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Thursday, May 20, 2021

Biblical singular and plural you

In his book Authorized: the Use and Misuse of the King James Bible;, Mark Ward wrote a good deal about “false friends.” In this context, a “false friend,” loosely, is a word that you expect to mean something that it doesn’t.

I have never noticed any supporters of modern Bibles or detractors of the King James Version call out their own very false friend – the English second person pronoun “you.” Unlike some of the so-called false friends that appear randomly in the King James Bible, the false friend “you,” is repeatedly strewn throughout modern translations from front to back, from Genesis to Revelation.

As our English language “progressed,” where it once distinguished between second person singulars and plurals,[i] it devolved into a morass of “yous” which are indistinguishable. On the one hand some dismiss this as an irrelevant concern. As one man recently told me, “You can tell by the context.” While that may be true on occasion, in fact very often we cannot tell by context. Perhaps we can tell better in face-to-face conversation that when reading – but even then our own practices belie that claim. We modern English speakers, despite what they may teach us in school, have created numerous ways to let our hearers know we mean “you plural” – y’all, you’uns, youse, and you lot, for examples. We know instinctively that we need to make the distinction, even though our modern language has betrayed us.

So, when modern translations are made, they extend that betrayal to us once again. You, you, you, you, and we don’t know which you! Unlike my friend who brushed it off nonchalantly, Greek scholar Bill Mounce admits the problem. Writing about “You” and “You” - Singular or Plural he says, “I wish modern English had a different form for ‘you’ plural. It would solve some sticky translation problems.”[ii] In portraying this problem, Mounce provides an example from John 1:50-51 in the New International Version:

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” 

Speaking of a shift from second person singular to second person plural, he explains “There is no way you would pick that up from the English.”[iii]

Examples of verses

Below are some examples of verses where we lose the singular-plural second person distinction in modern language, but are noticeable in the King James translation. Take a look at these and see whether you have caught the distinctions before.[iv]

Exodus 3:12 And he said, Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.

Exodus 4:15 And thou shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth: and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye shall do.

Exodus 29:42 This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the Lord: where I will meet you, to speak there unto thee.

2 Samuel 7:23 And what one nation in the earth is like thy people, even like Israel, whom God went to redeem for a people to himself, and to make him a name, and to do for you great things and terrible, for thy land, before thy people, which thou redeemedst to thee from Egypt, from the nations and their gods?

Deuteronomy 6:14-15 Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you; (for the Lord thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the Lord thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth.

Job 42:7 And it was so, that after the Lord had spoken these words unto Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.

Psalm 27:8 When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek.

Isaiah 7:11,14 Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above…Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Malachi 1:8 And if ye offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? and if ye offer the lame and sick, is it not evil? offer it now unto thy governor; will he be pleased with thee, or accept thy person? saith the Lord of hosts.

Matthew 26:40 And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?

Matthew 26:64 Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.

Luke 22:31-32 And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.

John 1:50-51 Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.

John 3:7 Marvel not that I said unto theeYe must be born again.

1 Corinthians 3:16 Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?

1 Corinthians 6:19 What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?

1 Corinthians 8:9-12 But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; and through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.

2 Timothy 4:22 The Lord Jesus Christ be with thy spirit. Grace be with you. Amen.

Titus 3:15 All that are with me salute thee. Greet them that love us in the faith. Grace be with you all. Amen.

Philemon 1:21-25 Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say. But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you. There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus; Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

A quick explanation of the “ye’s” and “thee’s”

There are eight second person pronouns used in the Early Modern English of the King James Version of the Bible.

The words beginning with “T” are second person singular:

  • Thou = Nominative case (as in “Thou art”)
  • Thee = Objective case (as in “to thee,” “of thee”)
  • Thy = Possessive (usually used before a noun that begins with a consonant, as in “thy brother”)
  • Thine = Possessive (usually used before a noun that begins with a vowel or vowel sound, as in “thine eyes”; or in place of a noun, as in “this is thine”)

The words beginning with “Y” are second person plural:

  • Ye = Nominative case (as in “Ye are”)
  • You = Objective case (as in “to you,” “of you”)
  • Your = Possessive determiner (used in front of a noun, as in “your generations”)
  • Yours = Possessive pronoun (used in place of nouns, as in “all things are yours”)


[i] As do the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament, and even many modern languages. 
[ii] Like many who dismiss the possibility of English-speakers learning a bit about Early Modern English, Mounce quips, “I guess we all have to learn some Greek.” 
[iii] That is, the English of the NIV. The English of the KJV makes it clear (for those who understand the “thee” and “you” pronouns). “Jesus answered and said unto him [Nathanael], Because I said unto thee [singular], I saw thee [singular] under the fig tree, believest thou [singular]? Thou [singular] shalt see greater things than these. And he [Jesus] saith unto him [Nathanael], Verily, verily, I say unto you [plural], Hereafter ye [plural] shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” 
[iv] Some examples have both “ye” and “thee” in them, while a few are examples of only one – but in a place where the number matters to the interpretation. What some decry as archaic (or obsolete) is really a great boon to Bible study.

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