Editing the ISV singular "they"

I have been checking the ISV, at the invitation of their translation team. I just found a use of singular “they.” I suspect that the ISV team is not aware that they used a singular “they.” It probably is just what sounded natural to their translator in this context, so they (!) used it. Elsewhere they very consciously use a generic “he.”

The ISV singular “they” (boldfaced by me) is found in Jonah 3:8 :

Instead, let man and animal clothe themselves with sackcloth, and cry out to God forcefully. Let every person turn from their evil ways and from their tendency to do violence.

How does “their” there (!) sound to you?

8 thoughts on “Editing the ISV singular "they"

  1. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.

    The King James is even more muddled going from “them” to “his” to “their”. I would say that probably represents the Hebrew.

  2. Eric Rowe says:

    For clarification, Suzanne, your comment about the KJV is right. But the version you posted is the NKJV, which has every pronoun agree in number with its antecedent.

    The Hebrew has plural “call”, then plural “turn”, then singular “each”, then singular “his way”, then plural “their hands”. The KJV reads, “But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.” I’m impressed, not only does it follow the Hebrew singulars and plurals exactly, but it does so with every English pronoun agreeing in number with its antecedent by making the phrase “every one from his evil way” epexegetical. From the Hebrew I wouldn’t have thought it could be done! Shear brilliance!

  3. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    That is so careless of me. I must have chosen the NKJV out of the search engine without noticing, after I had read the KJV. Thanks for supplying the KJV for this verse.

    It is interesting though that the NKJV editors felt that they had to tidy it up, once again like the NIV.

  4. Jeremy Pierce says:

    I’m not entirely certain that this is a singular ‘they’, because what seems just as common to me as the singular ‘they’ is the plural ‘each, the plural ‘every’, and so on. Prescriptivists under the spell of arbitrary rules that don’t match up with actual usage would say both are wrong, but sentences like this one could be either. Both occur often enough that it’s hard to be sure which this is. It can’t be both.

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    Jeremy commented:

    I’m not entirely certain that this is a singular ‘they’, because what seems just as common to me as the singular ‘they’ is the plural ‘each, the plural ‘every’, and so on.

    Good point, Jeremy. It is in line with what I been pointing out, that indefinite pronouns (and noun phrases such as “every person”) which are antecedents for “they” are semantically plural. But they usually take *syntactic* singular subject-verb agreement. For instance, if we tested for subject-verb number agreement with “every person” of ISV Jonah 3:8, we could ask people whether the following #1 or 2 sounds better to them:

    1. If every person *turns* from their evil ways God will forgive them.
    2. 1. If every person *turn* from their evil ways God will forgive them.

    #1 has singular subject-verb agreement. #2 has plural subject-verb agreement. I think a majority of English speaker still use singular subject-verb agreement with indefinite subjects. However, an increasing number of people are using plural subject-verb agreement, at least in some contexts. Today’s post on Language Log illustrates this well, where Alec Baldwin says:

    Everybody who works in tabloid media are people who are filled with self-hatred and shame,” he said. “And the way that they manage those feelings is that they destroy the lives of other people and reveal your secrets.”

    I have boldfaced the indefinite “everybody” and the verb “are” which has *plural* subject-verb agreement.

    Those who debate these issues re: Bible translations need to include in their debates the fact that languages often do not have their semantics match their syntax. Often they do, but often they don’t.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    I have learned a lot about English grammar from these discussions. I really had no idea about any of this.

  7. Jeremy Pierce says:

    I just saw the Language Log post and came back to link to it, but it seems you saw it before I did.

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