An Approximately 25-Year-Old Misunderstanding with 400-Year-Old Roots

haltsign.pngToday I’m writing about the funny, interesting, and powerful story of Elijah for eighth graders. And just now—just now, after 25 years of being a Bible reader—I realized what the King James translators meant when they have Elijah say, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21).

I always assumed that “stopping” between two opinions was what they meant (careful statistical analysis of my wife’s opinion revealed 100% agreement). People in the olden days used to say “Halt!” when they wanted others to stop, right? Riding your horse past a HALT sign was a ticketed offense!

I have read this story in other versions before. I’m guessing I’ve read it in the NASB, the NIV/TNIV, and the ESV. The NASB has the people “hesitating” between two opinions. The NIV/TNIV has them “wavering.” But the ESV (more literal in this case than the NASB!) provided the key that uncovered my life-long misunderstanding.

To halt wasn’t just to “stop” in 1611; halt was the verb form of halt, i.e., “lame” (I checked the OED). We would say something like “hobble” or “limp.” And that’s exactly what the ESV has: “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?”

More importantly, this is what the Hebrew has, too. The Hebrew word underlying “limping” is the one used to describe what happened to Mephibosheth when, as a young child, his nurse dropped him, leaving him lame (2 Sam. 4:4). Interestingly, the word also occurs again in 1 Kings 18. And the ESV uses the same English word it used in v. 21, creating a sarcastically mocking picture: The prophets of Baal “limped around the altar that they had made” (v. 26).

Elijah’s challenge to the people in v. 21 is a picturesque metaphor. An obscure one, to be sure, because the next phrase is not as clear as “between two opinions.” It’s literally something like “on two lopped-off boughs”—apparently crutches (this is the only time this word appears in the Old Testament). The whole phrase “describes a mind as wobbly and uncertain as the legs of someone lame” (Bergen, NAC p. 219).

But I missed all that until about 15 minutes ago because my Elizabethan English wasn’t as good as I always arrogantly (and I mean that) assumed that it was.

Capitalizing Pronouns Referring to Deity

Note: I have written a somewhat lengthier and more definitive post on this topic for the Logos Bible Software blog.

I write Bible textbooks for a living, and the various publishing houses for which I write (a grand total of two) have style manuals. Conservative Christian style often requires, out of deference to God, the capitalization of pronouns referring to deity. I picked up the habit years ago of capitalizing “Him” and “His” when referring to any person of the Trinity. But I’ve begun to doubt that practice, at least for published writing (I don’t wish to police others’ private correspondence). And I’m beyond doubt when it comes to other pronouns in published material. I find the following capitalization, for example, jarring and unnecessary:

It is a big benefit for a person who is bent crooked by Adam’s sin to be afraid of the Being Who defines what straight is.

Same with this:

Moses says, “Well, even if I do go, what am I supposed to tell the Israelites about Who sent me? What is Your name?”

This second example presents two interesting problems:

  1. Untitled-1 copyBy capitalizing “Who” we are making Moses imply that he already knows the answer to his question!
  2. By capitalizing “Your” we’re also attributing some sort of intentionality to Moses, something that can put us on dangerous mind-reading ground. When some Pharisees, for example, say to Jesus, “We wish to see a sign from You” (Matt 12:38, NASB), would they be happy with our decision to capitalize their pronoun? (Rod Decker has also pointed out that such a practice creates problems in Messianic psalms and in Isaiah’s servant songs. He also says that the great majority of standard Bible translations do not capitalize pronouns referring to deity).

I’m afraid our capitalization of deity pronouns has become like the practice of refusing to put anything on top of a Bible. After a time it almost becomes a superstition rather than a meaningful way of glorifying God. Pronoun capitalization is a tool I’d like to keep in my belt for special situations and not be forced to use every time.

Here’s what Zondervan’s style manual has to say, and I think there’s some real wisdom here:

The capitalization of pronouns referring to persons of the Trinity has been a matter of debate for many decades. Should He be capitalized when referring to God or not? Impassioned arguments have been offered up on both sides of the question. The following paragraphs outline Zondervan’s policy and the reasoning behind it.

In Most Cases, Lowercase the Deity Pronoun. Although both the lowercase and capped styles have long and deeply rooted pedigrees in English literature, this manual advocates the use of lowercase pronouns in nearly all situations.

Reasons for Lowercasing. Many religious publishers and most general publishers have adopted the lowercase style, in large part to conform to the styles of the commonly used versions of the Bible (the KJV, NIV, and RSV). It is the style recognized as contemporary by the greatest number of readers and writers both inside and outside the church.

Because capitalizing the deity pronoun, as well as a vast number of other religious terms, was the predominate style in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century publishing, it gives a book, at best, a dated, Victorian feel, and at worst, an aura of complete irrelevance to modern readers.

Contrary to popular opinion, capitalization is not used in English as a way to confer respect (we capitalize both God and Satan, Churchill and Hitler). . . . Capitalization is largely used in English to distinguish specific things from general. Jesus is no more specific than Peter, and both should therefore be referred to as he.

Some writers argue that the capitalized style should be used to avoid confusion of antecedents in closely written text (for instances, whether Jesus or one of the disciples is being referred to as he in a given passage). Even in this last case, a careful writer should be able to make the meaning clear without capitalization. After all, the writer should be able to distinguish between the twelve disciples without resorting to typographic tricks.

Many readers, especially the younger ones, do not recognize the reason for such typographic conventions, and the capitalized pronoun may actually cause confusion or be read as emphasis when none is implied.

Finally, an insistence on the capped style can introduce unintended religio-political overtones into a publication. When He is capped for God or Jesus, it can appear, to younger readers especially, as though the author is purposely emphasizing the maleness of the deity, in direct response to feminist theologians who argue for the inclusiveness of God. Apart from the merits of either side of that debate, the capitalized deity pronoun introduces a polemical overtone that may wholly detract from the topic at hand.

Is Capitalization Ever Justified? There are some situations in which the capitalization of deity pronouns is preferred, for instance, in books that have a deliberately old-fashioned tone or when the author quotes extensively from a Bible version that uses the capitalized style (such as the New King James or New American Standard). When deity pronouns are capitalized, though, the words who, whom, and whose should not be.

“Fervency Is Not a Word, Rand”

Do you ever feel a pang of regret when a certain memory flits across your mind? I won’t begin to share all my examples—I typically take them to the Lord alone. But here’s one. And don’t laugh.

Once upon a time, I was a counselor at the Wilds Christian Camp and Conference Center. And the humble servants there asked us teenage counselors at the end of the summer to feel free to write anonymous comments on a legal pad about anything we’d like to see change the next time around. I can’t remember what others wrote or whether I was supposed to look.

What I remember is that I chose that opportunity to remonstrate with one of the best speakers there about his word choice. I actually did have theological questions I could have taken the time to express, but I was more concerned to enforce the standards of English pedantry. I wrote the following,

“Fervency” is not a word, Rand!

The next summer I came back and he used it again, just like he had the previous summer. And then, unmistakably, he corrected himself and said “fervor.”

One 19-year-old in the room sat back satisfied. I had done my duty on behalf of all my fellow word mavens. One more person had, for his own good, submitted to our principles. Some day perhaps we would rid the English-speaking world of all incorrect speech and writing. The pigs flying overhead would salute us, and the Millennium would commence.

So I was once exactly the person I now so gently complain about: someone who simply didn’t get it. I had been told by someone I trusted (who sometimes reads this blog…) that “fervor” was a word and “fervency” was not. The bright light of reason, however, never dawned upon my mind. I never thought to ask, “How does he know?”

How can anyone know that what a clearly very competent English speaker says is, somehow, not English? I understood him perfectly. So did every maven in the room. Why can’t he say it? Why isn’t it a word?

Let me mark it down for the record: fervency is a word. An English word. A fine one anyone is allowed to use whenever they (!) want. As best I can tell, it was more than once in its history considered preferable to fervor. That it is not now (as best I can tell) may be due to overzealous teenagers who think they know The Truth About Words and aren’t afraid to try to cow their betters into complying.

I, hereby, absolve myself of guilt. I’m sorry. I was wrong. I say this with both fervency and fervor, because I can’t tell you how many times this little story has embarrassed me without anyone else knowing what thirteen-year-old memories were causing that look on my face. Now maybe those memories will leave me alone. The “Linguistics” category on this blog should be more than sufficient for my penance.


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A Blogger After My Own Heart

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This guy, a doctoral candidate in linguistics, has a whole blog dedicated to the same mission my posts about Lexicographical Prescriptivism are. He writes on his about page,

Grammar is a contentious point. Some argue that it’s horrifyingly appalling that ANYONE would ever utter the words “I drive pretty good”. (This, of course, is because good is an adjective, good is modifying drive, which is a verb, and our forefathers fought and died so that verbs would never be subjugated by adjectives.) Some would even argue that you are a fool, an ill-educated ass, and a corner-dwelling dunce if you managed to emerge from your schooling without learning that periods are properly placed INSIDE of quotation marks.

I am not a member of these groups, and I’m fighting back. Grammar should not be articles of faith handed down to us from those on high who never split infinitives but always split hairs. Grammar should be rules that allow us to communicate more efficiently, clearly, and understandably. I’m not advocating the abolition of grammar, but rather its justification. I’m not quite sure what that will entail in the end, but I’m starting out by pointing out grammar rules that just don’t make sense, don’t work, or don’t have any justification. All I want is for our rules of grammar to be well-motivated.

I agree, though you always have to be careful in fights… So I wanted to clarify two somethings maybe somebody somewhere has wondered about what I say about language:

  1. I’m not saying (and note that this guy isn’t either) that no one should ever prescribe any usage—or spelling or syntax. On the contrary, I’m all for a rigorous education in grammar and vocabulary and spelling. That’s what I got both at home and at school, and I’m very glad I did.
  2. Neither do I say that correct grammar is a tool of the elites to keep everyone else down, as if proclaiming descriptivism against prescriptivism will somehow empower everyone to say what he wants to say and therefore erase class distinctions. I don’t think this guy is saying that either, but it’s a charge I think I get sometimes.

No, all I’m saying on each of the above points is the following :

  1. At some point in the English education of our kids—and I’m not expert enough to say when this should be, but I suspect that junior high might be the time—they need to be introduced to the fact that “correctness” is largely a social construct and not a moral one. I say “largely,” because I think there are intrinsic, God-given principles of aesthetics and structure that we ignore at our peril. But they don’t perfectly match the-right-way-to-speak as defined by standard American English grammar in schools.
  2. Students should see language as a tool useful in different social contexts. My good English education is a ticket into some places I couldn’t go otherwise, I think. There really is something better about being able to sound like a high-class language speaker with mastery of accepted “rules” of grammar and spelling. There are times, however, when this is a liability and you would be well served to sound a little more down to earth—as an expression of love to people who haven’t had the same educational opportunities you’ve had, or perhaps as an expression of humility before people who have. Language is the biggest Swiss Army Knife there is, and those who know how to use all its tools (including the “low-class” ones) will survive in the Alps and in the jungles, in the dissertation defense and at the family reunion. With Uncle Ned. You know.

Further Reading:

  • If there’s one post about language that I myself keep coming back to, it’s this one. That line about “people who have the power to reward them”—that’s a priceless insight substantiated by the existence of businesses like this one.
  • And, okay, from a theological perspective, check out this post, too.


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A Disinterested Observation

I had an English major for a dad, so vocabulary quizzes were never difficult for me in school. I remember a particular classmate—who bore more than a passing resemblance to Scut Farkus—looking at me with a mixture of incredulity and loathing as I said, “Mrs. S., I already know all the words on our new list.” (Needless to say, I wasn’t popular in high school.)

What motivation should high school students have to expand their English vocabulary and increase their grammatical “correctness”? My fellow student, Scut, had none. And I had the wrong one: arrogance.

So let me offer some wisdom from Sidney Landau’s Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). The points are mine, the quotes his.

  1. Using accepted language and grammar is a sign of having enough money to educate yourself. In other words, it’s a class distinction, because “accepted” only means “accepted by the higher classes.”

    The record plainly shows that most people of all classes customarily make no distinction between disinterested and uninterested or between nauseated and nauseous, yet critics continue to note the alleged differences in urgent or melancholy tones. Such a fastidious attitude serves to mark the critic as belonging to a high social class. The situation is analogous to that of a guest remarking on transposed forks in the place settings at a dinner table. As Dwight Bolinger puts it: “The lie-lay distinction is fragile and impractical, and the price of maintaining it is too high. But that is exactly what makes it so useful as a social password: without the advantage of a proper background or proper schooling, you fail.” (p. 256)

  2. The next point follows closely: using accepted grammar (in the U.S., anyway—Landau says it’s different in Britain) can help you climb higher than your social class. There are even businesses which cater to people stuck with dialects they want to shed.

    [Question:] If tens of millions of people hear and use certain locutions, apparently without disapproving of them, by what right can a dictionary charged with the responsibility of describing usage say they are wrong?…. [Answer:] Standard usage is an artificial construct that is immensely helpful in teaching English and in guiding people who are ambitious to adopt forms that are more generally accepted among those people who have the power to reward them. It is not heaven-sent truth. (p. 260)

  3. A sense for grammar and smooth writing is the fruit of good reading, something worthwhile in itself. Landau quotes Lanham:

    How do you cultivate an “ear” [for language]? Barzun knows the answer…—wide reading. You cannot memorize rules, you will not even want to try, until you have an intuitive knowledge of language, until you have cultivated some taste. Now usage dictionaries, if you browse through them, can help you confirm and sharpen your taste, but they are unlikely to awaken it. They move, again, in the opposite direction, argue that intuitive judgments are not intuitive but conceptual, codify them, render them a matter of rules. They would keep us perpetually on our “p’s and q’s,” and a love for language does not lie that way. The perpetual single focus on correctness kills enjoyment, makes prose style into one long Sunday school. Usage dictionaries, that is, can teach us only what we already know. They tend to be the affectation of, well, of people specially interested in usage. They are most useful as the central document in a continuing word-game played by sophisticated people.

But those three reasons are obviously this-worldly. That doesn’t make them wrong; I think, in fact, that they’re right. But they’re limited. Use only these reasons and you’ll gather treasures that moth and rust can corrupt and that death will one day steal.

So here are two scriptural reasons to learn how to use the kind of grammar accepted and used by the higher classes:

  1. Accepted grammar is a tool allowing you to express truth with power and persuasiveness. It is a tool for “dominion” in the Genesis 1:28 sense. The man who can’t put two sentences together is unlikely to have as much influence, other things being equal, as the man who can turn a phrase—and do so without typos. Or perhaps I should say that every Christian young person ought to try to reach high with his or her communication skills, because young people can’t know where their callings will take them. People respect the training that they know went into forming good communication skills. You can always reach down from where you are linguistically; you can never reach higher than you really are without being discovered.
  2. Perfecting your use of the language of the highest classes allows you to be creative—like the God whose image you bear—in ways that are likely impossible otherwise. If our ability to create is part of God’s image in us (Gen 1:26-28), then developing that ability is a good in itself. Beautiful language glorifies God. Good stories glorify God. Poor language is comparatively less beautiful and less glorifying to God.