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When Is "Them" Confusing? (Luke 9:26) — Mondays with Mounce 240

Categories Mondays with Mounce

There is no question that "they" is becoming the pronoun of choice to refer back to either a singular or plural antecedent. Like it or not, I've seen the statistics and it is where the language is going.

For many people, "he" and "man" is still generic, referring back to men and women. But for an increasing majority of English speakers around the world, "he" and "man" can only refer back to males. Like it or not, this is the way the language is going.

I hear "they" used this way all the time in spoken English. I fact, I have heard it so many times that it doesn't register quite like it used to. But here are the problems. 

  1. Written language always lags behind spoken language. While we scarecly notice "they" when the pastor is referring to a single person in the church, we do notice it when the pastor writes "they." Understandable but a little difficult.
  2. Once you have committed yourself to "they," you have also committed yourself to "them," and "them" is still heard, I suspect, marked as a plural even in spoken English.
  3. And "themselves" is only heard plural. The singular/indefinite "themself" is not yet a word in English, although I suspect we are not far from it becoming common place.

So how does this affect Bible translation? Hugely. Take for example Ps 1:1 and v 3. The NRSV goes plural: "Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked .... They are like trees ...." The NLT also uses a plural construction, thus missing the individual thrust of the verse. "Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked .... They are like trees ...."

The NIV stays singular but starts a new sentence: "Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked.... That person is like a tree ...." 

As expected, the ESV uses "man" / "he": "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked .... He is like a tree ...." with a footnote explaining the male-oriented language.

All these translations are merely the result of differing translation philosophies, and all acceptable ways to handle the language.

But because English is in transition, we come across difficulties.



William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.

Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at and visit his blog on spiritual growth at

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