Articles/Essays – Volume 47, No. 3

Archaic Pronouns and Verbs in the Book of Mormon: What Inconsistent Usage Tells Us about Translation Theories

Initially, I intended only one article on the usage of archaic pronouns and the implications of certain irregularities. But as I delved deeper into the implications, particularly what the erratic usage suggests about the translation of the Book of Mormon, it became obvious that this particular detour needed to stand alone as a companion piece to the main article. In that first article, among other matters, I explored briefly the inconsistent usage of second-person pronouns in the English translation of the Book of Mormon. In a nutshell, the text shifts back and forth randomly between the singular (thou and its variants) and the plural (ye and its siblings) in contexts where the singular form is required. What, we might then ask, can this information tell us about the process by which the Book of Mormon was translated? By itself, not much. But when considered in conjunction with other knowledge about the translation process, these pronoun usage patterns and other grammatical anomalies shed light on the larger question, and certain conclusions become more intriguing, perhaps even more obvious.

Some might ask why we should care how the Book of Mormon was translated, and for these individuals this may be a purely tangential concern. But if you recognize that imperfections and inconsistencies in the book—both grammatical and theological—are relevant to the larger question of exactly what the Book of Mormon is and just how divine it is, the translation question becomes important. The book itself, on both the title page and internally (Moroni 9:31), admits it is imperfect, but do the imperfections originate with the writers or with the translator—or perhaps even with the translation process itself? This possibility may shed significant light on the nature of revelation and of God’s interactions with his children. So these are not just idle questions. The answers may tell us a good deal about God’s methods of working with his children and his apparent reluctance to be either dictatorial (in the linguistic sense of the word) or even particular about specific details. 

As I began a systematic editorial examination of the Book of Mormon, I initially assumed that the particular grammatical problem I was focusing on (pronoun usage) was a result of Joseph Smith’s poor education and perhaps even sloppiness. But the accounts left by Joseph and those who were closely associated with him, particularly during the time he was translating and shortly thereafter,[1] don’t leave any room for this possibility. Joseph was reportedly very careful, even to the point of correcting his scribes’ spelling before being allowed by the “interpreters” to move on to the next textual segment. This process wouldn’t permit a huge slip such as he would have to make in reading “thou canst” and yet dictating “ye can.” So I began to entertain other possibilities. The conclusion I arrived at surprised me, as it may others, but even though it may appear naïve on the sur face, it does account for several anomalies that other translation theories either circumvent or awkwardly dismiss. Because the English translation of the Book of Mormon is such a complex and in many ways inscrutable document, all translation theories are unsatisfactory in one way or another, this one included, but I feel this possibility needs to be published so that it can be included in the conversation and evaluated on its merits.

Based on clues in the text of the Book of Mormon itself and on the descriptive accounts left by Joseph and others, two general theories have arisen regarding this unusual translation process.[2] One theory, based on later recollections from those who observed Joseph translating, proposes that the young Prophet was actually seeing text spelled out before his eyes and was then dictating this text to the scribe. In essence, God (or the Holy Ghost, or the Urim and Thummim, or the seer stone) was revealing to Joseph the exact wording, and even the exact spelling of certain words and names. If these accounts are accurate, then John H. Gilbert, compositor of the 1830 Book of Mormon, makes a very astute observation: “The question might be asked here whether Jo or the spectacles [Urim and Thummim] was the translator.”[3] In other words, if Joseph was just reading the English text to his scribe, who actually translated the Book of Mormon? The other theory asserts that the Lord was revealing ideas to Joseph, which the Prophet then had to frame to the best of his ability in his nineteenth-century approximation of King James English. Significantly, no one seriously entertains the possibility that Joseph was somehow tutored in “reformed Egyptian” and subsequently labored with the text itself, much as an ordinary translator would (except with a dose of divine enlightenment), thus wrestling it from its ancient source into an unremarkable replication of KJV syntax and vocabulary. For the moment, let us set this possibility aside, but I will return to it later. If we limit ourselves to the two general translation theories mentioned above, it is important to note that the first and secondhand accounts of the process, as well as the text itself, provide compelling evidence for both theories. 

The accounts of Joseph spelling out difficult-to-pronounce names, for instance, support the first theory. So do accounts of Joseph correcting the spelling of his scribes without even looking at their handwritten manuscript, although some of these accounts have been called into question.[4] Many other accounts, by both believers and skeptics, speak of Joseph either looking into the Urim and Thummim or peering into a hat that concealed a seer stone and reading the English text that appeared before his eyes. On the other hand, grammatical errors in the book, New Testament-influenced language, the translator’s apparent awareness of italicized words in the King James Version as he translated, nineteenth-century revival language, Protestant concepts and terminology, doctrinal development that follows the translation sequence rather than the narrative’s chronology, and the fact that Joseph freely edited the text all support the second theory. B. H. Roberts also observed that “to assign responsibility for errors in language to a divine instrumentality, which amounts to assigning such error to God . . . is unthinkable, not to say blasphemous.”[5] But “errors in language” are certainly present, and they do present us with both questions and clues about the translation process. 

Errors in Pronoun Usage 

As I began to explore usage of pronouns in the Book of Mormon, I realized I needed to conduct a thorough editorial examination of the book. For this project, I used the (at the time current) 1981 version of the Book of Mormon,[6] noting every grammatical inconsistency I could find. I then compared the resulting anomalies with Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text,[7] which follows the printer’s manuscript and extant portions of the original manuscript meticulously, as well as incorporating a few changes to reflect what Skousen concluded was the intended text dictated by Joseph. A table summarizing the findings of this editorial study can be found at the end of this article.

Among other things, I discovered that second-person pronoun usage was inconsistent, but not uniformly so throughout the Book of Mormon. In particular, usage in the portion of the book that came from the small plates of Nephi is more consistent than usage in the portion that came from Nephi’s large plates. I will make an observation about this discrepancy later. At any rate, second-person pronouns do not appear regularly in the book because it is a history and is therefore written largely in the third person. Some second person discourse in the book is also in the form of speeches, which use primarily the plural form, and most of the errors involve the use of the plural where context requires the singular. Consequently, the seven chapters in Alma (36–42) that report Alma2’s instructions to his individual sons (all in second person) contain a large percentage of the pronoun usage errors. Outside of these chapters, Alma 30 (conversations with Korihor), Alma 54 (Moroni1 and Ammoron exchanging letters), Helaman 10 (the Lord’s instructions to Nephi2), and Ether 3 (the Lord’s conversation with the Brother of Jared) contain heavy concentrations of errors. This is understandable, since these chapters feature significant second-person-singular discourse. Indeed, Alma 30 contains more pronoun errors than any other single chapter in the Book of Mormon.

While it is possible that erratic usage of singular and plural pronouns of address in the English translation could be due to a similar randomness in the source language, this is quite unlikely. If the Nephite language was in a state of flux regarding second person pronouns, the confusion we see in the English translation might be merely an accurate reflection of similar confusion in the source language. But how likely is it that such a pronoun shift would have endured for a thousand years? Perhaps we can put this question to rest by looking at another uneven feature of the English Book of Mormon. 

A Second Inconsistent Usage 

A second fundamental morphological difference between King James English and modern English—besides the archaic second person pronouns—is the third-person-singular verb conjugation (hath or knoweth instead of the modern has or knows). The King James Version is almost flawless in its usage of the archaic -th form. In fact, the only -s ending I am aware of in the KJV is the idiomatic expression “must needs” (as in “it must needs be”), which occurs twelve times in the KJV and forty times in the Book of Mormon.[8] A computer search of the Bible, for example, reveals exactly zero instances of the word has in the KJV. A similar search for has in the Book of Mormon (current 2013 edition on shows that this word appears 271 times. Admittedly, many of these non–King James conjugations were introduced later, in the various printed versions of the book, as indicated by a comparison between the 1981 printed edition and Royal Skousen’s Earliest Text. This comparison showed fifty-seven instances of has in the Earliest Text, meaning that 214 times hath was changed to has sometime between the handwritten manuscript and the 2013 edition. In my editorial examination of the 1981 printed edition of the book, which I then compared with the Earliest Text, including all instances of has and must needs, I identified 345 -s verb endings in the 1981 edition and 129 in the Earliest Text. This means that the handwritten manuscripts (the printer’s manuscript and the portions of the original manuscript that still exist) contain at least thirty-two modern verb conjugations such as prospers, gains, prophesies, and comes.[9] Regard less of the actual numbers, though, the modern English -s ending appears frequently enough to indicate inconsistency that does not occur in the KJV.[10] Significantly, this shift in third-person singular verb endings from -th to -s is unique to English and would have been extremely unlikely to have any corresponding morphological shift in the ancient Nephite language, especially over a period of a thousand years. The only possible conclusion regarding the presence of -s endings in the English Book of Mormon, therefore, is that these were introduced by someone whose consistency was incomplete in applying King James forms to the Book of Mormon’s English translation.[11] 

While I certainly missed some of the grammatical inconsistencies in my examination of the book, I did identify 345 instances of -s endings, compared with 1,708 instances of -th endings in the 1981 edition, while only 129 instances of -s endings appear in the Skousen volume. And the usage of these forms is just as uneven as the usage of second-person pronouns (although the second-person pronoun usage is more consistent between the 1981 edition and the Earliest Text, apparently because fewer of these pronoun errors were corrected in later printed editions). In 1 Nephi 19:12, for example, we read, “And all these things must surely come, saith the prophet Zenos. . . . The God of nature suffers.” While at least 199 instances of has are later alterations that did not appear in the manuscripts,[12] most of the instances of other verbs using modern -s endings appear both in the manuscripts and in the 1981 edition. Spot checks of -s endings in a facsimile copy of the 1830 edition indicate that the 1830 edition is consistent with Skousen’s Earliest Text, which means that most of these changes occurred in later editions of the book.

 The presence of so many -s endings in the Book of Mormon suggests that these were almost certainly introduced by the translator, and it is tempting to assume that it was Joseph Smith who introduced these inconsistencies during the translation process. But that assumption supposes that Joseph was the translator. 

A New Translation Theory 

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I would like to take a step back and look at Book of Mormon translation possibilities from a different angle. John Gilbert’s question of whether the book was translated by Joseph Smith or by the “spectacles” is not just a flippant dismissal by an early skeptic. Gilbert was intimately acquainted with the text, since it was he who provided the initial punctuation for the Book of Mormon, and his question brings up an important point. There are three possible origins for the translation of the Book of Mormon. It was either a divine translation, a human translation, or a machine translation. What I mean by “machine” translation is some sort of preprogrammed mechanical process. Either the Urim and Thummim (or seer stone) was a device of some sort that could mechanically (automatically) trans late language (similar to our modern though still crude computer translation programs) or it was a tool through which language (or thoughts) were communicated. If the accounts are true of Joseph looking into his hat and reading word-for-word English text to the scribe without referring at all to the plates, then we must assume that Joseph was not the translator of the Book of Mormon.

I have a little experience with translation and am also acquainted with translation theory. Years ago, for instance, when I was more fluent in German than I am now, I translated Theodor Storm’s novella Immensee into English. This was an intense labor that required a sound understanding of nineteenth-century German and the ability to recraft those German thoughts and sentences into an English equivalent that preserved not only the meaning and literary feel of the source text but also, with as much precision as possible, the sentence structure. Because English is a Germanic language, this was quite feasible though challenging. But what Joseph did in producing the Book of Mormon is not at all similar to this process. As David Mason put it, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Joseph Smith had a lot of experience translating documents that he couldn’t read.”[13] In other words, what Joseph did was not what we would normally call translation. Translation requires ample understanding not just of the source language but also of the source culture—an understanding, I might add, that is evident in the Book of Mormon translation. 

If Joseph was merely reading English text that was revealed to him through divine instrumentality, then, we must ask, who did translate the text? Did the spectacles? Were the Urim and Thummim some sort of celestial equivalent to Star Trek’s universal translator? Unlikely. Certainly the Book of Mormon is not a machine translation. Any mechanical process, particularly one using a heavenly instrument, would not have produced the inconsistencies I have identified above. A machine translation would likely be awkward to read, as much of the English Book of Mormon text is, but it would at least be morphologically consistent. By the same token, I think we can rule out a divine translation—in other words, a translation by God or by the Holy Ghost—unless we wish to attribute such overt grammatical errors to Deity, which B. H. Roberts suggests would amount to blasphemy. Joseph’s willingness to edit the text also suggests he did not regard the exact wording as being of divine origin. 

So, if the English text of the Book of Mormon is not a machine translation or a divine translation, this leaves us with only one other possibility: it is a human translation. And it shows all the signs of being just that. Someone wrestled with the words and phrases and did so very imperfectly. But who was the human translator? Joseph? I doubt this. Brant Gardner has proposed the theory that Joseph was receiving by the power of God various pieces of prelanguage concepts, which Steven Pinker calls mentalese. He then had to express these ideas that originated in a different, indeed an unknown, language, not only in English but in the religious idiom of his day—King James English. His mind somehow then produced the words he “saw” in his hat.[14]

I find this theory unconvincing, for several reasons. First, Joseph’s ability to craft (or dictate) an extensive and intricate English document was rather limited. The vocabulary of the Book of Mormon itself was likely far beyond his abilities in 1829. According to his wife, Emma, he could not even pronounce names like Sarah and had to spell them out.[15] Second, the sentence structure of the book is very complex, with long, convoluted sentences sometimes employing multiple layers of parenthetical statements and relative clauses (see, for instance, 3 Nephi 5:14), which would have been far beyond the language capabilities of a young man whose wife claimed that he “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon.”[16] Add to this fact the reality that Joseph dictated an unpunctuated text, and this task stretches far beyond Joseph’s ability to formulate prelanguage concepts into the complex sentence structure of the Book of Mormon. Without the help of punctuation to separate embedded clauses, this feat would have been mind-boggling. Third, Joseph would have been incapable of reconstructing long chapters from the King James Version from memory, even if prompted by some form of “mentalese.” Joseph was so famously unacquainted with the Bible that he was unaware Jerusalem had walls;[17] it is therefore untenable that he could have reproduced whole chapters of Isaiah from memory. It is obvious that the translator, whoever it was, had direct access to the printed Bible text, including italicized words that were often changed or omitted in the Book of Mormon, sometimes causing nonsensical or ungrammatical sentences. These are a few of the problems I find with Gardner’s theory. 

But if Joseph did not “translate” the book, who did? I once saw a comment following a blog post about the Book of Mormon translation suggesting that perhaps the King James translators performed the translation in the spirit world. While an enticing notion, this proposition is improbable. Neither they nor William Tyndale, another likely postmortal candidate, would have made the mistakes with pronoun usage and third-person verb conjugations that we find in the Book of Mormon. The final result would also have been far more elegant. But perhaps this suggestion is on the right track. Perhaps the book was indeed translated by a postmortal (but not yet divine) being. Do we know of anyone who was proficient in reading and writing the reformed Egyptian characters recorded on the plates, who also spoke English, and who tended to quote passages from the Bible with deviations from the King James text? Yes, we do: Moroni.[18]

Interestingly, the Book of Mormon often reads not like a text converted from a foreign language into the translator’s native tongue, but more like a text converted by the translator from his native tongue into a language he is not completely comfortable with. The phrasing is often awkward in English. My friend Avraham Gileadi, who helped retranslate the Book of Mormon into Hebrew, claims that it went “back” into Hebrew very smoothly. Indeed, he assured me that some of the awkward phrasing I specifically asked him about is perfectly idiomatic Hebrew. Of course, how closely the reformed Egyptian characters correspond to modern Hebrew is an unanswerable question, but the fact that the text often seemed more natural in Hebrew than in English supports the idea that the translation may have moved from a language native to the translator to a tongue foreign to him instead of in the usual direction. 

The possibility that the translation was performed by a resurrected but not yet divine being and then communicated by miraculous means to a mortal intermediary raises interesting questions and offers fascinating insights into both the postmortal existence and the restrained manner in which God interacts with his children on earth. For instance, we might ask how Moroni learned English. If this theory is accurate, then it is obvious that Moroni was not somehow miraculously endowed with a perfect command of what would have been to him a foreign language. Did he have to labor over this language acquisition much as we do, even when we are assisted by the Spirit? Did he have to practice conversing in English? With whom? In the spirit world or here on earth among mortals? (If the latter, fascinating possibilities come to mind.) Assuming he had to study not just nineteenth century English but also the already archaic religious idiom of the day and become versed in expressions of religious ideas and doctrines, this may explain the presence of common Protestant doctrines and even specific religious terminology in the Book of Mormon. It certainly explains the presence of lengthy but slightly altered King James quotations.

And what about God’s involvement in this endeavor? What can we learn from the idea that God didn’t prepare a perfect translation himself and miraculously present it to Joseph? This fact seems to support the homely metaphor a friend of mine once coined: “God doesn’t send cookies baked in heaven.” Unless we imagine to ourselves a God whose grasp of King James English was inferior to that of the King James translators, we must assume that he left the translation largely in the hands of his still imperfect children, mortal or immortal. For a volume as important as the Book of Mormon to come forth with such labor pains and such imperfections suggests perhaps a more hands-off God than some of us prefer to imagine. Subtlety and restraint appear to be two of his most prized attributes. 

Some Concluding Thoughts 

As mentioned earlier, my editorial pass through the book uncovered another interesting fact: second-person pronoun usage is far more consistent and correct on the portion translated from the small plates than in Mormon’s or Moroni’s abridgments. The usage of “must needs” is also much more frequent in the text from the small plates. This makes me wonder if the English translation was performed by at least two translators—one who understood the more ancient writing on the small plates and one who was more conversant with the later text composed primarily by Mormon. Whether or not this is accurate, one thing is certain: Joseph Smith did not “translate” the Book of Mormon, not if we mean that translating involves having a sound understanding of the source language and culture and then converting a document from that language into the target language. 

After a quarter century studying the manuscripts and various editions of the Book of Mormon, linguist Royal Skousen insists that the translation was given to Joseph word for word—a very closely controlled translation. I tend to believe him, which means Joseph himself wasn’t translating but was receiving text translated by someone else, delivered to him “by the gift and power of God” (Book of Mormon title page). If Joseph knew the English text was a human translation and was flawed in certain respects, this may explain his eagerness to make corrections and changes that he probably wouldn’t have made if he had viewed the text as divine and therefore perfect. Of course, the fact that it was unpunctuated was a clear indication that the text as dictated by Joseph and written down by his scribes was neither perfect nor ready for publication. 

The fact that the dictated English text was unpunctuated brings up other questions and difficulties with the theory presented here. Assuming Moroni or some other postmortal Nephite who was conversant in King James English performed the translation, one must ask why the text was unpunctuated, even those sections adapted from the King James Version. The unpunctuated nature of the dictation lends support to Brant Gardner’s “mentalese” theory. But it certainly leaves many other questions unanswered. Of course, it is also possible that the text Joseph was reading was indeed punctuated but that he dictated it without speaking out the punctuation marks, just as we usually read punctuated text aloud. Unfortunately, Joseph left no record of such translation details. In the end, I suppose, we must still admit that the Book of Mormon translation methodology is largely a mystery, and it will remain so unless God chooses to reveal more on this topic.

[Editor’s Note: See PDF from page 67 onward for Appendix.]

This article is the second in a two-part series about LDS usage of archaic pronouns. The first article appeared in the previous issue and was titled “What Shall We Do with Thou? Modern Mormonism’s Unruly Usage of Archaic English Pronouns.” 

Note: The Dialogue Foundation provides the web format of this article as a courtesy. There may be unintentional differences from the printed version. For citational and bibliographical purposes, please use the printed version or the PDFs provided online and on JSTOR.

[1] See John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 77–213.

[2] See Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), and Don Bradley, “Written by the Finger of God? Claims and Controversies of Book of Mormon Translation,” Sunstone 161 (December 2010): 20–29, for a more complete description of these two theories. Gardner actually describes three theories that originated with Royal Skousen—loose control, tight control, and iron-clad control—but the latter two can be lumped together for our purposes here.

[3] “John Gilbert’s 1892 Account of the 1830 Printing of the Book of Mormon,” quoted in Gardner, The Gift and Power, 251. 

[4] For instance, Brant Gardner points out that this “inerrant” translation theory “presupposes the absence of error and [Royal] Skousen’s work makes it clear that errors occurred,” which means that “an inerrant translation is simply not a supportable option to explain the translation of the Book of Mormon.” Gardner, The Gift and Power, 148.

[5] B. H. Roberts, “Book of Mormon Translation: Interesting Correspondence on the Subject of the Manual Theory,” Improvement Era 9 (July 1906): 706–13.

[6] According to the Church’s statement on the 2013 version, “Changes to the scriptural text include spelling, minor typographical, and punctuation corrections.” I am assuming that any changes to pronouns or verb endings would have been minimal or nonexistent. “Church Releases New Edition of English Scriptures in Digital Formats” (accessed July 15, 2014).

[7] Royal Skousen, ed., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009).

[8] I should mention that the search engine at is not completely accurate. For instance, it did not identify all the instances of “must needs” that I found in my editorial read-through of the Book of Mormon. By the same token, I did not find all the instances that it did, so this number (forty) is actually a combination of my finds and the search engine’s results. There may actually be more than forty. It is possible that both I and the search engine missed a few. This cautionary note applies to all other numbers listed in this article that are derived from either my examination of the book or the search function. They must be seen as close approximations, nothing more. But they are close enough to make the point this article is concerned with.

[9] This is derived from 129 (-s endings) – 57 (instances of has) – 40 (instances of must needs) = 32.

[10] The incidence of second-person pronouns and third-person present tense verb conjugations is, of course, sporadic throughout the book, since it is written mostly in third-person past tense. Second-person pronouns occur primarily where conversations or divine discourse are being reported. Third-person present-tense verbs occur primarily in conversations, editorial commentaries, and reports of things God “hath done” or “hath said.”

[11] It is also relevant to note that the manuscripts written mostly by Oliver Cowdery contain grammatical oddities such as “I hath” and “thou can” (see Ether 3:4–15, in Skousen, The Earliest Text, 679, 681). It should be noted that Joseph Smith was certainly not alone in his inconsistent usage of -th and -s endings. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” for instance, contains the phrase “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword” as well as “He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat.” Julia Ward Howe composed these lyrics in 1861.

[12] This is derived from 256 (instances of has in my examination) – 57 (instances in Skousen’s Earliest Text) = 199.

[13] David V. Mason, My Mormonism: A Primer for Non-Mormons and Mormons, Alike (Memphis, Tenn.: Homemade Books, 2011), 99.

[14] Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 90, quoted in Gardner, The Gift and Power, 274.

[15] “Emma Smith Bidamon, interviewed by Edmund C. Briggs (1856),” in Opening the Heavens, 129. 

[16] “Emma Smith Bidamon, interviewed by Joseph Smith III (1879),” in Opening the Heavens, 131.

[17] “Emma Smith Bidamon, interviewed by Edmund C. Briggs (1856),” and “Emma Smith Bidamon, interviewed by Nels Madsen and Parley P. Pratt Jr. (1877),” in Opening the Heavens, 129–30.

[18] After Joseph Spencer (with my permission) gave a preview of my Moroni-as-translator theory in a blog post on Patheos (see “On Translation Theories and the Interpretation of the Book of Mormon”), I received an email from Stanton Curry, sharing with me a short essay he had written a couple of years previously, in which he also proposes Moroni as the translator. I find it significant that he arrived at this conclusion independently and from a different angle—certain information found on the book’s title page and an attempt to explain the King James quotations in the text. J. Stanton Curry, “A Possible Explanation for King James Bible Passages in the Book of Mormon” (unpublished paper, copy in my possession). Brant Gardner mentions another LDS writer who proposed Moroni as translator. Carl T. Cox included this theory in “The Mission of Moroni,” published in three parts on his website. The relevant text is available online. This reference somehow slipped by me, and I did not remember it when I had completed my editorial examination of the Book of Mormon and started considering translation theories. It is very possible that this idea was lurking in my subconscious and surfaced in what I thought was an original insight. If so, I am glad to give Carl T. Cox the credit for this idea. See Gardner, The Gift and Power, 254.