The Wartburg Project

August 31st, 2021

70. Singular or Plural?

In Psalm 57 the EHV does not follow the rules of singular/ plural agreement. The EHV says:

The Problem
4My life is spent among lions.
I lie down among ferocious men,
whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongue is a sharp sword.

Since the antecedent is “ferocious men,” shouldn't the text should say “whose tongues are a sharp sword” to agree with the plural “men”?

The EHV translation “whose tongue is a sharp sword” exactly reflects what the Hebrew says here. Some translations such as the NIV say something like “whose tongues are sharp swords.” This is not a wrong translation, but the translators have adjusted their translation to what they think English rules require, rather than to what the Hebrew idiom says. An author can choose to refer either to the many tongues of all the men, or the author can state that each man has one tongue. It is the author’s choice. Neither is right or wrong. The Psalmist chose the latter, and the EHV follows his choice. In some translations the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” says we thank him "with heart and hands and voices" (each person has one heart); in other translations it says that we thank him “with hearts and hands and voices" (together the group has many hearts). A writer may say “the band got its new uniforms” or may say “the band got their new uniforms.” Either is correct, but in each case the author’s emphasis is slightly different.

The Old Testament has quite a few such cases in which the use of singular or plural agreement depends on the author’s choice. Concerning a parallel case, our EHV grammar book, Biblical Grammar: Mechanics or Meaning? says:

Biblical texts very frequently use plural pronouns like they, them, and their after collective singular nouns like people, nation, and Israel, etc., especially when the texts refer to actions carried out by many individuals within the group. This is a very common usage in Scripture, and the EHV often retains it.

This is a rather minor grammatical issue, but it seemed worthwhile to do a FAQ about it since we receive quite a few questions and comments (or complaints) about grammatical matters. One of the things that we learned as we worked on the EHV is that we had to unlearn a lot of the grammar rules that we had spent years learning in school. It is surprising how much the nature of grammatical study has been revolutionized by the ability to search vast amounts of literature by computer in order to gather objective, “real life” statistics on any specific grammatical construction or on the spelling of a word. With a quick computer search, a grammarian can gather much more data about a grammatical construction than could be gathered in a lifetime of reading. This type of research clearly shows that many of the supposed rules of English grammar are in fact myths. By using Google ngrams one can quickly collect several centuries of grammatical data from Google Books and quickly trace changes of usage over time. One of the first handbooks to make extensive use of this new tool is Garner’s Modern English Usage, the closest thing we have to a Wartburg Project grammar rulebook.

In the past, grammatical rules published in handbooks were much like the tabulated results of a poll. The grammarian read a lot of literature. He also read other people’s grammar books, and from that sample he extrapolated (took a guess) at what the usage of a construction would be across the total corpus of the language. He did this in order to formulate a rule for everyone to follow. Sometimes he also threw in his opinion of what the rule should be. Searching Google Books still provides the grammarian with only a sample, but it is a much bigger sample (big data), so statements about grammatical constructions can now be much more objective, based on real life data, with less guess work.

The main lesson to be learned by translators is that the primary function of practicing good grammar is not to conform to a rule book but to communicate clearly. For the best communication, writers and editors must focus on expressing meaning more than on fulfilling mechanical rules. Or to paraphrase the greatest communicator: “Grammar is made for man; man is not made for grammar.”

Since the Tower of Babel, God has not given anyone authority to be the czar of unchanging rules of grammar, so grammar is always a swirl of change, as innovation battles tradition, as error becomes acceptable practice, and vice versa. About some “rules” there is a high degree of agreement among the authorities; in others there is not. For a detailed account of this war. see Garner’s grammar. For the EHV response to this war, see our grammar handbook, Biblical Grammar: Mechanics or Meaning?.