Wayne Leman’s Better Bibles Blog is dedicated to “improving English Bible translations” not so much in terms of accurately rendering the sense of the original (though of course that’s important to him) but in terms of rendering it into good, effective English, a goal he finds many current translations fall short of. When I ran across his blog, I was afraid Wayne was concerned about the sort of thing people often mean when they say “good English” (sentences ending with prepositions, split infinitives, that sort of nonsense), but I’m happy to report that’s not the case:

I am not a prescriptive linguist (that is, someone who tells people how they should speak and write). Rather, I am a descriptive linguist, someone who observes how people actually speak and write. I observe, as do many others, that the majority of English speakers continue to use subject-verb agreement, so in a published book, especially one as important as the Bible, I feel it is important to point out when there is lack of subject-verb agreement. Similarly, there are a number of other language “rules” (or “principles”) that fluent English speakers and writers follow that I believe should be followed in a book intended to be in quality literary English—at least they should be followed until there is a sufficient consensus (a large majority) among English speakers that those rules need to be changed…
I believe people have and should have linguistic choices. I do not think that “language police” should tell us how to speak, regardless of how well intentioned they are. I do think it is appropriate for English teachers to explain to their students what the current consensus is for usage of various linguistic forms. A teacher can explain that “If you want to be hired for some jobs, you need to be able to speak and write in a dialect that is approved of by the administrators of that company.” But no one should ever tell people that they are “dumb” or “social rejects” if they speak a certain way.

Amen to that! (I’m a King James man myself, but that’s because I read the Bible as a literary masterpiece, not as the urgent communication it must be to a believing Christian.)


  1. Languagehat, thanks for your very fair treatment of my approach to language issues. Interestingly, I just finished responding to someone’s comment on my blog about ending a sentence with a preposition. It turns out that the ugly English from a Bible version, “they do not know over what they stumble,” was, apparently trying to follow the proscription against prepositions at the end of sentences, but didn’t realize that “over” in this sentence isn’t even functioning as a preposition. It is, instead, functioning syntactically in English as a particle, tightly glued to the verb “stumble” and both of them together are called a phrasal verb. And the words of phrasal verbs should not be separated, not by some “school grammar” proscription, but based on important syntactic usage rules. That sentence would sound far better in English as “they do not know what they stumble over.”
    Come take some of the language usage polls on my blog. Ultimately, discovering the rules which English speakers actually follow should give us the clues to how contemporary English Bibles should be written.
    I enjoy visiting your blog, as well as Language Log, and Inflections.

  2. Are you sure “stumble over” is a phrasal verb in this particular? The paradigm is clearly “stumble over NOUN,” with the “over NOUN” part forming a prepositional constituent (which can be raised out of, as in the example sentence, or replaced as a single unit). Further, “stumble” carries the same meaning as “stumble over.” Lastly, it can’t be used by itself in a sentence: *I stumbled over.
    Of course, “stumble over” can be a phrasal verb meaning “to stumble repeatedly,” but that’s not what you’ve got here.

  3. A respected language mentor once pointed out to me that there are no rules in language – only tendencies!

  4. Alex, you raised a good question about the status of “stumble over.” You’re probably right. I tend to think on my feet and then come back to think again later. Thanks for helping bring me back to think again. In any case, I think it is clear that the original clause I cited does not need to stand as it was written but would sound better with “over” immediately following “stumble,” as least in my idiolect (we’ve always got that escape hatch, eh?!).

  5. I am also a King James man. Though not actually a Christian, I tend to think the magnificence of the language is a suitable correlative for (or is that “to”?), the magnificence of the ideas in the Bible.As Milton says, an “answerable style”. But that’s probably creeping conservatism. Wayne is obviously thinking carefully and intelligently about the job in front of him.

  6. Alex, thanks to your comments I have posted a mea culpa and, I hope, a more informed treatment of phrasal verbs on my blog, url:

  7. I grew up on the King James Version and its beautiful lines and cadences still echo through my memory. I wonder sometimes, though, if the beauty we sense in it is one of nostalgia, a kind of romantic idea that what was written in previous stages of a language is more “classical”, more elegant than contemporary good literature (which could qualify for Nobel or Pulitzer prizes in Literature). I have read some very beautiful contemporary prose and poetry. I find it difficult to better the opening lines of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities which is not written in Elizabethan English.
    This very issue is being debated today about English Bible translators and literary critics. The newest English Bible version, the ESV (English Standard Version) is a (very) light stylistic revision of the RSV (Revised Standard Version), published in 1952 (rev. 1971). It is being promoted as having “literary excellence” within the Tyndale-KJV tradition. Yet, when I read it, I find it replete with convoluted phrases which are meaningless to most English speakers, collocational clashes, the obsolescent inverted negative word order (“think not …” instead of “do not think …”), etc. There is the belief that to make a beautiful literary Bible translation today requires taking the language back several hundred years. Unfortunately, that effort is not done competently by exegetes who speak in current English.
    I will continue to enjoy the literary beauty of the King James, but I also will enjoy the literary beauty of some contemporary English translations (such as the one made by the British scholar J.B. Phillips during WWII), beautiful because those who made them understand about language rhythm, assonance, cadence, lexical collocations, normal syntax, etc., and that each of these can have beauty at any stage of the history of the English language.

  8. No worries.
    I’m also impartial to the KJB, thought I halt but short of claiming that the language it was rendered into was divinely inspired 😉

  9. Well said.

  10. Um, my “well said” was in response to Wayne; I seem to have hit “post” at the same instant as Alex.
    Alex, did you by any chance mean “partial” rather than “impartial”?

  11. Yes. That’s exactly what I meant.
    And if I post here enough, I’m sure eventually you’ll start catching full-fledged spoonerisms, too!

  12. Well, shucks, if the King James Version was good enough for Saint Paul, it sure as heck is good enough for me.

  13. I wonder sometimes, though, if the beauty we sense in it is one of nostalgia, a kind of romantic idea that what was written in previous stages of a language is more “classical”,
    For a believing Christian, there is the practical danger of thinking that the KJV language is somehow more spiritually charged than contemporary language, which of course it isn’t. But from the point of view of a writer or reader in English, I think the KJV language has an objectively special status. The appearance and adoption of this book in some ways created the literate community which became the English-speaking world. At the same time that it provided a sudden vernacular wealth of allusion for the educated, it also motivated the uneducated to gain literacy. The KJV therefore still carries with it a moment of magic when language as we English-speakers know it was born, and that will have a resonance no matter how contemporary language changes. The roots always remain fresh, even though the previous generation gets tiresome.
    This is not the same situation as something like Dickens’ wonderful style, which compared to today’s style is an unfamiliar taste that must be acquired, and I can’t blame anybody who doesn’t want to acquire it. (Well, there are better examples than Dickens.)

  14. Richard Hershberger says

    I am a practicing Christian (or at least Lutheran). I read KJV for literary plesure, but would never dream of using it for theology. There are a few conservative Protestants left who insist on KJV, but they are considered fringy even in conservative Protestant circles. (It is also a sure-fire indication that this person has nothing serious to contribute to any discussion.)
    As for the literary merit of the KJV, I don’t think this is mere nostalgia. Compare it to the other translations of the period. It really is better.

  15. These are the comments of a former bible-thumper:
    On pure literary merit, I doubt that Richmond Lattimore’s version of the New Testament has been bettered. Take a look at it if you haven’t yet. Lithe, gorgeous, and of impeccable scholarly provenance: I trust most of you know Lattimore’s astonishing Homer.
    Everett Fox is reassuringly spooky in his very Jewish Old Testament. He made the words new.
    For the whole bible, the NRSV has an unfussy elegance that endeared it to my heart, and that still wins my respect.
    The KJV I find antiquated, unbearably euphemistic in places, and just plain muddy in others. True it can’t be beat for grandeur, but using it as a first choice would be like always eating breakfast to Bruckner symphonies: impressive, no doubt, but a tad over the top.
    The paraphrases (“The Living Bible”, etc) are just plain stupid.

  16. For the Pentateuch, Jonah, and the New Testament, I’ve switched from KJV to the earlier rendition by William Tyndale — strangled and burnt at the stake in 1536, a true martyr to translation. Via the Geneva Bible, Tyndale’s work was liberally filched by the C of E group but watered down and made less “common” in the process. The original carries a sometimes startlingly direct force, emphasized all the more by its pre-echoes of the familiar KJV.

  17. Michael Farris says

    Interestingly, there’s a school (very small, I hope) that treats KJV as _more_ authoritative than the originals (so that translations into other languages should be done from KJV and not the originals, for example). The comic-tract producer Jack Chick is apparently one of them and you can find all sorts of nutty links to this idea at his site.

  18. I believe that’s the attitude Abdul-Walid was riffing on above. It’s amazing what people will believe.

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