Mind Your T’s & Y’s: Understanding King James Pronouns

Pastor Hammond

Living according to “every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4) requires that we make an effort to learn to understand every word of scripture.  Yet, any honest pastor will admit that the Elizabethan-era English of our King James Bible can be challenging. One of the first challenges that we face is the so-called Elizabethan pronouns, i.e. thou, thee, thy, thine, ye, and you.

It is fair to ask if these so-called “old fashioned” pronouns really matter – especially given that most modern Bible versions have replaced them with simpler, more familiar words.  For example, modern translations typically replace “ye” with “you.”  While that change may seem reasonable, readers must understand that dropping the use of the Elizabethan pronouns necessarily obscures the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew words that underly our English translations.  In fact, when translators change “ye” to “you,” they are necessarily changing God’s words!

Let’s take a closer look at the issue.   Recall that the New Testament is translated from Greek.  Biblical Greek differentiates between singular pronouns that refer to one person (thou, thee, thine) and plural pronouns that refer to multiple people (you, ye). Biblical Greek also differentiates between pronouns that serve as subjects and objects in a sentence.  Unfortunately, modern English no longer maintains a system of pronouns that bear the same level of precision.  Fortunately, however, the Elizabethan English of our King James Bible utilizes a system of pronouns that perfectly reflects the precision of the original Greek. 

You may be wondering if this level of grammatical precision is actually important.  Consider the King James translation of John 3:7.  There, Jesus said, "Marvel not that I said unto thee (singular, object form), ye (plural, subject form) must be born again."  The use of these precise pronouns in our  King James translation makes it clear that, while Jesus was speaking to one man (Nicodemus), his message was that all people must be born again.  However, the New International Version (NIV) obscures the fact that all must be born again; It translates  John 3:7 as  “You should not be surprised at my saying, You must be born again.”  Because the NIV says "You must be born again," a modern reader would not likely understand that Jesus was actually telling Nicodemus that all must be born again. 

Similar distinctions are made in the Biblical Hebrew underlying our King James Old Testament. Consider Exodus 4:15:  "And thou (2nd person singular, subject form) shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth: and I will be with thy (2nd-person singular,  possessive form) mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you (plural, object form) what ye (plural, subject form) shall do" (KJV).

One commentator notes that, in the above verse, we see the pronouns "thou," "thy," "you," and "ye," all fulfilling a specific grammatical function.  Modern translations are more likely to read:  "You shall speak to him ...and I will be with your mouth,... and will teach you what you shall do."  In choosing to simplify the translation, they obscure the precision and clarity of the underlying Hebrew words.  However, our King James Bible makes it clear that the LORD told Moses that he (Moses) was to speak to Aaron, and that He (the LORD) would then teach both of them (not just Moses) what they were to do.

Ok, so how can I remember the meaning of each pronoun?

Here’s a simple rule:  In our King James bible, pronouns that begin with “T” are always singular (i.e. they refer to one person); Pronouns that begin with “Y” are always plural (i.e. they refer to multiple people).   Someone observed that a helpful way to remember this rule is that “t” resembles one "stick" whereas “y” pictures two (or more) sticks stacked together.  

Going a step further:  Biblical Greek also uses different forms of pronouns to identify subjects and objects in a sentence.  Recall that, in a sentence, a subject is the person who is performing an action.  The object is a person or thing that is receiving action.  Consider this sentence:   “Mary is feeding the baby.”   “Mary” is the subject, i.e. the one performing the action.   “Baby” is the object, i.e. the one upon whom the action is being performed.  

Praise God for our Authorized King James Bible – an accurate translation of God’s preserved words.

A Helpful Chart of King James Bible Pronouns: 

  1.  “T” pronouns  are singular (and always 2nd person)
    1. Thou = subject form
    2. Thee = object form
    3.  “Thy” & “Thine” show possession
  2. Y” pronouns are plural (and always 2nd-person)
    1. Ye = Subject form
    2. You = object form
    3. Your(s)” shows possession

Remember:  "T" pronouns are always singular. "Y" pronouns are always plural.