Ambiguity in NIV’s Rendering of 1 Corinthians 14:13

I’ve been reading through the 2011 NIV New Testament, and today I came across an interesting use of singular “they.” For those just joining this conversation, singular “they” is the use of the third person plural pronoun to refer to a singular antecedent. It is a regular feature of English usage today, and I would wager that every person reading this post uses this expression when they speak.

In general, I don’t have a problem with the use of singular “they” in English. In many cases, singular “they” makes perfect sense. For instance, consider the last sentence of the last paragraph:

Every person reading this post uses this expression when they speak.

“They” is obviously plural, but its antecedent—every person—is singular. Even though “every person” is singular in form, it has a plural connotation. So the use of “they” in this instance makes perfect sense, and there is no ambiguity about the antecedent of “they.”

But I think the same cannot be said for the use of the “they” in translating singulars from another language. A case in point appears in the 2011 NIV’s translation of 1 Corinthians 14:13. The NIV reads:

12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. 13 For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say.

Is the antecedent of the first “they” clear in this text? I think there are at least two possible antecedents, but it’s impossible to tell which one is correct based on the translation:

1. On the one hand, “church” from verse 12 might be the antecedent. If this is correct, Paul would be saying that the person speaking in tongues should pray that the church may interpret the words of the one speaking in tongues. Since a church is made up of many people, it has a plural connotation. It would make sense to connect “they” with “church.”

2. On the other hand, “the one who speaks in a tongue” might be the antecedent. If this is correct, then Paul would be telling the person speaking in a tongue to pray that he might interpret his own tongue. Again, it would be the use of “they” referring back to a singular antecedent, but in this case there would not be a plural connotation.

Which of these alternatives is correct? In the NIV’s rendering, I don’t think it is possible to determine with any certainty which interpretation is correct. Nor do I think the paragraph break mitigates the ambiguity. The underlying Greek, however, is perfectly clear. The forms are singular all the way through. An essentially literal translation avoids the ambiguity caused by the NIV’s preference for gender-neutral language. Here is the NASB’s rendering:

13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.

By using generic “he,” the NASB clearly identifies the “one who speaks” as the antecedent. I would argue that generic “he” is not simply allowable in this instance but mandatory if the translator is to accurately reflect what the author meant.

I’m not a fan of using “they” to translate an underlying Greek form that is singular, yet the 2011 NIV has done this in literally thousands of places (read the stats here). The regular use of this translation procedure can produce ambiguities that the average English reader will not be able to resolve. That is the great weakness of the NIV’s rendering of gender terminology, and it is one of the reasons why I don’t recommend the NIV.


  • Dan Phillips

    … I would wager that every person reading this post uses this expression when they speak.

    Unless the person reading is me. In that case, he doesn’t. Evar.

    And I hate it when translations do it. No matter what they say, they’ll never convince me that it isn’t culturefad-driven.

  • Don Johnson

    Singular “they” has a grand history and it is incorrect to claim that “they” is always plural. If Shakespeare can use a singular they, so can anyone. Even Dobson used it until he recalled his books and changed them when it was pointed out to him.

    The basic rule for pronouns is to refer to the most recent earlier reference (nominative), unless there is a reason to not do this, such as it not making any sense or some clue that something else is meant. So 1 Cor 11:14 is not ambiguous when using the standard rules of English grammar. In this example, the last “they” refers to the first “they” which in turn refers to the speaker.

    A Bible translation is supposed to be translated so the intended reader (in this case, a 21st century English speaker) can understand it. I have no problem understanding the NIV in this example, but this is not the case with the ESV as I am not sure if an inclusive or exclusive “he” is meant. I would want to read it as inclusive, but exactly due to the masculinist translation choices made in the ESV, I would not be sure if that was correct without looking at the Greek. Hypothetically, I might wonder if perhaps the ESV translators intended to use “he” as a reference to a male as that is what they thought the Greek said or implied.

    When it comes down to it, one must go to the text in the original languages, translations can get close, but they are always as if seeing thru a veil. Things always get lost in translation, so one should never depend too much on a specific one.

    I agree that English can be ambiguous, as can any language. Politicians exploit this all the time, so that each hearer can head what he wants to hear.

    • Denny Burk


      It sounds to me like you are promoting a prescriptive use of language, I don’t think that is a very compelling theory of how language works. Language is what it is, not what it ought to be. In any case, the rule doesn’t hold up. Does your rule work on this sentence?

      “David drove to see Denny, Sandy, and Barry before pointing his car in the direction of home.”

      Is their any question about the antecedent of “his”?


      • Don Johnson

        David is the actor in your example, Denny, Sandy and Barry are not. So it is not ambiguous to me. discusses pronoun antecedents and singular they.

        Once one sees that singular “they” exists in English and many respected people have used it, a lot of the problems go away. In other words, to one who accepts singular they like me and many others, this looks like inventing a problem by those that do not like singular “they”.

        The truth is that English is defined by the way it is used and singuler they is used, no matter if some see it as a barbarism.

    • Denny Burk

      I don’t have a problem with singular “they” in English, so long as the context removes any ambiguity about its antecedent. I do have a problem with its use in translating the Bible. Generic “he” is perfectly understandable English, and I can’t think of any valid reason to have a preference against it in translation.

      • Don Johnson

        The reason is that inclusive/generic “he” is ambiguous with exclusive/male “he”.

        Males may not see this, as it does not effect them. They know that they are referred to in both cases of exclusive he or inclusive he. But this is not the case with females, for them it is a question and often a very valid question whether they are included or not in a sentence that uses he. So it becomes a question of awareness/empathy of possible confusion of others.

      • Brad

        Interesting discussion!! I am having trouble formulating my question but here is my best shot:

        I am a little confused as to why you would not have a problem with singular “they” in English except when it comes to translating the Bible into English. Is Bible English different from English?

        I hope my question makes sense!

        • MikeB

          having just completed my first semester of Greek, Denny’s point is that the NIV translation is more ambiguous than the Greek underlying it.

          In Greek there is no possibility that “they” refers to the church based on grammatical construction so translators should do a better job of making sure things like that are clear in their English translation.

          I would think “singular they” may be ok when it does not create a more ambiguous translation.

      • Adam Omelianchuk

        Hi Denny,

        I think you make a good point here. The Greek is singular, but it also isn’t gender specific. What should we do? A generic ‘he’ does the trick, but so does a generic ‘she.’ I have become accustomed to the use of generic ‘she’ in scholarly works, and I’ve used it myself in several contexts. And I would say that is inappropriate to use in translating this verse. But then, why is a generic he, OK? Is it because we are more “used to it” in our cultural context? Do you think there is a way to translate the passage with a more generic term like “one”? Curious to know what you think.

    • Denny Burk


      Generic “he” is well-established in English. It goes way back into the history of the English language. To argue that generic “he” is unintelligible English is simply historically and linguistically incorrect.


      • Don Johnson

        Generic “he” is disfavored in today’s English, exactly because of the gender confusion that results today. It is not the case that it never existed, everyone knows that. It is that English has moved on from that time, but some still want to pretend it has not. So the question today is whether one wants to continue to use terms that result in gender confusion for some or not.

        • Denny Burk

          Don, your contention that “English has moved on” is not supported by any data. In fact, the NIV committee’s own study (The Collins’ Report) showed that generic “he” is still in use.

          The reason that generic “he” is no longer preferred is because of feminist propaganda. This was no secret agenda on their part, and it is well established in the literature. The stylebooks changed on this point not because the language changed but because of the propaganda.

          • Don Johnson

            Yes, generic he is in use by a few, most have moved on.

            I am far from a secular feminist, but there are a few things that they have pushed for that make sense out of a sense of justice.

            They sued over pay toilets, as urinals were free, so it was a form of discrimination to force women to pay but not men. And they have complained about inherently sexist language. For example, the use of Mr. for men but the inability of a woman to have a similar form, but instead needing to use Miss to show unmarried status or Mrs. to show married status. Why should a woman need to show her married status when a man does not? It was because the language that was used was inherently sexist and so they asked for a change, hence the invention of Ms.

            Douglas Hofstadter wrote a famous satire, but substituted racist terms insted of sexist terms. Find it here.


            It is a satire as everyone reading it can figure out that the so-called generic use of “white” in his satire was racist. And, for exactly the same reasons, the so-called generic use of masculine terms is sexist. It is true that language was developed in patriarchal societies, but that does not mean it is set in stone.

            It is a matter of justice to not use sexist language just like it is a matter of justice to not use racist language. And Christians, especially, should be pushing for a more just society, because that is one of God’s attributes.

        • Denny Burk

          Don, I think you are more influenced by feminism that you admit. You have huge theological problems if you think that masculine forms of generic language are inherently oppressive.

          Masculine generics are all over scripture. Just to give one example. In the Greek New Testament, ANTHROPOS is grammatically masculine, yet it refers frequently to both men and women. Your reasoning would mean that the language of the Bible itself is “sexist” and unjust.

          • Don Johnson

            A language is what it is, include Koine Greek. Grammatical masculine or feminine (or neuter) words in Greek does not necessarily imply physical gender and in some cases it will lead one astray. For people that do not speak a grammatically gendered language, this can be confusing and English is not a grammatically gendered language, so a lot of our intuitions using English do not carry over into Greek, as I am sure you know.

            I agree that the most common meaning of anthropos is “human” but context is determinative. I agree that Koine Greek does use generic grammatically masculine terms. But that does not mean current English needs to do so, it is a different language.

            The woman Damaris is called an aner/man in Acts 17:34. So the NET translates aner as people instead of men, but the ESV uses men.

          • Denny Burk


            You still have not addressed the fallacy I highlighted in your argument. You say that generic masculines are “sexist” and unjust. Generic masculines appear all over the place in the New Testament. You say that generic masculines are “sexist” in English, but not in New Testament Greek. How can that be? Why are masculine generics bad in English but okay in the New Testament?

            By the way, English does not have inflectional variation like Greek does, but English does have gender.


          • Don Johnson

            English does not have grammatical gender, while Hebrew and Greek does. We do not think of a hand, for example, as having a gender.

            Language can be ambiguous at time. When face to face, one can ask a question to clarify things. In a book with a living author, one might send an email. Things get murkier once the authors are dead and the original recipients are dead. It becomes a scholarly study.

            Language is also a cultural artifact, it is embedded in a specific culture that produces texts inside that culture. The meanings of the words are defined by that culture and the rules for combining words are defined by that culture.

            A dead language is what it is, no one can change it, they can just study it. A living language can and does change over time.

            In this case, I think a new singular generic pronoun should be invented for English. But we do not have that yet as far as I know.

            In terms of claiming a dead language like Koine Greek is sexist, I think that is similar to claiming that Lincoln was racist. Of course, he WAS racist when using modern day standards, essentially everyone was, it is a question of degree. That is, there is a fundamental difference between the racist Lincoln who freed the slaves and the racist Davis who wanted to maintain slavery. We would say that Lincoln was more enlightened in this area for his time in history, but we would not say that he was as enlightened as we are today and I am confident that those in the future will look back on us and see us similarly.

            What Koine Greek was was the lingua franca of the day, so God inspired the use of it in the NT so that the gospel could spread far and wide. So it was suitable for its purpose, a tool able to be used. I think moral judgments of a dead language are not useful, since it cannot be altered, there is no point to it, it is what it is.

            This is not the case for a living language. Orwell in his book 1984 wrote about the idea that a language can be manipulated so that some ideas are just impossible to express. But it is also the case that a language HAS been manipulated in the past, so that some ideas are just impossible to express. We see that in the case of the invention of Ms., to allow a way to title a woman’s name that does not indicate her marriage status. Now ask yourself, who was it that decided that it was important to indicate the marriage status of a woman but not a man? Who made it impossible for a woman to just say she was a woman without indicating her marriage status? It was the culture of the time and the way they viewed women.

            Women broke thru the education barriers in the 19th century in the West, before that it was considered a waste of effort. Today, women are over-represented in the higher degrees of education, except perhaps for a few institutions that prohibit them still from some degrees. Now it is not the case that all of a sudden women became intelligent in the 19th century, rather it was the exclusion of women from education that was recognized as wrong and immoral in the culture. But before then it was just assumed by everyone that women were inferior to men and the evidence was plain, after all there were no female doctors.

            Sometimes it is a case of what kind of ambiguity is preferred, this is a judgment call. Do I really want a woman to wonder if she is included if the Greek text is inclusive? That is what happens today for some women whether one likes it or not. That SOME people can follow masculine generics does not mean it is preferred today. Once one sees that this is the case, the question becomes what is the Christian response? I agree with the idea of using language in a Bible translation so that the woman does not wonder if she is included or not. I do not want to put any blocks to her coming to the gospel in front of her except Christ crucified.

          • Noah

            So you were saying that NT Greek is sexist compared to our standard, based on your Lincoln analogy, is that right?

            If that’s right, then you just showed me why the egal argument won’t work, namely, the standard is not the biblical language or the intention of the human author (not to mention the God who inspired it) but contemporary opinion.

            “I think moral judgments of a dead language are not useful, since it cannot be altered, there is no point to it, it is what it is.

            This is not the case for a living language.”

            By changing the meaning of the dead language to reflect contemporary opinion, you are altering the dead language and making a moral judgment on it.

          • Derek

            Actually, I don’t think that Don believes contemporary culture holds an ideal ethic. In keeping with a trajectory hermeneutic (which I do not assert or hold to, btw), we are still moving closer to an ideal ethic, which Scriptures only hinted at since pre-modern, nomadic tribes-people were unequipped and/or incapable of receiving.

            Trajectory hermeneutics is typically used to explain why God allowed or in some cases seemed to endorse slavery, “repression” of women or even religious rituals that involved animal sacrifices.

          • Noah

            Thanks for pointing that out.
            I wonder if Don does hold to that hermeneutic. It would explain a lot from my past interaction with him.

          • Don Johnson


            I am certainly not trying to “change the meaning” of some text in a dead language. One needs to look at what the job of a translator is.

            A translator reads some text, MAKES a human judgment as to its original meaning and then MAKES another human judgment as to the best way to represent that meaning in the target language, knowing that things will ALWAYS be lost in translation. That is, one does one’s best.

            In this specific case, singular they has been and is being used by most and its use is growing, while generic he is being used by fewer and fewer people. One can complain about the reality of this or adapt to it.

          • Don Johnson

            On trajectory hermeneutic, I claim that EVERYONE does it in one fashion or another. The only question is whether one does it well or poorly. I do not agree with everything Webb has written on this, but he is clearing a path thru the jungle and have tried to give ideas to others on how to do it better. In such a case, it is just expected that others will disagree about this or that principle that he proposes. Go ahead and disagree, but propose a better way to do it.

            One reason everyone does it is because some of the commands in Scripture are seen as cultural. I am not saying they are not cultural, but few believers go around giving each other a holy kiss in the West, even tho it is a direct statement that applied to the original readers. And there are many examples like that and debates over whether some things in the BIble are cultural or not.

            Webb’s latest book on Corporal Punishment is good, he shows how the pro-spankers are actually NOT following the Scriptures in 7 areas, in this case he is not saying they are morally wrong, but he argues why do they stop there and not teach that some faithful believers decide not to spank at all; their “trajectory hermeneutic” seems to have chosen an arbitrary place to stop.

          • Noah

            Thanks for addressing the second issue (though I think the first is more important). You’re right that no translation is void of interpretation. But with the text in question, the NIV has brought in ambiguity where there is none in the original. What their reasoning is, I don’t know. But that is not a great way to go about translating when the translator(s) take the initiative to give the interpretation and he/she/they take away the opportunity for the reader to make the decision. Don’t get me wrong, all translations do this at some point, but many do them more than others. But I guess this is where the disagreements over functional and dynamic begin and will continue.

    • yankeegospelgirl

      You do Shakespeare an injustice. His use of “they” could be reasonably taken to apply to the whole body of men who has saluted the speaker in this sentence (not just an individual man):

      “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”

      I’m afraid the singular “they” as you would like it to be used hardly has a celebrated history. It’s sloppy and imprecise and should be legitimately criticized as such.

  • Brandon R

    Here’s my favorite: read James 5:13-16 and ask yourself who is being annointed.

    “13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. “

  • John

    Food discussion. As one who doesn’t read the original languages but converses in English every day, I find Don’s argument more compelling. In every day life, I never hear or hardly read ‘he’ as generic. It is a male term these days whether or not it’s ‘correct” or not. After reading this blog fairly frequently, I know that most here don’t like the NIV, but I have used it for over 30 years now, including the 2011 update, and find it both readable an accurate. I have tried the ESV but find it to be not just hard to read, but written in an English that is neither written or spoken.

  • John

    Don, you’re right! I meant ‘good’ but typing on an iPhone and then not proof reading is a receipe for disaster! My thumbs are too big for the keyboard sometimes. Seriously though, thanks for the good comments.

  • John

    I guess I don’t understand some of the conversation here. Are you saying that generic masculine means male or female, or does it mean male only? If it is only men that are referenced, then I can understand using ‘him’. But if not, using ‘them’ would be more easily understood.

    • Don Johnson

      The phrase “generic masculine” means that the masculine phrasing is to be seen in an inclusive sense, for example, so that it is (supposedly) just understood by the reader that “he” (for example) refers to “he and/or she” in the cases where a generic masculine is used.

      The problem is that this is not the case for many English speakers today, especially younger ones. For them, the use of he refers to males and the use of she refers to females and the use of singular they refers to either.

      But there are others that do not see a problem with the use of the generic masculine, since they are used to it. For example, for males, there is never any confusion, since they are included regardless of whether it is a specific or generic masculine used.

      • Noah

        Don, there is confusion brought up by the NIV’s rendering of 1 Cor. 14:3 when the Greek is clear. That’s the point of the post.

        It’s ironic that you hold that men and women today can understand the singular “they” but you don’t give women enough credit that they can understand a generic “he”. It seems if someone were intellectually perverted, he might accuse you of being sexist for making such a claim that women can’t or won’t understand that. But I understand your intention, so I am not making that accusation. It is ironic though that in your desire to be inclusive you are running the risk of excluding those you wish to exclude.

    • Noah

      I’m not sure who you intend to be addressing, but I think the specific issue started with what does “they” refer to in 1 Cor. 14:3. It has gone on from there to be a disagreement over the general usage of generic “he” and “they.”

      It seems Denny’s citation and argument about the ambiguity of what “they” refers to in that verse of the NIV 2011 may have been lost due to where the thread has been taken. It is an interesting discussion, though. Very revealing of how others not like me tend to think (I hope it’s clear my intention in saying that is not condemning, because it’s not).
      I am looking forward to see how Don answers Denny’s comment from 10:44 last night.

  • John

    Noah, I guess the discussion did get off track. When I read ‘they’ in 1 Cor 14:13 of the NIV, I assumed that both of them refered back to the one who was speaking in a tongue. It never occured to me to look back even further and think it might refer to the entire church. I am not an English major either, so I couldn’t tell you the textbook answer, but that is the way I talk, so I guess it made sense to me. I never use ‘he’ unless it refers to a male because that is how the people I’m around understand it.

  • Dan Phillips

    Well then, I’ll say it.

    It is sexist to imply that women — and only modern women — are so dim-witted that they can’t discern whether or not they are included in he/him/his passages like Psalm One.

    It’s of a kind with the sneering racism of the invention of “Ebonics,” which implied that blacks were just so dim-witted that they couldn’t learn to speak English properly.

    Just trendy, world-loving go-along-to-get-along-ism that doesn’t actually help anybody, and doesn’t serve God.

  • Nate

    What you have to understand is that Don is on an Egalitarian Crusade. Therefore, any post that can be moved to a discussion about egalitarianism is where Don is going to go. If every he/him were removed from the bible I imagine Don could still find issue with some verse that he would see as demeaning the fairer sex. (I’m sure that sentence would be considered demeaning).

    I appreciate his devotion to this Crusade, even as I will continue to point it out and remind everyone that Don will not answer direct lines of questions. He will work off those direct questions with another nuanced cavalcade of his egalitarian crusade.

  • Dan Phillips

    How come nobody cares about those poor souls who “feel excluded” because, no matter whether the text says they, them, he, she, you, me, us or we, they STILL don’t know whether it means them because it doesn’t have their name? Why does no one care for those poor, excluded souls??

    Clearly, it is too much to expect that anyone actually teach these poor souls how to read the Bible! Clearly, the only compassionate, caring, nuanced, sensitive-new-millennium thing is to come out with…

    The Dan Bible
    The Denny Bible
    The Don Bible
    The Donna Bible…

    And so forth.

    Example from the new Don Bible, Psalm One:

    Blessed is the Don
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
    nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of fscoffers;
    2 but Don’s delight is in the law of the LORD,
    and on his law Don meditates day and night.

    Or John 6:51, from the Darlene Bible:

    I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If Darlene eats of this bread, Darlene will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

    There y’go! “Problem” solved!

    • Don Johnson

      I know you are trying to be humorous, but we should personalize the Bible when reading it and I would go even farther than you. We should ask ourselves how we are like each of the characters in a story. I promise if you try this if will prove insightful.

      But it is important for a person to be able to tell if some passage applies directly to them or not.

  • Don Johnson

    Going back to Denny’s original post.

    1. If you are in the “they should used as a plural” English dialect crowd, the use of they as a singular will seem to be adding ambiguity in terms of singular or plural.

    2. If you are in the “singular they is fine” English dialect crowd, the use of he as a generic will seem to be adding ambiguity in terms of is a female included.

    The point is that both choices can be seen as making something ambiguous that is not ambiguous in the Greek.

  • Dan Phillips

    So I think we can sum everything up and write CLOSED thus:

    1. Respecting the inspired writers’ choice of number creates no real barriers for clarity.

    2. There is no rationale for regularly obscuring the inspired writers’ choices that is not necessarily both disrespectful of the text and sexist.

    There y’go.

  • Don Johnson

    For those that read Greek, they should read the Greek NT and use translations for other purposes than doctrine.

    For those that do not, they should realize that translation is an inexact process and that some things can and do get lost in translation. And that sometimes it is a question on what is the best way to translate some terms and that translators can disagree on which way is best.

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