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Sunday, September 10, 2006

singular "they" in English Bibles

Before prescriptive grammarians banned it, singular "they" enjoyed significant usage in speech and literature, including important English Bible versions. Note the following examples from some English Bibles, where a semantically singular "they" has an antecedent which is syntactically singular. In each of these examples, except the first, the antecedent is an indefinite pronoun, a kind of collective singular (such as "everyone" and "anyone") which has the feel of a semantic plural--after all, an indefinite pronoun refers to a set of individuals.

Singular "they" appears with the antecedent "his brother" in some versions of Matt. 18:35:
So lyke wyse shall my hevenly father do vnto you except ye forgeve with youre hertes eache one to his brother their treaspases. (Tyndale, 1526)

So lykewyse, shall my heauenly father do also vnto you, yf ye from your heartes, forgeue not, euery one his brother, their trespasses. (Bishops, 1568)

So likewise shall mine heauenly Father doe vnto you, except ye forgiue from your hearts, eche one to his brother their trespasses. (Geneva, 1587)

So likewise shall my heauenly Father doe also vnto you, if yee from your hearts forgiue not euery one his brother their trespasses. (KJV, 1611)

So likewise shall my heavenly Father do to you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. (Webster, 1833)

so also my heavenly Father will do to you, if ye may not forgive each one his brother from your hearts their trespasses.' (Youngs, 1898)
Semantically singular "themselves" has antecedent of "each" in Phil. 2:3:
Let nothing be done through contention: neither by vain glory. But in humility, let each esteem others better than themselves: (Douay-Rheims, 1582)

Let nothing bee done through strife, or vaine glory, but in lowlinesse of minde let each esteeme other better then themselues. (KJV, 1611)

Do nothing through strife or vain-glory, but in lowliness of mind, esteem each the others better than themselves. (Wesley, 1755)

[Let] nothing [be done] through strife or vain glory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. (Webster, 1833)

[let] nothing [be] in the spirit of strife or vain glory, but, in lowliness of mind, each esteeming the other as more excellent than themselves; (Darby, 1890)
Antecedent "everyone" is followed by singular "their" in Numbers 2:34:
And the chyldren of Israel dyd accordyng to all that the Lorde commaunded Moyses, so they pitched with their standerdes, and so they iourneyed euery one throughout their kinredes, according to the housholdes of their fathers. (Bishops, 1568)

And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers. (KJV, 1611)

And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they moved forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers. (Webster, 1833)

Thus did the children of Israel; according to all that the LORD commanded Moses, so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one by their families, according to their fathers’ houses. (RV, 1881)

Thus did the children of Israel; according to all that Jehovah commanded Moses, so they encamped by their standards, and so they set forward, every one by their families, according to their fathers' houses. (ASV, 1901)
The same agreement appears in some versions of Numbers 15:12:
According to the number that ye shall prepare, so shall ye do to euery one, accordyng to their number. (Bishops, 1568)

According to the nomber that yee prepare to offer, so shall yee doe to euery one according to their nomber. (Geneva, 1587)

According to the number that yee shall prepare, so shall yee doe to euery one, according to their number. (KJV, 1611)

According to the number that ye shall prepare, so shall ye do to every one according to their number. (Webster, 1833)

According to the number that ye shall prepare, so shall ye do to every one according to their number. (RV, 1881)

according to the number that ye offer, so shall ye do to every one according to their number. (Darby, 1890)

According to the number that ye prepare, so ye do to each, according to their number; (Youngs, 1898)

According to the number that ye shall prepare, so shall ye do to every one according to their number. (ASV, 1901)

According to the number that you prepare, so shall you do with every one according to their number. (RSV, 1946)

According to the number that you prepare, so you shall do for everyone according to their number. (NASB, 1995)

According to the number that you prepare, so you shall do with everyone according to their number. (NKJV, 1982)
Singular "they" (in the possessive "their") takes "every man" as antecedent in 2 Kings 14:12:
And Iuda was put to the worse before Israel, and they fled euery man to their tentes. (Bishops, 1568)

And Iudah was put to the worse before Israel, and they fledde euery man to their tents. (Geneva, 1587)

And Juda was put to the worse before Israel, and they fled every man to their dwellings. (Douay-Rheims, 1582)

And Iudah was put to the worse before Israel, and they fled euery man to their tents. (KJV, 1611)

And Judah was defeated before Israel; and they fled every man to their tents. (Webster, 1833)
Opponents of the TNIV consider its usage of singular "they" to be "inaccurate" in Rev. 3:20 and other verses:
I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me. (TNIV)
However the TNIV is in honorable company with its usage of the singular "they" which has a centuries old tradition of usage by good speakers and authors in English, including translators of English Bibles. For those who use and understand singular "they", there is nothing inaccurate nor ungrammatical about the singular "they" in an English Bible version.

For many people indefinite pronouns "feel" semantically plural. However they follow singular subject-verb number agreement. Singular "they" is syntactically plural but agrees with indefinite antecedents. Because English has no pure gender-inclusive third person singular pronoun, English speakers over the ages have used various solutions to meet the need for a generic singular third person pronoun. One solution has been generic "he" which is still in use by some English speakers and authors. Another solution has been singular "they" which has been in use since ca. the late 1200s.

Both solutions have a mismatch between their syntactic behavior and semantic properties. Generic "he" is heard as being of masculine, rather then inclusive, gender to many speakers. Some speakers today claim that they do not hear generic "he" as having a masculine sound (or nuance). For yet others, such as Drs. Poythress and Grudem, it is recognized as sounding masculine (at least as what they call "nuance"), and they consider that appropriate for expressing gender inclusion in their theory of theological and linguistic male representation.

Singular "they" is heard as being both syntactically and semantically plural by some English speakers. For many other English speakers singular "they" is perceived as being semantically singular but syntactically plural. These are the speakers who use and understand singular "they." They are the audience for whom the TNIV has been translated. Other versions are available for those who prefer generic "he."

Better Bibles are worded with English forms which are widely used by the audiences for whom they are translated.

10 Comments:

At Sun Sep 10, 02:04:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Mr. Leman, it is hardly sporting in a post such as this to add and remove examples once you put it up; it makes the comments incoherent.

I'm sorry, but it was a matter of time. I posted my first version of the post rushed on my way out of the door to church this morning. I continued revising the post after I got home. I do not believe I deleted any versions from the post. I did add some which I found after further research after I got home. I'm sorry that the process I used was confusing. That was not my intention. Rather, my intention was to be as complete and accurate as possible. I hope I have been.

 
At Sun Sep 10, 02:06:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

As my earlier comment indicated, you did not give any valid examples of a singular "they" in your original post.

My original post had three verses from several Bible versions. Each of the verse wordings posted was an example of singular "they."

 
At Sun Sep 10, 02:07:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

The quote in Phil. 2:3 is not a plural "they", but refers to the plural "ye" in Phil. 2:2 (e.g., let each esteem other better than himself and everyone else referred to in the "ye" of Phil 2:2.)

In Phil. 2:3 "themselves" has "each" as its antecedent, making this an example of singular "they."

 
At Sun Sep 10, 04:15:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anon, this reader concludes that every one of Wayne's examples (in the current version, I agree that changes are confusing) is indeed a singular "they" in English. Have I successfully completed your "exercise for the reader"? Or do you have a different set of answers?

 
At Sun Sep 10, 05:21:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

For those who use and understand singular "they", there is nothing inaccurate nor ungrammatical about the singular "they" in an English Bible version.

Another comment for the heaping pile stacked on this side.

Have I successfully completed your "exercise for the reader"?

Something tells me you haven't, just a small tip before you publicly post your answ... oh, oops, couldn't get to you in time.

;D

 
At Sun Sep 10, 06:43:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

That is one reading. My reading is the other one, and my reading is clearly correct, from the verb forms used. I've addressed all your original examples; I'll let you find the errors in your new examples as an "exercise for the reader."

Are your objections ones having to do with terminology, namely, whether it is appropriate to call the phenomenon singular "they"? Or are they that you do not agree that the antecedence relationships are as I have analyzed in the sentence?

Do you agree that some English speakers have a singular "they" construction in their linguistic repertoire?

If you could, I would appreciate getting more information from you to be able to know where it is that you differ with my analysis.

Let's try a more current example, also:

"If everybody wants to eat pizza on Fridy, they should bring $2 each."

Whether or not you believe this is gramamtical would you agree that "they" has "everybody" as its antecedent?

Do you agree that grammarians and linguists typically call this usage of "they" a singular "they"?

 
At Mon Sep 11, 03:49:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Matthew, I realised that I wouldn't have satisfied Anon, as he is clearly presupposing the correctness of what I consider to be wrong answers. But my point was to goad him into giving his wrong answers so that I could respond to them. As such my comment seems to have partly fulfilled its intentions.

Meanwhile I see no good reason to study the pronoun reference system of obsolete versions of English and of older translations of dubious quality and little contemporary relevance. Despite this, I will look more carefully at Wayne's KJV examples. I will concentrate on the KJV texts he quotes, in context, and consider also the original which they reflect.

Matthew 18:35, So likewise shall my heauenly Father doe also vnto you, if yee from your hearts forgiue not euery one his brother their trespasses.

In this sentence, what is the referent of "their"? There is no plural antecedent, apart from "hearts" and the second person "you", anywhere in the sentence. Are you claiming that the reference is back to the "tormentors" of the previous verse? Or are you claiming that the trespasses belong to "your hearts"? Now your knowledge of the English of this period may be better than mine, so I don't claim to be sure of what the KJV translators intended. But I do claim to understand the original Greek, including the textual variant translated by KJV, in which it is clear and unambiguous that the "trespasses", paraptomata, are possessed by the brother who is to be forgiven. In other words, plural pronoun, in the post-biblical Greek of the textual variant as well as in my reading of the English, referring to a singular referent "brother", adelphos. That is my definition of singular "they", even though I accept that the construction is not the same as in Revelation 3:20 TNIV.

Philippians 2:3, Let nothing bee done through strife, or vaine glory, but in lowlinesse of minde let each esteeme other better then themselues.

Here the construction with "each" is not justified by the Greek text, nor by any variant. I wonder if it comes from the Vulgate via Douay-Rheims. But I really can't see what referent there can be for "themselues" other than "each". Could "each" actually be a plural in 16th century English? It can't in modern English.

Numbers 2:34, And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers.

I accept that syntactically this sentence can be parsed with the second "their" referring to "the children of Israel". But that is semantically nonsense. The point is not that every one of the children of Israel set forward after all of the children of Israel collectively, but that each set out "by" (RV) his or her own family. The Hebrew makes this clear with a construction with singular pronouns, literally "man to his families" but intended gender generically. I doubt if the KJV translators intended to mistranslate the Hebrew by changing the referent from "every one" to "the children of Israel". Rather, they found "every one after his families" to be stylistically poor and confusing, and "every one after their families" to be acceptable, as the kind of construction which was in regular use by their contemporaries such as Shakespeare.

Numbers 15:12, According to the number that yee shall prepare, so shall yee doe to euery one, according to their number.

What is the plural referent for "their" here? The nearest preceding plural noun is "three tenth deals" in verse 9. Here the plural pronoun does reflect the Hebrew. But in the Hebrew as well as in my understanding of the English the referent of "their" can only be the explicitly singular "every one".

2 Kings 14:12, And Iudah was put to the worse before Israel, and they fled euery man to their tents.

I suppose the English here could be understood with "their" co-referential with "they", as that every man fled to all of the tents of all the people of Judah. But this is clearly not what is intended, as is very clear from the Hebrew. In fact there is a textual uncertainty here whether the Hebrew is to be understood as singular "tent" or plural "tents", but the possessive suffix is clearly singular, so this is the regular (and gender generic) Hebrew construction literally "man to his tent(s)". Presumably KJV went for "their" rather than "his" for stylistic reasons, perhaps to avoid the suggestion that any one person had more than one tent.

I find faintly amusing, although sad, the attempts of the prescriptive grammarians to reanalyse Shakespeare and KJV to make them obey their prescriptive rules.

 
At Thu Sep 14, 03:14:00 PM, Blogger Kyle said...

Being a dissertating English Renaissance scholar myself, I can also say that Anonymous is actually wrong about Jacobean uses of "thou" and "you," or at least partly wrong. "Thou" was in the process of falling out of use during this period, and while the singular/plural distinction sometimes held, even cursory readings of a wide variety of texts, especially Shakespeare, reveals that there was no one set rule for how the two words were used during this period (in fact, there are a lot of so called "rules" which we'd often like to claim but which in fact hadn't been hardened into rules and would merely be constellations of tendencies; this is similar to the non-standardization of spelling, which wasn't really "solved" until people started publishing dictionaries which sought to establish a norm for everyone to follow). In fact, there are cases in Shakespeare (yes, especially in those original quartos, and not just the severely mis-named "bad" quartos) where both "thou" and "you" are connected to the same singular antecedent in the same sentence. The distinction between "thou" and "you" was actually more likely to indicate formality, with "thou" (counterintuitively to us) connoting familiarity and "you" implying formality.

 
At Thu Sep 14, 04:45:00 PM, Blogger Kyle said...

Here's a representative sentence, from Falstaff in 1 Henry IV, scene 1.2 (actually two sentences in modern editions, but one in the original):

"Indeede you come neere me nowe Hal, for wee that take purses go by the moone and the seuen stars, and not by Phoebus, he, that wandring knight so faire: and I prethe sweet wag when thou art a king, as God save thy grace: maiestie I should say, for grace thou wilt haue none." (A3v).

Note also that Poins says later in the scene, "I haue vizards for you al, you haue horses for yourselues" (B1r). Why would Sh. insert "al" to create a plural if plurality were already implied?

Note: all citations are to signatures of pages of the earliest complete edition (Q2, 1598), which is also the basis for most contemporary editions.

And if you try to make the lame and highly irrelevant-in-this-context (esp. b/c those speaking in "high" poetic speech make the same assumption that "you" and "thou" tend to be singular, though maybe not in the same sentence) rejoinder that this is bar-speak and so not "proper" grammar, so help me...

 
At Thu Sep 14, 09:07:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Obviously there is a difference between saying "thou art" and "thou wilt" and conjugating other verbs to match "thou". "Thou comest" is a little more obscure than "Thou art".

 

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