobody," some object to use of singular "they" extended to a context where the antecedent is an indefinite noun, such as "a man," "a woman," or "a doctor."
With regard to the linguistic objection, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain as the linguistic contexts in which singular "they" is used by many English speakers expand. Some of us trained to use only generic "he" may object to such usage. Or we may call it substandard usage, or subliterary usage, but it is still widespread usage by a large cross-section of social strata of English speakers. Just tonight I was watching a PBS program featuring Wayne Dyer, a well-known widely published author with a Ph.D, a fluent, native speaker of English. He uttered a sentence which had a subject which had an indefinite noun and a singular "they" later which referred back to that noun as its antecedent. I wish I had immediately written his sentence down, but I did not. But it was of this flavor:
If a person believes that they can do something, they are more likely to actually do it.Others who observe language have noted this same usage also.
William Shakespeare, who had a good command of literary English, included sentences in his writings with singular "they," including the following which takes as antecedent an indefinite noun:
"There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend" (Comedy of Errors, Act IV Scene 3)Whether or not we approve of Shakespeare's use of singular "they" in this sentence, or whether or not we consider it of high literary quality, he still used it, and his writings have stood the test of time. The singular "they" must have sounded appropriate to him in this context more than 400 years ago, just as it sounds appropriate to me today. There is no syntactic difference if were to add "or woman" after the word "man to Shakespeare's sentence, since conjoined noun phrase can substitute for noun phrases with a single noun.
Now, if people are speaking, and some are writing, with singular "they" taking an indefinite noun as antecedent, then there should be no problem having the noun subject of the sentence be a conjunct noun phrase with two nouns joined by "or." Such a conjoined phrase functions exactly the same as a noun phrase which has only a single noun.
For those who use singular "they" as part of their grammar, it is perfectly grammatical for them to have as antecedent to this pronoun an indefinite pronoun, indefinite noun, or a conjoined indefinite noun phrase. Therefore, for its intended audience, the TNIV wording of Luke 17:3 is grammatical. It is true that the most formal registers of English may not yet see much of the usage of singular "they" with an indefinite noun or indefinite conjoined noun phrase, but the TNIV is not attempting to use the most formal registers of English. Nor, on the other hand, is the TNIV rendered simply in colloquial English. The TNIV translators attempt to retain the "dignified" style of the NIV, a style which has been appreciated by many churches, while updating the language to reflect changes which have occurred within English since the NIV was first published.
For more on the translation of Luke 17:3 in the TNIV, click here to read an explanation for it from the TNIV translators. You need not agree with either the exegetical or linguistic argument made by the TNIV translators, but anyone who claims that the TNIV wording is inaccurate or ungrammatical will have to do so with empirical evidence. To prove the claim of inaccuracy or ungrammaticality requires presentation of data from Greek lexicography and English linguistics which will likely be debated by some with a firm grounding in Greek lexicography and/or English linguistics.
To read what some English lexicographers who supervise the creation of English dictionaries have to say about singular "they" usage click here. Of course, we will find other English lexicographers who disagree.
And that is one of the points of this post. Scholars do not agree on a number of matters. It is dangerous for anyone to use such categorical terms as "translation inaccuracy" when there is such disagreement. In my opinion, a more appropriate scholarly claim to make at such times is to say, "In my opinion, a better translation wording would have been _____. And here is why I believe that."
Ultimately, whether we like it or not, throughout history it is English speakers themselves who have determined what language rules will be followed. English teachers attempt to teach "proper" English to their students and much of what they teach does align with the rules which are actually used by good speakers. But English teachers are often slow to catch up with language changes. English teachers persisted in telling students not to split infinitive when this was just an artificial rule, borrowed from Latin grammars. We will always have William Safire and others who care about English grammar, but do not recognize that language change occurs not by what editors and English teachers say about the language, but by the rules that speakers and writers actually follow, and the new rules that they adopt. Let me not be misunderstood: I am not advocating use of singular "they." If it bothers you, don't use it. Use some other linguistic forms to communicate singular generic reference. What I do object to is objecting to language usage which is widespread and considered appropriate by those who speak and write those forms.
Based on our own ideolect of English or our sensitivities to what we consider to be the best quality English literature, we may not approve of the TNIV wording of Luke 17:3 with its singular "they." But it is inaccurate to say that that wording is "inaccurate" or "ungrammatical." Of course, we can sincerely believe either or both claims, but believing something does not establish it as true.