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.