Daily Archives: November 4, 2013

How to use thee, thou, and other King James pronouns

Second-person pronouns

In modern English, you can refer to one person or to a group of people. King James English distinguishes between the singular (thou, thee) and the plural (ye, you).

The singular word for “you” is thou (subject) or thee (object). The possessive determiner corresponding to “your” is thy or thineThy is used before a word beginning with a consonant, and thine before a word beginning with a vowel. Either form is acceptable for words beginning with the letter “h”; thine is generally more common for h-words in the Bible, but both forms are used, sometimes even in the same verse (for example, Numbers 5:20 includes both “thy husband” and “thine husband”). Thine also serves as the possessive pronoun corresponding to “yours.” The sentences below illustrate the use of these four forms.

  • Thou hast a sword.
  • The sword belongeth to thee.
  • It is thy sword. (but: thine axe, thy/thine horse)
  • The sword is thine.

The plural for “you” is ye (subject) or you (object). The corresponding possessive forms are your and yours as in modern English.

  • Ye have a kingdom.
  • The kingdom belongeth to you.
  • It is your kingdom.
  • The kingdom is yours.

By the way, many people seem to have the idea that ye is “formal” and thou is “familiar.” That may be true of other European languages, and even of archaic English usage elsewhere, but it is not true of the language used in the Bible. In the King James Version, singular vs. plural is the whole story. Thou and thee are used even to address kings, and ye and you are always plural in meaning. This means, for example, that when Jesus says “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat” (Luke 22:31), the word “you” is plural and thus refers not to Simon (as most modern English speakers would assume) but to the disciples as a group.

My and mine

The possessive forms my and mine follow the same pattern as thy and thine. That is, my is used before a word beginning with a consonant, and mine before a word beginning with a vowel. (Both forms are okay before a word beginning with “h.”) Mine is also the possessive pronoun, as in modern English. Psalm 108:8 illustrates all of these rules: “Gilead is mine; Manasseh is mine; Ephraim also is the strength of mine head; Judah is my lawgiver.” (It would also be acceptable to say my head, a phrase which also occurs frequently in the KJV.)

Ways to say “its”

The possessive determiner its does not exist in King James English. Instead, the word his does double duty as the possessive form of both he and it — at least in theory. In practice, neuter his is rarely used; other structures such as thereof and of it are usually preferred. Here are some examples:

  • it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (Genesis 3:15) — This example makes it clear that his is to it as thy is to thou.
  • the boards of the tabernacle, and the bars thereof, and the pillars thereof, and sockets thereof (Numbers 4:31)
  • that the brass of it may be hot, and may burn, and that the filthiness of it may be molten in it, that the scum of it may be consumed (Ezekiel 24:11).

Subject-verb agreement: -eth

In modern English, a verb with a third-person singular subject takes the -s ending. In King James English, the corresponding ending is -eth.

  • The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth (John 3:8)

Two verbs are irregular in this regard: have and do. The third-person singular of have is hath. The verb do has two different third-person singular forms, doth and doeth. We use doth when it is an auxiliary verb, as in the following examples:

  • Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider (Isaiah 1:3)
  • Doth God pervert judgment? or doth the Almighty pervert justice? (Job 8:3)
  • For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him (Isaiah 28:26)

The form doeth is used when it is the main verb of the sentence, as in the following examples.

  • He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God (3 John 1:11)
  • Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully (Jeremiah 48:10)

Subject-verb agreement: -est

If the subject of a sentence is thou (second-person singular), the verb takes the -est ending. Unlike -eth (and unlike its modern counterpart -s), this ending is required for all verbs, including even modal auxiliaries (such as will, can, may, etc.) and past-tense forms.

A few verbs have irregular -est forms:

  • are → art
  • were → wast / wert
  • have → hast
  • do → dost / doest
  • can → canst
  • will → wilt
  • must → must (no change)
  • shall → shalt

The normal second-person singular past form of “to be” is wast. The form wert is the so-called past subjunctive, used primarily in if-clauses and in sentences expressing wishes. It corresponds to were as in “If I were you…” or “I wish I were…”

  • Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created (Ezekiel 28:15)
  • If thou wert pure and upright; surely he would awake for thee (Job 8:6)
  • I would thou wert hot or cold (Revelation 3:15)

The distinction between dost and doest is the same as that between doth and doeth, discussed above. The shorter form is used as an auxiliary verb; the longer, as the main verb of a sentence.

  • But why dost thou judge they brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? (Romans 14:10)
  • If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door (Genesis 4:7)

For most past forms ending with the letter “d,” the ending is -st rather than -est. Exceptions include the past modals wouldest, couldest, and shouldest. (The forms wouldst, couldst, and shouldst are also used, but not in the Bible.)

  • Wherefore then didst thou not obey the voice of the Lord, but didst fly upon the spoil, and didst evil in the sight of the Lord? (1 Samuel 15:19)
  • O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! (Isaiah 48:18)
  • I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me (Matthew 18:32)

A note on direct address

The subject forms, ye and thou, are used in direct address.

  • Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? (Matthew 23:33)
  • Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee (Luke 12:20)

(However, note that the King James equivalent of “Hey, you!” is not “Hey, thou!” but rather “Ho, such an one!”)

Also note that if a relative clause modifies a vocative phrase (as in, “Our Father which art in heaven”), the verb agrees with thou even if the word thou is not actually used. This is different from modern English, which uses third-person verb forms in such structures (modern translations have “Our Father who is in heaven”).


Filed under Language, Scripture