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”).

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14 Comments

Filed under Language, Scripture

14 responses to “How to use thee, thou, and other King James pronouns

  1. Samson J.

    Funny, just recently I was going to offer our friend Bruce a compromise of sorts: I will admit that the KJV contains a lot of valuable and elegant poetic language, while still wishing for an ejection of the archaic “thee” and “thou”, etc. I feel sure he won’t agree!

  2. Well, I think the archaic pronouns are not only easy enough to understand but also useful in that they distinguish singular from plural “you,” so I’m all for keeping them. If anything is to be modified in the KJV, it ought to be those words and phrases which are still used but which have undergone a change in meaning since 1611, and which are therefore potentially confusing (by and by, scapegoat, Lucifer, Easter, etc.). There are also some simple errors in the KJV, such as the use of “satyrs” and “dragons” to translate words which refer, respectively, to wild goats and jackals, and these ought to be corrected. There is an edition of the Bible called the 21st Century King James Version which deals with these issues admirably without compromising the beauty of the original. (Another version, called the New King James Version, would probably be more to thy your liking, since it replaceth replaces archaic pronouns and verb forms with their modern counterparts.)

    As for thee and thou, I don’t think they present any serious comprehension problems. Everyone understands the meaning of “thou shalt not,” “thine is the kingdom,” etc. Actually using those archaic pronouns, as opposed to just reading and understanding them, can be more difficult, though, and it was this difficulty which my post was intended to address. English-speaking Mormons are expected to address God as thou in prayer, and some people have difficulty doing this without giving Priscian’s head a few cracks. (The Quakers, of course, gave up any pretense of grammaticality long ago.)

  3. Thank you for that excellent explanation, Wm. Just knowing that “you” is plural alone give me new insight into scriptures.

  4. Samson J.

    English-speaking Mormons are expected to address God as thou in prayer

    Really?! Crazy. I’m having enough trouble agreeing that “thee” and “thou” are easy to understand when *reading*.

    • It’s not really all that crazy. You quickly learn the basic rules and get used to it. And I think it helps make my conversations with God a little different from casual conversations with mortal folks. Reminds me who I am talking to.

    • It’s all what you’re used to. Having been raised on “thee” and “thou,” I find the hyper-casual prayer language favored by most Protestants (“we just wanna thank you, Lord,…”) to be quite off-putting.

      One benefit of having been taught KJV English from a young age is that it made other early-modern English writers (Shakespeare, Spenser, Bacon, etc.) more accessible. However, language changes fast, and the language of the KJV was already slightly archaic when it was written. In Shakespeare, a contemporary of the KJV translators, you is already starting to replace the other three forms; ye has mostly disappeared, and thou and thee are used only to address social inferiors (even the close friends Brutus and Cassius call each other you; Caesar calls most everyone thou except when addressing a group).

  5. Samson J.

    Having been raised on “thee” and “thou,” I find the hyper-casual prayer language favored by most Protestants (“we just wanna thank you, Lord,…”) to be quite off-putting.

    It’s funny how people can have varying perspectives. What do you find off-putting about it – anything in particular, or just that it’s different? I have enjoyed your views on these kinds of things, having only ever (knowingly) met one or two Mormons in my whole life. I have to say that the Mormon approach here, as with some other things, strikes me as off-puttingly pretentious.

    and thou and thee are used only to address social inferiors

    Something that occurs to this French-speaking Canadian is that these concepts may be more accessible for someone who speaks another language (e.g. Spanish, French) which has formal and informal second-person pronouns.

    • What do you find off-putting about it – anything in particular, or just that it’s different?

      Just that it seems too casual. When you address God, you bow your head, you kneel if possible, and you speak in a formal way.

      Of course there is no consistent logic behind the use of thou. Now it sounds formal and pretentious, but of course in the past it sounded familiar and intimate. Mormons nowadays will say that we use thou as a sign of respect, but in past centuries thou-ing someone would seem like a pretty funny way of showing respect! However, culture has changed, too, and I think thou, despite its changing connotations, remains as appropriate as ever. In the hierarchical societies of the Renaissance, people needed to be reminded that God was not only their king but their friend; now that everything has been melted down into one big mass of democratic goo, people need to be reminded that God is our friend but not our buddy.

      Something that occurs to this French-speaking Canadian is that these concepts may be more accessible for someone who speaks another language (e.g. Spanish, French) which has formal and informal second-person pronouns.

      Yes, thou and tu derive from the same source. The shift in English usage, from a singular-plural distinction to a familiar-formal distinction, was actually a direct result of French influence following the Norman conquest. People began to think of you as the English counterpart of vous and to use it accordingly. However, I think knowledge of French may actually be a handicap when it comes to understanding the King James Bible; Francophone readers may assume that thou is tu and you is vous, when in fact the KJV follows the older Anglo-Saxon norm of using thou for the singular and you for the plural regardless of social status or degree of formality.

  6. Samson J.

    When you address God, you bow your head, you kneel if possible, and you speak in a formal way.

    Again, it can be funny what you’re used to. I had a discussion once with Roman Catholics; I described having attended a Roman Catholic service while on vacation one time, and during the service there was a point where everyone knelt down – that is, everyone except my wife and I. We just couldn’t do it – it felt too weird to do. It was like the scene at the end of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves where everyone except the Moor kneels before King Richard. (<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKTz0dp-OA4 0:36"0:36 here)

    I wonder whether my inability to kneel reflected the fact that I just couldn’t do something that felt too weird, or whether there’s some malign cultural attitude that I hold.

    Francophone readers may assume that thou is tu and you is vous

    Yes, that is actually what I always thought until I read this blog post!

    • Mormons don’t kneel during church services, either, but it is customary to kneel for personal or family prayers at home. I can imagine how it would be hard to do if you’re not used to it, though. Bowing at the waist, which is customary in certain special situations here in Taiwan, was very hard for me to get used to; at first my body simply refused to do it.

  7. Samson J.

    was very hard for me to get used to; at first my body simply refused to do it.

    Yeah, exactly what I mean.

  8. Samson J.

    Eureka!

    After watching the Wrath of Khan last night, I may have been convinced about the value of all this thee and thou after all!

    I mean, it just doesn’t sound the same if you replace it with “you”:

    To the last I grapple with thee!
    From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!
    For hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee!

  9. Agreed! Melville knew what he was doing when he made Ahab a Quaker.

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