Wayne Grudem’s use of inclusive language

July 7, 2011

In the debates over the use of inclusive language by evangelicals in Bible translation I found it interesting today to observe that Wayne Grudem, editor of the ESV and one of the most vocal critics of the TNIV and NIV11, uses inclusive language in his own writing that is not much different from what the Collins Report suggests is the norm for general written English these days. Here are some stats from Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994; stats from searches in the 2008 digital version of the book using Accordance).

man, 915
mankind, 50
people, 1,510
human, 796
humanity, 46
humankind, 1
human being/s, 372
human race, 74
ancestor/s, 7
forefather/s, 2
fathers, only once in the sense “ancestors”! (I did not include father since most would likely be God the Father; the plural occurs 75x, but mostly quotes from RSV or ref. to patristics.)
“brother/s and/or sister/s,” 11 in the sense “fellow Christian”

(Some of these stats might need correcting since I did not manually revise all the lists given here, but the general pattern of usage is instructive nonetheless.)

Even more surprisingly, Grudem also uses “singular their.”

pt. 1, ch. 4, Explan. & Script. Basis, A.6. (paragraph 821) [Sorry I can’t give a page number, but the digital version doesn’t include them and my paper copy is 30 miles away at the moment.]

In cases where the ordinary human personality and writing style of the author were prominently involved, as seems the case with the major part of Scripture, all that we are able to say is that God’s providential oversight and direction of the life of each author was such that their personalities, their backgrounds and training, their abilities to evaluate events in the world around them, their access to historical data, their judgment with regard to the accuracy of information, and their individual circumstances when they wrote, were all exactly what God wanted them to be, so that when they actually came to the point of putting pen to paper, the words were fully their own words but also fully the words that God wanted them to write, words that God would also claim as his own. [emphasis added]

15 responses to Wayne Grudem’s use of inclusive language

  1. I’m only thinking of this because of my current research on the pragmatic influences on syntactical (person, number and gender) mismatches between subject and verb in Koine Greek, but I would venture to say that Grudem’s use of “singular their” in the passage above is not the sort of thing that people often object to. His use above is really a distributive use of “their” since the context refers to “the life of each author.” I guess prescriptivists might always object to such an apparent mismatch in number, but the fact is that languages the world over often do that sort of thing, especially when there is some kind of distributive relation.

  2. rodrigobender July 7, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    I would have to agree with bzephyr with respect to the “singular their” usage. I do not have much familiarity with the subject, but I understand that the “singular their” may be distributive when applying a single idea to multiple members of a group. In Grudem’s case, “life” would be the single idea, while “each author” refers to the members of a group (i.e., group of authors).

  3. Well, Grudem is in very good company with Byron, Dickens, and many others, as singular “they” has a far longer pedigree than generic “he”–that’s the ultimate irony of this whole debate. Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman discuss this issue at length in this New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/magazine/26FOB-onlanguage-t.html

    As I said to a friend earlier, you can condemn a particular idiom or construction all you want, but you cannot escape your own internal lexicon. As the English linguist, David Crystal showed a woman in this rather tragic story (toward the end):http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2762

    • Mike, Interesting NYT article and helpful in some ways, but I’m skeptical that we ought to trace the origin of generic “he” to 18th C. Anne Fisher. Isn’t it pervasive in KJV? Perhaps Fisher’s grammar is the first grammar to comment on that usage, but I doubt she invented it.

      If I understand this correctly, there were no published English grammars in 1611, the first one coming in the late 17th C., but I’ve no details on that—and I don’t know if grammars earlier than Fischer’s say anything about generic “he” (or about singular “their”).

      • ragnar_deerslayer July 8, 2011 at 9:15 am

        Ben Johnson’s English Grammar was written about 1617 and published in 1640.

      • My guess is that what they’re claiming is that generic he was never trumpeted in the manner that it has for the past couple centuries before Anne Fisher.

      • I must also admit that I misspoke. I made a mistake. Read: “equally old pedigree” instead of “far longer pedigree.”

  4. It’s page 81 of the 1994 version, Logos tells me.

    If I were to go back in time to my days of pedantic, prideful prescriptivism, I would say that Grudem’s “error” was probably in his saying “each author,” not in using “their.” If he had said, “the authors,” his plural pronouns would match.

    But now that I’m a dynamic, dutiful descriptivist, I have no problem with what he wrote. It meets my criterion for linguistic dogma: it is what is said everywhere, always, and by all.

  5. Aren’t you comparing apples to oranges here? Grudem can use whatever kind of language he wants when he is writing or speaking his own original compositions – he’s the one doing the writing – but that doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on how he translates an existing text. The inclusive singular ‘their’ is almost universal in writing and speech today, but the fact that we speak inclusively doesn’t mean that the Bible was written inclusively.

    • Absolutely not. Both are nice, juicy, red apples. Why? First, the purpose of translation is communication. Accurate communication. To communicate accurately one must understand not only the donor language, but also the receptor language. If we are to communicate in a given language in a given society, then we must use that language as understood and commonly used by that society. We take this as a given if we are doing missionary translation. We would not expect a missionary translator to go to Tatooine and produce a translation that reflected the way a Tatooine language was used, say, a century earlier. We would expect that translator to use current Tatooine idiom. Second, in Koine, a third singular ending, αὐτος, ἀνθρωπος, and a variety of other such terms, *can* be (and often are) used as generic terms. Therefore, if we’re dealing with a text in which the reference is generic/inclusive, then the translation must reflect the same generic/inclusive reference if it is to be accurate. At that point, Grudem’s usage is quite telling—it reflects his own “lexicon” for generic/inclusive terms in contemporary English—including the predominance of “people” rather than “man,” “ancestors” rather than “fathers,” and the singular “their,” etc. Yet he is reluctant to allow for Bible translation to use those same words in contemporary English. True, some passages are disputed as to whether or not they are generic/inclusive, but the debate then must be exegetical, not translational. It is not valid to simply reject all such usage as theologically/sociologically driven or carte blanche invalid.

    • Refe, the idea that “they” is inclusive is only part of the puzzle. That is true, of course, but that’s a secondary affect of its meaning. Semantically, the pronoun should be more accurately described as an indefinite. And as an indefinite, it is technically neither singular or plural. Consider the word “something.” Is something singular or plural? On the one hand, your initial reaction is going to be that it is singular. But the reality is that this word has no grammatical plural form. There is no somethings. There is some things, but that two different words. The whole point is that you have no idea whether the something is one thing or many things. It’s beyond your current knowledge. It’s roughly the same thing with they. It’s formally plural in its morphology, but there is no number marking in its semantics.

      The linguist, Steven Pinker, has even suggested that we should be treating indefinite they and 3 person plural they as merely homonyms: two distinct words with the same form.

  6. bzephyr and rodrigobender are right that (semantically) number-neutral “they” is used with distributives. And it is also used with other referential entities, especially indefinites, as Mike Aubrey points out. Note the following natural English exchange:

    Abe: “Someone’s at the door.”
    Sarah: “I wonder who they are.”

    Here there is no distributive idea. And there is no semantic plural in Sarah’s response. She simply doesn’t know who is at the door, so she has to use an indefinite. I don’t think Sarah would say in current English, “I wonder who he is.”

    There is some similarity semantically between distributives and indefinites. In each case we are referring to individuals in some set, but we are not identifying them further. We may be able to identify who they are, as in the case of most of the biblical authors, or we may not. Whether or not we know who they are doesn’t matter for purposes of using indefinites if we choose not to identify them.

    The entire debate about inclusive language would stand on firmer ground if the difference would be recognized more clearly between meaning (semantics) and how meaning is expressed syntactically or morphologically in any particular language. Many languages use the same grammatical forms for more than one kind of meaning.

    I’m glad glad to see careful distinctions between semantics and syntax in the comments to this Rod’s good post.

  7. Mike and Rod – I appreciate the responses to my comment. I haven’t been following the debate too closely, but after reading your comments it sounds like the issue for most of the detractors has more to do with principle rather than actual linguistic concerns. That’s a shame, because that assumes that the NIV11 translators weren’t careful in their approach to the text and simply crossed out any reference to gender or gender roles which is obviously not the case. Instead, it is the continued evolution of English that is to blame if anything. I wonder if anyone has compiled a list of the specific passages that have been under fire?

  8. The detractors have lists of *thousands* of passages, but they really don’t accomplish anything. All they illustrate is that NIV11 has been reasonably consistent in their work. CBMW like to speak of “2,700” errors in the NIV11 (I think that number is close; I didn’t go back to verify it; you can probably find the list at cbmw.org). But that’s foolishness. It smacks of the KJV-only crowd listing every example that differs from KJV as an error.
    I just completed a 50-page (sg. sp.) review of NIV11 that I’ll be posting in a week or so. I’m presenting it (actually, an overview of it) at a conference and the post will go up near that time.

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  1. Inclusive Language and the NIV 2011 « ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (in Christ Jesus) - July 21, 2011

    […] about cutting off your nose to spite your face, check out Rod Decker’s post: Wayne Grudem’s use of inclusive language. Be sure and read the comments (warning: for the comments, put on your technical grammar hat!). […]