Anyone can understand this magazine article if they read carefully.
Wait, stop. I’m curious to know what our readers think when they read that first sentence. Did you want to pull out your pen and circle my grammar “mistake”? Or did you just now return to my first sentence again, wondering where the mistake was, and why you missed it the first time?
Here’s the answer: I began the sentence with the word anyone (a singular subject) but then I used the word they (a plural pronoun).
Back when I was in the fifth grade, Miss Carol McCaffery would have whipped out her red marker. She wouldn’t have allowed me to use a plural pronoun when referring to a singular antecedent. It’s a rule, a standard rule of English grammar. But here’s where the issue becomes less clear. There’s no easy way to fix my mistake. I suppose I could have written, “Anyone can understand this magazine article if he reads carefully.” Yes, grammarians tell us it is still technically proper to use a masculine pronoun (he) in a generic sense to refer to both genders. But this option is becoming less attractive. While I may win the technical point, I also seem to imply that only men will read our magazine. Ouch. Miss McCaffery is still reading, and I don’t want to leave her out.
Observant readers may have noticed that our editors avoid using the generic masculine (using he/him/his or men when the writer is actually referring to both genders). Instead, we revise the sentence to include both genders in some elegant way.
But I’m still stuck on my first sentence, and now I’m considering a few unattractive 21st century solutions. I could have replaced “they” with “he or she,” but then my lead sentence ends up sounding like a clunky corporate training manual. Or I could embrace a radically progressive solution, using the made-up word “s/he” (even more clunky). Given the alternatives, many writers have begun to adopt the solution I offered in the first sentence, even though it would have been marked “wrong” in 1973. Grammarians call my usage the “singular they,” and are starting to admit that it is appropriate in some cases.
But before all of the old-school English teachers rise up with pitchforks (rise, not raise), please allow me to point out one more detail. Back in the day, the “singular they” was considered proper English. Shakespeare used it in Romeo and Juliet. Jane Austen used it. George Bernard Shaw used it, even in the 1900s.
If readers wonder why a trombone player is kidnapping their church magazine for a random lecture on English grammar, here’s why: Bible translators struggle with these issues every day. Compare these three translations of 1 Peter 4:11:
King James Version: “If any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth.”
New King James Version: “If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies.”
New International Version (2011): “If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides.”
Imagine that this passage is being read by someone younger than 30, someone who is learning English as a second language, someone who is, well, not a man. Will these readers understand the meaning of the original Greek language? This is a complicated question, because the Greek also uses the masculine. Does that mean it must also be translated as masculine, even if the translation will become less clear?
Here’s an interesting detail to consider as you read. Miss McCaffery (poised with her red pen) is now serving as a missionary in Italy—and 1 Peter 4:11 was written for her. She is serving, and she should do so with the strength God provides. She’s smart enough to know that the generic masculine words in the KJV and NKJV include her. But she’s also nearing retirement. What about the next generation? Will they understand?
On the next several pages, Rod Decker offers a review of the New International Version (2011). He is helping our churches as we all begin to evaluate revisions to a well-respected translation, one that many of our churches have used in the past.
Rod wants us to understand that no church should make such decisions lightly, based on a quick scan of the headlines. Instead, he gives us an in-depth explanation of how Bible translators do their careful work while aiming at a moving target—language itself.
Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin.