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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Luke 17:3 -- TNIV singular "they"

TNIV Luke 17:3 reads:
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.

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 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.

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.

25 Comments:

At Wed Mar 15, 02:02:00 AM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

Unless I'd stop and go into more detail about what's being taught here by Jesus, the TNIV rendering is the short-hand way I would describe it. The one sentence way.

I deplore bad grammar. I also deplore the insistence of speaking in a way that is not the common use of one's area. So both have to be kept, somehow, without the loss of the other.

By the way, I didn't know grammatical rules were written in stone. By what some people say, you would think so.

 
At Wed Mar 15, 05:20:00 AM, Blogger Steven said...

Dear Sir,

I would agree that the wording may not be "inaccurate" but by all the rules of grammar, no matter what the special pleading made here, it is ungrammatical. Now, there is a deeper question as to the extent of this flaw. Personally, ungrammatical only matters to me when it irrevokably alters the meaning of a given sentence or makes it impossibly unclear. I don't know that this does either. Nevertheless, it is not entirely accurate to say that the phrasing is not ungrammatical.

I think the larger sin here, as in many of the modern translations, and in many of the things I read as "preferred" translations is that it's just darned ugly. I know that beauty of language doesn't carry much weight in some circles, but I still insist upon it in all translations. I can't use the abomination promulgated by the Catholic Bishops (NAB) because it's just so darned tone-deaf.

Oh, and Shakespeare knew perfectly well what he was doing, the "their" you site is necessary to maintain rhythm. Shakespeare is not a good source to site in such conditions because he performed remarkable feats of anti-grammatical composition to maintain rhythm and structure--but he's Shakespeare, most of us have neither the genius nor the aplomb to carry it off--that Shakespeare was able to do so does not make it viable. (For example, I wouldn't suggest adopting Shakespeare's orthography.)

shalom,

Steven

 
At Wed Mar 15, 05:53:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Wayne,

As I've stated before, I'm not opposed to the use of gender inclusive phrasing (in reference to humans) in Bible translations, but I admit that I've been slow to come around to the use of a singular "they." In fact, I haven't come around yet at all. However, I'm not an unreasonable person, and I realize that the change is coming (or maybe it's here).

I'll blame my reluctance to embrace the singular "they" on my undergraduate degree in English Education. Is it my fault that I had good teachers who pressed these rules of grammar into my very soul?

Yet, I acknowledge that when we speak informally, and sometimes even formally, the singular "they" gets kicked around a lot. I blushingly admit that I often catch myself doing it--even in front of my classes! I know...it's shameful.

Appeals to Shakespeare, Chaucer or any other writer from the past means nothing to me because these writers were operating under completely different standards of usage if they were writing under any standards at all. However, to be fair, appeals by Grudem and Poythress to the Wall Street Journal as a contemporary example of the use of "mankind" means nothing to me either. This is clearly an outdated word, and the Wall Street Journal can be guilty of bad writing style as easily as any other publication.

I'm not exactly kicking and screaming on this use of the singular "they." But I am guilty of dragging my feet. Maybe I'm waiting for the standard grammars to change. Perhaps I need that external source of authority to point to for direction. No grammar book that I know of allows for a singular "they" (yet). And it's certainly against the rules in the book I use with my writing classes at IWU (which I don't pick, by the way; it's used in all the classes).

So in the meantime, I'll keep drawing circles around non-agreeing nouns and pronouns in my students' papers, connecting them with a line, and writing AGR above it. At the very least it makes them think about the structure of their sentences.

And occasionally when a student complains, I'll just tell them, "The grammar book hasn't changed yet."

 
At Wed Mar 15, 06:04:00 AM, Blogger Steven said...

Dear Sir,

Sometimes in the haste of commenting, the point of one's comment gets blunted or obscured. I guess part of my point was to say that you need not even bother to defend yourself on grammatical grounds because that implies that the grammatical rules (which are still in place) somehow have a lock on the proper means of expression. They do not. If regarded properly, grammar is an agreed upon set of suggestions that seek to amplify clarity of expression. In the phrase of the TNIV, there can be no doubt as to the meaning of the ungrammatical singular "they." Therefore, at least as I view it, it is a reasonable expression of the thought. I understand what the writer/translator is attempting to convey in the choice of words. I may not care for this wording choice, but I cannot really object on the grounds of ambiguity or confusion. The only valid basis is on the ground of the "rule of grammar." As the rule of grammar holds not the force of a rule of law, it provides only weak support or argument against any given choice that does not lack clarity. And clarity of expression is at least one important aspect of translation.

Sorry for the previous, potential ambiguity.

shalom,

Steven

 
At Wed Mar 15, 08:03:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Rick said:

Appeals to Shakespeare, Chaucer or any other writer from the past means nothing to me because these writers were operating under completely different standards of usage if they were writing under any standards at all.

Rick, what empirical evidence can you present that writers from the past were operating under "completely different standards of usage"?

And if you question "if they were writing under any standards at all," wouldn't human communication break down totally if there were no standards of usage at all. Even street language has standards of usage, or else those who speak it would not understand each other.

 
At Wed Mar 15, 08:06:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Steven said:

Oh, and Shakespeare knew perfectly well what he was doing, the "their" you site is necessary to maintain rhythm. Shakespeare is not a good source to site in such conditions because he performed remarkable feats of anti-grammatical composition to maintain rhythm and structure--but he's Shakespeare, most of us have neither the genius nor the aplomb to carry it off--that Shakespeare was able to do so does not make it viable.

Steven, what objective evidence can you present to support your claim that Shakespeare created "anti-grammatical composition"? Where do we get our language standard to determine what is and what isn't grammatical?

 
At Wed Mar 15, 09:32:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne wrote: "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 ...

Wayne, this a false interpretation of the "they" in Shakespeare's lines, as I have pointed out twice already in comment threads on your blog in the past week. The "they" here refers to the men of Ephesus, not to "a man." If you keep using this bogus example of "singular they," and never admit that it can be more naturally understood as a reference to a class of people, I'll have to conclude that you are simply incorrigible.

The TNIV translators attempt to retain the "dignified" style of the NIV ...

And in this they failed, by adopting a clearly substandard usage of "they," for reasons of political correctness.

It is dangerous for anyone to use such categorical terms as "translation inaccuracy" when there is such disagreement.

Why don't you apply that dictum to yourself, Wayne? Many times I have seen you write that the use of generic "he" or "man" is inaccurate, on the basis of your notion that many people don't understand it. And yet you wag your finger at someone for saying that people will think "they" is plural.

 
At Wed Mar 15, 09:43:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

this a false interpretation of the "they" in Shakespeare's lines

To clarify: I should have written "this a false interpretation of the 'their' in Shakespeare's lines."

I do expect you to acknowledge this comment, Wayne, and to stop claiming that the "their" is semantically singular in this place.

 
At Wed Mar 15, 09:52:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

I may not have been clear.

For "standards of usage," I'm referring to those external sources of authority, such as the half dozen or so grammar books that I have on my shelf that give the "rules" for proper sentence construction and the like.

When I mark a student's paper for having an error in agreement, for using inconsistent tense, for writing an incomplete sentence (lack of subject or predicate), or even for misspelling a word, I am referring to agreed upon standards from a source external to myself.

If you want empiracle evidence, I give you the text of Shakespeare itself. Spellings are sometimes different, words are often used differently, syntax may vary. But I don't take out my green grading pen and mark up Hamlet like I might a student's paper. Why? Shakespeare's era had a different set of standards than ours. I don't critique his writing based on agreed upon rules from my era, and nor do I evaluate my writing based upon his works (thankfully).

That's why, in my opinion, to appeal to the Bard's grammar as evidence for the way we write is comparing apples to oranges--different sets of standards.

And when I said standards, I meant formal grammars of usage, which is also what I meant when I questioned whether some writers of the past used any standards at all. Does Chaucer have a Middle-English Grammar sitting on his table? I have no idea. I'm not expert on such things, but guessing off the top of my head I would suggest that probably the introduction of the Tyndale Bible (and probably more importantly, the KJV based on it) in the 16th & 17th centuries and Noah Webster's dictionary in the early 19th century did much to standardize our language because these proved influential as external sources of authority.

And that's not to slight Shakespeare either. Many of our words in current usage came from him. For example, before his time, we had the word "lone," but we now have "lonely" because he coined the term. He did lots of things like that. But some things he did just didn't have as much influence. Maybe you could include the use of the singular "they."

Having said that, it would be fair to say that you can point to Shakespeare's use of a singular "they" as precedent that it had been done before--that's it's not a new thing, that it's not something made up by the TNIV translators. But ultimately, that only carries so much weight as ALL grammar, good and bad, accepted and unaccepted has historical precedent. It's not enough to say that it's an acceptable standard just because a well-respected writer of the past did it that way. Appealing again to current external sources of authority, the singular use of "they" is simply not standard, but I'll add that word again...yet.

Yes, some of the commonly used grammars of today will differ on certain issues, but usually these are minor grammatical issues. I never find disagreement on major issues (like the use of a singular "they").

Yes, Wayne, I agree that even street language has standards. But I wasn't referring to that kind of standard in my earlier comment--which is also why I apologized for being unclear.

Now, let me go back to my "yet." I think a singular "they" as standard use is coming--coming regardless of whether I drag my feet to accept it OR kick and scream (which I promise I'm not doing).

Language changes (empiracle evidence is the same as I offer above). When I took advanced grammar in college in the eighties, we used a book written in the fifties because our teacher said it was still the best authoritative text. But even she admitted that it was outdated in certain areas. We were discussing gender inclusive issues even back then, but our textbook didn't address them.

Grammar textbooks tend to address use of gender in writing now, but the discussions are around not using universal masculine pronouns or masculine generics. And they offer varieties of suggestions for avoiding non-masculine terms and pronouns as universals.

Assuredly, the grammar books are always behind common practice. But shouldn't it be so? I'm of the opinion that we need standards, and if standards are standards, we shouldn't change them quickly or without much thought. And some standards shouldn't be changed at all (example: "ain't" can be found in Twain and Dickens and who knows how far back, but we've never changed our standards to make it accepted).

Who knows? Maybe the TNIV will be a great enough external authority like the KJV was or Noah Webster's dictionary was to actually help push the change in our standards. I can't think of any source as significant as the TNIV that has adopted use of a singular "they." Can you?

But until I have a respected English grammar in my hand that allows use of a singular "they," I'm still marking it wrong on my students' papers!

 
At Wed Mar 15, 09:56:00 AM, Blogger Steven said...

Dear Sir,

Objectively, I get my evidence from the reading of Shakespeare--"anti-grammatical" is probably overstating the case, but I didn't have the proper term to had. Let's say in a lighter mode that grammar wasn't the point of what he was writing--as is true in much poetry. And moreover, I'm probably conflating and confounding grammatical and syntactical--which, I recognize, are not the same issue at all. But I will record some sources when I have a chance to get to it. (Don't hold your breath--been a busy two weeks, likely to get more so.)

shalom,

Steven

 
At Wed Mar 15, 10:50:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

But until I have a respected English grammar in my hand that allows use of a singular "they," I'm still marking it wrong on my students' papers!

Rick, there are such grammars already out there. I don't know how to determine if they are respected or not. I suspect that respectability, like beauty, is largely in the eye of the beholder.

Furthermore, grammar books do not determine what is proper grammar. English speakers and writers do. Grammar books are supposed to reflect the rules of usage among good speakers and writers. They sometimes do but not always.

 
At Wed Mar 15, 10:58:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael said:

The "they" here refers to the men of Ephesus, not to "a man." If you keep using this bogus example of "singular they," and never admit that it can be more naturally understood as a reference to a class of people, I'll have to conclude that you are simply incorrigible.

I'm sorry, Michael. If you presented a larger context for that sentence previously, I missed it or have forgotten it. Could you give it to me again, please? From the part of the play that I quoted (from elsewhere, as you likely know) I do not see anything about Ephesus.

And in this they failed, by adopting a clearly substandard usage of "they,"

Michael, I do not accept your subjective claim as proof. I accept empirical evidence as proof.

for reasons of political correctness.

Please note that we ask on this blog that we not refer to what we think are the motives of others for translating as they have. We ask this because none of us know the motives of others, even if we believe that we do. Questioning the motives of others is subjective. Only God knows the hearts of others. Trying to divine the motives of others leads to dysfunctional spiraling in debates which should, instead, be based on empirical evidence.

 
At Wed Mar 15, 11:07:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I said:

It is dangerous for anyone to use such categorical terms as "translation inaccuracy" when there is such disagreement.

Michael responded:

Why don't you apply that dictum to yourself, Wayne? Many times I have seen you write that the use of generic "he" or "man" is inaccurate, on the basis of your notion that many people don't understand it. And yet you wag your finger at someone for saying that people will think "they" is plural.

Michael, I cannot recall ever calling use of generic "he" or "man" inaccurate. Instead, I have repeatedly commented that they are accurate for those who use them and understand them generically. I do not believe in telling people how to speak, whether than comes from radical feminists or Poythress and Grudem. I simply do not believe in language engineering.

If you or anyone else wonders why I spend so much time on singular "they" it is not because I want people to use it, but, rather because so many false claims have been made about it in the campaign against the TNIV. It is those who attack the TNIV who have made many false statements which need to be corrected.

I wish I had the time to point out the errors in the long lists of so-called "inaccuracies" in the TNIV. They are not errors. They are only errors in the minds of those who do not understand or agree with the linguistics and exegesis of the TNIV. True errors require empirical evidence to demonstrate their falsity. Giving opinions which demonstrative different points of view are not empirical evidence. They are sharing of opinions, an important thing to do, but such sharing does not rise to the level of empirical evidence to support claims of inaccuracies. If we redefine words such as "inaccurate" then we lose our ability to communicate accurately with each other, since we will not share the same understandings of words.

 
At Wed Mar 15, 12:17:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

These two quotes will show that P & G do not argue against the fact that generic 'they' exists, but only that generic 'he' still exists along side it. According to them, generic 'he' should be used to reflect the fact that God gives greater prominence to the male, and uses the male example as a starting point for Christian experience, etc. That is their main argument - that language must provide a picture of the male.

The first subsection, entitled “History of the Issue” (pp. 185-187), reviews the history of alternatives to generic “he” over three centuries, including primarily “they” with a singular antecedent, but also other alternatives. This does not address the central issue, because we are not concerned to argue that no alternatives have been used, but only to argue that generic “he” is still usable as well as alternatives.[435]

In fairness to the NIVI, note that the NIVI was produced specifically for a British readership. We have been told that the use of “they” with a singular antecedent is more common in Britain than in American English (we have not been able either to verify or to falsify this claim). If this is so, the NIVI may sound odder in these constructions to Americans than to its intended readers. In any case, American English versions have not widely imitated the NIVI’s technique (though it does occur, for example, in Psalm 19:12 NRSV, in Matthew 18:15-17 NIrV(1995), and in Luke 17:3-4 NIrV(1995)).

In essence they are saying that generic 'he' is not generic at all but a 'male representative' use and that the male represents Christian experience.

Here is a recent fun post from Language Log.

 
At Wed Mar 15, 12:28:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayned wrote: I'm sorry, Michael. If you presented a larger context for that sentence previously, I missed it or have forgotten it. Could you give it to me again, please? From the part of the play that I quoted (from elsewhere, as you likely know) I do not see anything about Ephesus.

The whole play is set in Ephesus. Antipholus of Syracuse, who speaks the lines you quote, has come there, where his twin brother (also named Antipholus) lives. As he walks down the street, the men of Ephesus all greet him by name as if he were their friend, Antipholus of Ephesus. Antipholus of Syracuse is naturally confused about it, so he says: "There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend!"

In my previous comments about this I aslo pointed out that this is not prose, but blank verse, and so in addition to the contextual reason for the "their," Shakespeare may also have used the "their" for poetic/rhetorical reasons, because it echoes the "There's" in the previous line.

I think this fully explains why you can't use this as an example of "singular their." It is not singular in sense. It does not refer back to "a man." It refers to the men of Ephesus in general.

 
At Wed Mar 15, 02:09:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael replied:

The whole play is set in Ephesus. Antipholus of Syracuse, who speaks the lines you quote, has come there, where his twin brother (also named Antipholus) lives. As he walks down the street, the men of Ephesus all greet him by name as if he were their friend, Antipholus of Ephesus. Antipholus of Syracuse is naturally confused about it, so he says: "There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend!"

Michael, thanks for giving the background to this sentence. I have now examined the larger preceding context of this literary work. The sentence in question is the first sentence that Antipholus utters upon his entrance at the beginning of Scene 3. There is no other antecedent available for "their" other than "a man."

Syntactically, "their" is coreferential with "a man" in the first clause of this sentence. Now, you are correct that Antipholus is referring to any and every man that he greets of the set of all of the men of Ephesus. But that simply explains the pragmatics of the sentential context here, not the anaphoric syntax itself.

As far as I can tell, this is an example of singular "they." Please note that singular "they" is simply a syntactic label for the phenomenon of using the English third person plural pronoun "they" to refer to a preceding antecedent which is not syntactically plural. In most cases that antecedent is indefinite. Semantically, it has some characteristics of plurality, so it is convenient to say, and you and I both have, that there is notional plurality. Of course, it's not precisely numerical plurality, either. It's indefiniteness, which is neither singular nor plural, but something kind of halfway in between. And it is that very midway nature that is why so many English speakers have used the syntactic third person plural as one of the generic pronouns of English.

The label singular "they" is misleading. It does not address the difference between syntactic and semantic anaphora which occurs with this particular generic pronoun, "they." Syntactically, antecedents of the so-called singular "they" take singular subject-verb agreement. That is why, I'm sure, that this form has been called a singular "they." But as you have been keying in to, the antecedents are not referential singulars. Nor are they referential plurals, for that matter. They are indefinites.

If you don't care for the label singular "they" use another label. Whatever you want to call it, it is the linguistic form in question, "they" with a preceding indefinite antecedent (and sometimes even a definite antecedent), that is used in the TNIV and by many highly respected English authors. You may not consider them respected authors, or may consider that they were writing colloquially. And that is fine. You have your literary standards; other people have theirs. I've just been trying to address the linguistic error which Dr. Grudem and some others continue to repeat when they refer to TNIV Rev. 3:20 or Luke 17:3, and claim that there is syntactic plurality. There is not with the form in question. A number of people have tried to explain this linguistic form to Dr. Grudem but he doesn't ever acknowledge that he has heard them. That is his right, I guess, but it is also the right of others to go around correcting what he continues to state erroneously.

I don't wish to spend so much time on this one linguistic form. But it is one of the primary forms that is criticised in the TNIV. And it's fine to criticise forms which one doesn't like. What is not fine is to make untrue statements about how those forms behave linguistically. Stating such things misleads millions of people who depends on those making the statements to make true statements. I would guess that Dr. Grudem does not understand this linguistic form very well and he may honestly believe that what he is saying is true. That is why we need each other in the Body of Christ.

"No person is an island," as they say!

:-)

 
At Wed Mar 15, 02:19:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Michael, I accept that in some wider logical sense this Shakespearean allegedly singular "their" refers to the men, or people, of Ephesus. But in a syntactical sense it cannot do so. This is the start of a new scene, so "their" cannot refer back to anything in a preceding sentence. The only possible antecedent, at the syntactical level, is "a man". And "a man" is clearly singular. Therefore "their" must also be syntactically singular, even if semantically it could be considered plural. You are confusing syntax and semantics, which is always dangerous.

 
At Wed Mar 15, 02:21:00 PM, Blogger Steven said...

Dear Sir,

Unfortunately, "they" in your last sentence refers to a singular "he" who said "No man is an island," AND it's in plain English without need of translation. That he meant what you wrote is undeniable, but that "they" said it is questionable. (:-D)

shalom,

Steven

 
At Wed Mar 15, 02:54:00 PM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Wayne wrote: A number of people have tried to explain this linguistic form to Dr. Grudem but he doesn't ever acknowledge that he has heard them.

Maybe he just disagrees with you, the same way you disagree with me about the Shakespeare quotation. He's not stupid, you know. Or I hope you know that.

I really don't think you have a handle on the meaning of "their" in the quotation, Wayne, and I think you are determined to see the "singular their" where it does not exist. It's a rhetorically valuable example for you, because it's Shakespeare, and you love to parade it around on your blog. But you are misinterpreting and misrepresenting it. It is not a "singular their." The "their" refers to the men of Ephesus.

Well I've had enough controversy for now, brother. Maybe I'll stop back and give you a hard time about something else next month.

You too Peter ;-)

Michael

 
At Wed Mar 15, 04:21:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael, Michael, what can I say? I'm not going to convince you that I understand the syntax of using "their" when it is anaphoric with a preceding indefinite. And that's OK--I'm not sure that anything is going to convince you since it seems that you have your mind made up about something, and, unfortunately, I still do not understand what that is. If I did, I might better be able to address the issue. Maybe! :-)

When you have the time, get a linguistics textbook (ask Vern Poythress for a recommendation; I think he understands the syntax of singular "they") and read about singular "they", or read the online discussions of singular "they" and you'll find that my understanding of the phenomenon is mainstream linguistics.

No, Dr. Grudem does not simply disagree with the fact that singular "they" is used. It is clear from his words, repeated nearly every time he speaks about the TNIV, that he is confusing the syntactic plurality of tge pronoun "they" used in the singular "they" construction with its different semantic reference as a generic indefinite. It is true of many Bible scholars that there is a confusion of form and function. Fortunately, you do know the difference between syntax and semantics. And you know what notional meaning refers to. That is far beyond what many others Bible scholars who care about Bible translation understand.

I wish you well during your month of rest from the BBB. I hope you can get a lot of good writing done.

There's no need to come back and give us a hard time about anything, unless you feel a need to do that--but if you do, I can recommend better ways to address that issue. We at the BBB appreciate good exchanges, even disagreements, as long as they are conducted in a way that our Lord would approve of. I fall short of that often, but it is my desire to do and say what pleases him.

 
At Wed Mar 15, 05:52:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Wayne said: Rick, there are such grammars already out there. I don't know how to determine if they are respected or not. I suspect that respectability, like beauty, is largely in the eye of the beholder.

Well, I won't say there are no grammars out there that advocate a singular "they." I just don't know of any yet. And I want to think that there is a certain status for grammars that is more than "the eye of the beholder." For example, Trimmer's Writing with a Purpose is now in its 14th edition and is a standard in English 101 classes in colleges all across the country. I used it when I was in college, and I taught from it back in the nineties. And when Strunk & White's Elements of Style is updated to advocate the use of a singular "they," THEN it will have become accepted.

Wayne also said: Furthermore, grammar books do not determine what is proper grammar. English speakers and writers do. Grammar books are supposed to reflect the rules of usage among good speakers and writers. They sometimes do but not always.

This is true, but I have to teach grammar to folks to make them into good writers. For me to teach it, it has to be in the grammar book. It can be a circle, can't it?

Regardless of my hesitancy toward the singular "they," I'd still recommend the TNIV.

 
At Wed Mar 15, 08:53:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Rick, sorry I wasn't clearer. I wasn't thinking of grammar books that advocate use of singualar "they". I don't think grammar books should advocate the use of any forms which are contended. Like you, I believe that grammar books should teach rules of a language which are agreed upon by the majority of speakers of a language, things like subject-verb agreement (yes, agreed upon agreement, that's nice!).

Sorry, I don't think I communicated my point very well. I'm still not sure I have.

What I'm thinking of are grammar books which accept widespread usage, rather than trying to tell what is appropriate usage. Grammar books need to reflect usage rather than prescribing usage. As soon as the rules in grammar books are no longer in use by a majority of good, conscientious speakers of a language, the grammar books need to be modified.

I think that Bible versions should reflect the language of the audience for which they are targeted, not some previous stage of a language or language features imported from the biblical languages which are not part of English.

 
At Thu Mar 16, 06:32:00 AM, Blogger Steven said...

Dear Sir,

As soon as the rules in grammar books are no longer in use by a majority of good, conscientious speakers of a language, the grammar books need to be modified.

I couldn't possibly disagree more, particularly as considered in written language. The grammar of spoken language is a different matter, but once it makes it to paper, what you suggest leads to an ever-declining standard of usage. Yes, grammars need to be updated and moved forward, rules can change and relax. But as soon as the speakers of a language start to insert "like" and "dude" as every third word in a sentence, the written grammar need not change to reflect it.

Grammars are the conservative elements of the language school, they should take all due time and consideration in reflecting change. We should not succumb to "verbing all our nouns" simply because it is in vogue.

And even when speakers accept a given mode, how do we know that it is a majority? You contend that the singular they is a predominantly accepted grammatical construct. I don't agree. Perhaps when the Chicago Manual of Style endorses it, I might agree.

This is why I contended before that the argument should not be phrased in terms of "grammar" as such but in terms of clarity and potential ambiguity. There is no ambiguity in the use of the singular they (in a sentence otherwise properly constructed--and, I might note, to a NATIVE speaker--English is already difficult enough for speakers of other languages). I think the standard of clarity is a more appealing option than trying to argue that the construct is grammatically correct. There are few people more determinedly clinging to their rules than grammarians. You'll be fighting a very, very long time before you'll win this point.

I also have a very small disagrement with this:

think that Bible versions should reflect the language of the audience for which they are targeted, not some previous stage of a language or language features imported from the biblical languages which are not part of English.

I think Bible translations should reflect the best possible, most carefully constructed, construed, and articulated language of the audience for which they are targeted. They should not be "street smart" but they should encourage people to look upon the Bible as a authorative source. This requires a voice that transcends mere street gabble and current best-seller status. The language must be deliberate, nuanced, clear, and yes, when possible, even majestic. I don't demand that translators enshrine the King James Version as the apotheosis of translations, but a good translator, in great humility could learn a great deal from the philosophy that underlay the magnificence of that translation of the Bible.

shalom,

Steven

 
At Thu Mar 16, 07:59:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Steven, I'm sorry I did not include all the qualifiers that I often do when I referred to language of the majority. It's not a simple majority (in both senses of the word "simple"!). It needs to be a majority of speakers and writers who the speech community considers to be good quality speakers and writers. Street language does not qualify. This is a complex issue. There are many factors to balance.

I think that a good way to summarize it would be that the language of Bible translation should be as close as possible to the quality of language of the original biblical texts.

 
At Thu Mar 16, 01:20:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Steven wrote of Bible translations: "This requires a voice that transcends mere street gabble and current best-seller status. The language must be deliberate, nuanced, clear, and yes, when possible, even majestic." Yes, I think I would largely agree, although not with "majestic" in places where there was nothing majestic about the original. There is a place for best-seller style Bibles like The Message, but probably not as main church or study Bibles. But the "clear" certainly needs to be stressed. There is no place for Bibles which, in the name of majestic or elevated style use words and constructions which are not clear and clearly understood by the target audiences.

Steven continued: "I don't demand that translators enshrine the King James Version as the apotheosis of translations, but a good translator, in great humility could learn a great deal from the philosophy that underlay the magnificence of that translation of the Bible." Maybe, although they should not learn from many of the attitudes and actions of the KJV translators, or of its royal sponsor. But, I wonder, how much of the currently perceived "magnificence" of that translation stems from the translators' philosophy, and how much from the natural human tendency to set up anything old and well known as a model of beauty or "magnificence"?

 

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