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Why The Ye's And Thou's?
(By Bruce Cummons)

One of the most criticized characteristics of the Authorised Version of the Bible is the use of English pronouns. Some unlearned scholars go to great lengths to make fun of thee's, thou's, and ye's. "Why not just use you?" they say. Yet this is one of the strongest points of the Authorised Version.

In the language of the Greek New Testament and Hebrew Old Testament there is a very distinct difference between the second person singular and the second person plural pronouns. We make no difference in modern English--both singular and plural are translated you. However, in old English there exists a difference just as there is in Greek and Hebrew. As a result the old English used in the Authorised Version gives far more precise translation than would modern English.

In our Authorised Version, THEE, THOU, THY, and THINE are always singular. YOU, YE, and YOUR are always plural. If the second person pronoun starts with a "t" (in the English translation) then it is singular. If it starts with a "y" it is plural. This information helps us to better interpret God's Word.

It is interesting to note that, contrary to popular opinion, the word YOU is used in the Authorised Version of the Bible 2,004 times in fact. The thee's and the ye's are used also for accuracy and directness of translation; perhaps the so-called "old" English could better be described as good old "Bible" English.

Praise the Lord for it.

[Excerpted from Archaic or Accurate: Modern Translations of the Bible and You versus Thee in the language of worship, Edited by J.P. Thackway, Wiltshire, England: The Bible League, nd, pp. 43,44.]

Singular and Plural: A Warning Against Confusion
        By Professor John Heading

The use of the Authorised Version today is maintained by many Christians, not only on account of its language bringing reverence and spiritual beauty to the soul, but also on account of the ability of its language to support greater accuracy. We are not talking about archaic words that have lost their original meanings, or that may convey no meaning at all to the modern mind. Rather we refer to the ability of the language used to convey the singular-plural distinctions in the second person forms of pronouns and verbs. This distinction is quite lost when thou, thee, thy are replaced by you, your. Under these circumstances, the translator should realise that his translation is liable to produce an erroneous impression on the reader. Such translations can have but limited value in the exact study of Scripture. Over the years, the author has made a note of verses that he has spotted that contain both the singular and plural forms, some of which are given below. He has not read through the whole of Scripture with the specific intent of picking out all such examples; that would be a major exercise! The following should both interest and warn the reader; the author has often used such examples to warn younger believers against the vagueness of modern translations:

    Exodus 4:15. "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." The THOU, THY refer to Moses, but YOU refers to the nation which would be instructed by the spokesman Aaron.

    Exodus 29:42. "This shalt 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." The YOU, referring to the children of Israel, is explained in the following verse, but THEE refers to Moses, who had the holy privilege of hearing the words of God directly (Leviticus 1:1).

    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." Here David is in prayer to God, thus accounting for the words THY, THOU. Yet although speaking TO God in the second person singular, David also speaks ABOUT God in the third person--"God, himself, him," a change of style that hardly marks prayers today. Similarly, "a people" is also referred to in the second person--YOU, even in a prayer! Consider what would happen to the meaning if YOU, YOUR were used throughout!"

    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." THOU refers to the high priest, but YOU refers to all who will see Him in the day of His glory (Revelation 1:7).

    Luke 22:31-32. "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." Satan's desire was directed to all the apostles, but the Lord prays for each individually.

    John 3:7. "Marvel not that I said unto THEE, YE must be born again." The message was spoken to an individual, Nicodemus, but the message referred to all men. The same phenomenon occurs in verse 11, where we read: "I say unto THEE ... that YE receive not our witness."

    1 Corinthians 8:9-12. "Take heed lest ... this liberty of YOURS ... if any man see THEE which hast knowledge ... through THY knowledge ... But when YE sin." The plural form refers to the church members, but the singular to individuals in responsibility. In verse 13, Paul even brings the principle home to himself!

    2 Timothy 4:22. "The Lord Jesus Christ be with THY spirit. Grace be with YOU." (Contrast 1 Timothy 6:21.) The singular refers to Timothy, to whom alone the Epistle was written (2 Timothy 1:1). But the plural refers to others who were also included in Paul's final greetings, "Priscila and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus" (4:19).

    Titus 3:15. "All that are with me salute THEE. Greet them that love us in the faith. Grace be with YOU all." Here, the singular refers to Titus, but the YOU to the church in Crete (1:5), and to all who loved Paul in the faith.

    Philemon 21-25. "Having confidence in THY obedience I wrote unto THEE, knowing that THOU wilt also do more than I say .. I trust that through YOUR prayers I shall be given unto YOU ... There salute THEE ... the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with YOUR spirit." The singular refers to Philemon, but this short letter was also addressed to "Apphia ... Archippus ... and to the church in thy house" (v. 2). Thus the plural form is used in verses 3 and 25 where grace is offered, and in verse 22 where fellowship with the whole church is expected, as well as with Philemon as an individual.

The reader is invited to read all these ten quotations, employing the THOU and YOU forms throughout, and to compare them with certain modern translations in order to convince himself that the latter are liable to convey muddle and half-truths, whereas exactitude is necessary when reading and studying the holy Scriptures, given by inspiration of God, these Scriptures being profitable in all their detail "for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good words" (2 Timothy 3:16,17).

(Professor John Heading, "Singular and Plural--A Warning against Confusion," Archaic or Accurate: Modern Translations of the Bible and You versus Thee in the language of worship, edited by J.P. Thackway, Wiltshire, England: The Bible League, nd, pp. 17-19)

"Thou" Or "You"?
By Alfred Levell

This is a difficult matter, but "the nettle must be grasped"!

The second person singular pronouns, "Thou " and "Thee," "Thy," "Thine," with the accompanying verb ending "est," and the verb ending "eth" for the third person, are now all regarded by many as archaic, and therefore not to be used in any modern translation of the Bible. There is a good case for dropping "eth" e.g. Psalm 103:14 "For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust" would become "For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust." There is no loss of accuracy or reverence here, but there is simply the loss of the dignity and rhythm of the AV. However, for the second person pronouns, the position is different, because the change does lead to a loss of accuracy of translation and also to a loss of reverence.

Taking the matter of reverence first, the reader will be aware that in many religious circles, including many Evangelicals, "You " and "Your" have been widely adopted in prayer to God instead of "Thou," "Thee," "Thy," "Thine." It seems to be the "in thing" in those circles, and they will argue that it does not betoken a lack of reverence. Reverence, they will say, is the attitude of the heart, and "You" and "Your" can be just as reverently intended as "Thou" and "Thee." While we know that reverence must be in the heart, the outward way in which that reverence is expressed cannot be dismissed so lightly. I BELIEVE THIS MODERN TREND IS ALL PART OF THE GENERAL LACK OF RESPECT FOR AUTHORITY AND OF THE TENDENCY THESE DAYS TO BRING GOD DOWN TO OUR HUMAN LEVEL. But what does Scripture say? In Psalm 50 part of verse 21 God says, "Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself: but I will reprove thee."

Speaking personally, this has been a voice to me in the matter, and I believe that the "You " and "Your" habit does in time lead to an undue familiarity and a loss of reverence.

A further point is that the use of "Thou" and "Thee," etc., in prayer to God has been a feature of the English language for many centuries--ten at least--irrespective of what the normal secular practice has been. Even in 1881--only just over 100 years ago--when the Revised Version was published, and when "You " had become quite the normal pronoun for the second person singular in ordinary conversation, the use of "Thou" and "Thee" was retained in the Revised Version; and, at that time, the use of "You" and "Your" in prayer would have provoked an enormous outcry. This is one of those changes that has really come about very suddenly in the last 40 years in conformity with the increasing pace of change! I believe that modern translators of the Bible should have accepted that the use of "Thou" and "Thee" in address to God was a centuries-old practice, a feature of our religious English, and therefore to be retained.

In the July 1979 issue of the Evangelical Times (from which I quote by kind permission) there were articles respectively on the use of "Thou" and of "You." The article on "Thou" by the Rev. Paul E. G. Cook was generally very good. Quoting the Oxford Dictionary definition of "archaic" as being "no longer in common use, though retained for special purposes," he makes the point that a word may be "archaic," but still relevant in a particular situation. He goes on:

    "Language 'retained for special purposes' may well be archaic, but its retention gives it the right to be regarded as modem language for the purpose for which it is used. Until the 1960s the use of 'Thou' and 'Thee' in addressing God was more common than the use of 'You,' even though the words had long ceased to be used in general conversation in the south of England. (He points out they are still used in the north!) They were still common usage for addressing God and still are. The usage is both archaic and modern.

    "The question to be considered, therefore, is whether the use of 'Thou' and 'Thee' is still relevant to the relationship which ought to exist between the modern man and his God. We can hold on to traditions, even though they have ceased to be of any real contemporary value. But such is not the case here, since the tragedy of the modem man is that he seems to have lost all sense of the tremendous gulf which exists between the Creator and the creature....

    "The whole problem of fallen man is that he is unaware of the disparity between himself and God. It is also the problem of the church today. A sense of awe and wonder in the presence of God has departed from the churches" (Paul Cook).

Mr. Cook ends his article with:

    "Let us beware of too quickly abandoning the old paths in a desire to be modern. The quest for relevance can too easily lead to irrelevance. And many have gone that way. 'Thou' is relevant; 'You' is not."

But there is the important translation point to be considered also. It is often said that the AV is written in 16th/17th century English and while this is no doubt partly true in that everything is the product of its own age, yet it is not entirely true, especially as regards this question of the second person singular pronouns. The pronoun "You" started to be used instead of "Thou" towards the end of the 13th century, and this use extended in the following three centuries. But the translators of the AV did not conform to this rising usage, so that, when the AV appeared, it was not in some ways in, the usage of the 17th century. WHY DID THE AV TRANSLATORS NOT ADOPT THE UP-TO-DATE ENGLISH OF THEIR TIME? FOR ONE PARTICULAR REASON WHICH MANY PEOPLE HAVE PERHAPS NOT REALISED--ACCURACY OF TRANSLATION! WHENEVER THE HEBREW AND GREEK TEXTS USE THE SINGULAR OF THE PRONOUN, SO DOES THE AV; AND WHENEVER THOSE TEXTS USE THE PLURAL, SO DOES THE AV. IN OTHER WORDS, THE AV TRANSLATORS STUCK CLOSELY TO THE BIBLICAL USAGE, AND TRANSLATED THE WORD OF GOD USING A KIND OF BIBLICAL STYLE OF ENGLISH. THE VERSION WAS A FAITHFUL ONE ABOVE ALL ELSE. THE SAME CANNOT BE SAID SO COMPLETELY FOR ANY OTHER ENGLISH BIBLE--IN FACT MOST ARE NOWHERE NEAR THAT STANDARD. There is a distinct loss of accuracy in translation if "You" is used for the singular as well as the plural: it becomes an ambiguous word. The AV informs us correctly on what was the proper original sense. Thus, in Luke 22.31,32, the Lord says to Peter "Satan hath desired to have YOU, that he may sift YOU as wheat," "you" here referring to Peter and the other disciples; "But I have prayed for THEE, that THY faith fail not, " "thee " and "thy" referring to Peter only. Such shades of meaning are completely lost when "you" is used throughout.

Some modern versions of the Bible have attempted to get round the point by modernising all the pronouns, except in speech addressed to God where "Thou," "Thee," etc., are retained. The RSV and the NEB adopted this line. There are two strong objections to it. First, the Greek does not make such a distinction: it simply uses one pronoun for the singular and another for the plural (as does the AV). Secondly, these versions have generally treated the Lord Jesus Christ as man, and have therefore used "you" when He has been addressed, and "thou" when God the Father has been addressed. This distinction is disparaging of the person and glory of Christ, who is equal with the Father in power and glory. There are, of course, some cases where people addressed the Lord Jesus not realising that He was Divine, e.g. the woman of Samaria. It would be difficult to know how to treat these, even if " Thou " were being used in address to the Lord Jesus. It does not seem that this "halfway house" is at all satisfactory and it is interesting to see that both the RSV and the NEB recently issued--the revision of the NEB--have abandoned it, and use "You " throughout. But THE FACT REMAINS THAT THE AV'S USAGE IS BOTH CORRECT AS A TRANSLATION, REVERENT AND TIME-HONOURED, AND CHILDREN CAN CERTAINLY BE EDUCATED TO THE USE OF "THOU " AND "THEE " IN WORSHIP IF THERE IS A MIND SO TO EDUCATE THEM.

As a side-issue on this question, one dreads the thought of any "modernisation" of pronouns in our vast treasury of beautiful hymns in the English language. May we not be left to "despise our birthright" in this!
[Alfred Levell, The Old Is Better: Some Bible Versions Considered, Copyright 1990, Herts, England: Gospel Standard Publications, pp. 28-32.]

Oswald T. Allis

Note from the editor of this page:  The word "pronominal" above refers to "pronouns" and deals with the pure English pronouns such as thee, thou, thy, mine, ye, etc.

The farther translators depart from the style of the document they are translating, the more complicated does their problem become, the greater will be the variety in the translations proposed, and the greater will be the danger of the translation becoming an interpretation. Dr. Burrows lays down what we believe to be the true governing principle for all accurate translating, when he says, "The translator can only follow his text, leaving it for the commentator to explain." Many of the difficulties in which revisers have become involved are the direct result of their failure to observe this fundamental rule. An especially important example of this, because of its doctrinal implications, is their rendering of the second person singular where it occurs in the Greek text.


It is a well-known fact that in contemporary English the forms THOU, THY, THINE have almost disappeared from secular use. They are largely restricted to the language of religious devotion, in which they are constantly employed, and which is largely formed by, and owes its peculiarities to, the Authorised Version.

Consequently, it is often asserted or assumed that the usage of the AV represents the speech of 300 years ago, and that now, three centuries later, it should be changed to accord with contemporary usage. But this is not at all a correct statement of the problem. The important fact is this. THE USAGE OF THE AV IS NOT THE ORDINARY USAGE OF THE EARLY SEVENTEENTH CENTURY: IT IS THE BIBLICAL USAGE BASED ON THE STYLE OF THE HEBREW AND THE GREEK SCRIPTURES. The second part of this statement needs no proof and will be challenged by no one. It is undeniable that where the Hebrew and Greek use the singular of the pronoun the AV regularly uses the singular, and where they use the plural it uses the plural. Even in Deuteronomy where in his addresses, and apparently for rhetorical and pedagogical effect, Moses often changes suddenly, and seemingly arbitrarily, from singular to plural or from plural to singular, the AV reproduces the style of the text with fidelity. THAT IS TO SAY, THE USAGE OF THE AV IS STRICTLY BIBLICAL.

The first part of the above statement is not quite so easy to prove, but there is abundant evidence to support it. According to the late Professor Lounsbury of Yale, the substitution of the plural for the singular in addressing an individual, "Made its appearance in the English language toward the close of the thirteenth century ... in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the use of the plural steadily increased, and in the sixteenth century it became the standard form of polite conversation....

For some two centuries it may be said that in a general way they (the THOU and THEE) were employed to denote affection or inferiority or contempt." Examples of these three uses are to be found in Shakespeare, for example, in Henry V. Lounsbury was especially concerned to illustrate the last of the three, contempt. If the correctness of Lounsbury's statement is admitted, IT IS QUITE OBVIOUS THAT THE AV DID NOT ATTEMPT TO MAKE THE USAGE OF THE HEBREW AND GREEK CONFORM TO THE USAGE OF THE ELIZABETHAN OR EARLY JACOBEAN PERIOD. IT SIMPLY FOLLOWED THE BIBLICAL USAGE, DESPITE THE FACT THAT FOR SOME THREE HUNDRED YEARS THE TREND HAD BEEN INCREASINGLY AWAY FROM IT. Needless to say, the two earlier revisions--the English Revised Version of 1881 and the American Revised Version of 1901--followed the AV in this regard, despite the fact that the ordinary usage in the years 1880-1900 was much the same as it is today.

The following words of A. T. Robertson are worthy of careful pondering in this connection: "No one today speaks the English of the Authorised Version, or ever did for that matter, for though, like Shakespeare, it is the pure Anglo-Saxon, yet unlike Shakespeare it reproduces to a remarkable extent the spirit and language of the Bible" (A Grammar of the Greek NT. p. 56). This is its great claim to distinction, the reason it has endeared itself to multitudes of English-speaking people for more than three centuries: IT REPRODUCES TO A REMARKABLE EXTENT THE SPIRIT AND LANGUAGE OF THE BIBLE.


There is another very important consideration. If the second person singular is to be used only "in language addressed to God," what is to be done in the case of language addressed to Jesus the Christ? Is THOU to be used regularly, because He is God, whether so regarded by the speaker or not? Is YOU to be used regularly, because He was, or, it is assumed, was regarded by the speaker as man? Or, is the translator to exegete each passage and decide dogmatically which of these pronouns is to be used in a given case? For example, in Matthew 16:16 the words of Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi are rendered in the Revised Standard Version (RSV), "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Here, in reply to a direct question as to what Jesus' apostles and immediate followers held Him to be, Peter affirms that He is the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy, that He is the Son of the living God. Yet several modern versions use YOU here instead of THOU (cf. also Matthew 14:33; 20:21). We turn to Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22 and there, according to the RSV, the living God addresses His "Son" with thou. Does this affirm Jesus' Deity, or does it not? In Acts 1:24 the "Lord" is addressed with THOU (RSV). Does this mean that God is addressed, or that Jesus is addressed as God? Since Jesus chose His twelve apostles while He was on earth, it would be natural to suppose that this prayer for guidance in the choice of a successor to Judas would be addressed to Him in heaven (cf. Acts 9:13 with 4:24-27). Is such the intent of the revisers? We note in this connection that the risen but not yet ascended Christ is addressed as YOU in Acts 1:6 (RSV). Finally, we turn to Hebrews where, in the first chapter, the unique dignity of this Son of the living God is elaborately proved by six or seven quotations from the Old Testament. In four of these the pronoun of the second singular is used. RSV renders it here by THOU or THY.

It is important to remember that the retention of the distinction between the singular and the plural is sometimes quite essential to accuracy of rendering YOU, as both singular and plural is at times confusing in English, as in French and German, and requires explanation if used for both, as for instance in Luke 22:31,32, where by the use of YOU, the distinction between the apostles (or disciples) and THEE (Peter) disappears.

In Acts 13:47 Paul introduces a quotation from the Old Testament with the words, "For so the Lord hath commanded us, saying." Then follow the familiar words from Isaiah 49:6 which a modern translation renders, "I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth." You suggests Paul and Barnabas and by implication every ambassador of Christ. Hence, it is important to note that in the Hebrew and the Greek the pronoun is not plural but singular, and the THOU suggests an individual, primarily the Messiah.


The real issue is whether or not we are prepared to give up the use of the singular of the pronoun entirely, and to this there are two main objections. The first is that it gives up the attempt to retain in English a distinction which is clearly drawn in Hebrew and in Greek. The second is that it means that THOU and THEE and THY are to pass completely out of twentieth-century English. The singular form of the pronoun is not even to be tolerated in the language of devotion and worship. It is to disappear from the Lord's Prayer and give place to "Your name be revered," "Your kingdom come"! Scores of our most familiar and best-loved hymns will then have to be discarded or more or less drastically edited. And the liturgies of the liturgical churches (e.g. the Te Deum) will need a thorough overhauling, if such a radical change is to be carried through. It is only in very recent days that Christian people have raised objections to the former language of devotion and worship. When the present century began people did not raise objections to what we may call a scriptural and biblical style as the language of devotion and worship. They liked it. They did not want the Bible to read just like any other book, to have the up-to-the-minute style of the daily newspaper. They loved its quaint, if you wish to call it that, its distinctive, its Biblical way of putting things. And we believe that the great majority of them do so today.

Why should the THOU which is reserved for Deity be used in quotations from the Old Testament which speak of the Messiah, if it is not to be used in a New Testament passage which expressly affirms the Messiahship of Jesus as the Son of the living God? Is the Old Testament in the RSV to have a more archaic style than the New Testament? Hardly, for YOU appears in some quotations from it. If "Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee" (a quotation from a Psalm), is a proper rendering for Hebrews 1:5 in the RSV, why should we read, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God" in Matthew 16:16? To prove that the rendering in RSV is arbitrary, inconsistent, and highly interpretive, it is sufficient to compare Matthew 20:21 with Matthew 25:37-45.

[This article is excerpted from Archaic or Accurate? Edited by J.P. Thackway, Wiltshire, England: The Bible League, nd.]

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