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Singularly Plural

by Tim O'Hearn

There is a major debate going on today among English grammar purists. English is imprecise enough as it is in the use of pronouns. We do have a distinction among the singular and plural pronouns for oneself: I/we. It gets a little more confusing in the third person: he/she/it and they. Then we have a confusion when addressing a person or a group, both of which are you. (In the King James Version of the Bible, as in Shakspere, generally you is singular and ye is plural; but in the past 400 years we have lost that distinction.) The debate, though, is not about plural pronouns but about the singular. Generally the singular personal pronouns are I, you, he, she, and it. Unlike most European languages, the neuter (it) is only used for inanimate objects. A living person is not an it. So what do you do when you want to talk about a person but don’t know their gender? You could be driving down the road and complain that “he or she cut me off.” There is, to some purists, no pronoun that leaves gender ambiguous. Many people would simply say, “They cut me off.” Some grammarians, though, do not like using the plural (they) as a singular of indeterminate gender. “There was only one driver in that car, so how can you use they?” Others point out that the word has been used this way since the 1300s, but some people still don’t like it.

There is another sense in which the plural form of a word can be used as either singular or plural. When the number is known, we use the specific form, such as “I have one child; you have two children.” Sometimes, though, the number is not specified and we have to use the plural as a nonspecified number. Such may be the case when Paul gives the qualities of an elder. “One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity.” (1 Tim 3:4) Is Paul saying that a man cannot be an elder unless he has more than one child? Or is he saying that he must have at least one child, which child or children are obedient to him. (It is the “subjection,” after all, that is the qualification, not the number of children.) There are some congregations that hold that an elder must have at least two children, but most would agree that children is used in a non-numeric way.

A few verses later Paul speaks about deacons. He says, “Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.” (I Tim 3:11-12) What a mess of singulars, plurals, and plurals used as singular. Few people would say that “their wives” means that every deacon must have multiple wives. In fact, the next sentence makes it clear that they must have only one wife. But even there we have the potential confusion that a group of deacons should collectively be the husbands of one wife; that is, one woman shared between them all. This is clearly not the case, but it does show the potential confusion of using plurals to mean “one or more” of something.

In those instances we generally understand that children, wives, and deacons may be understood to include one or more. There is a passage, though, that uses an indeterminate plural that most people (at least in the Churches of Christ) insist must be plural. “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.” (Tit 1:5) It is longstanding doctrine that each congregation that has elders must have a plurality of elders. (Interestingly, most don’t take this passage to mean that every congregation must have elders.) If an elder can have only one child, and if a deacon’s wife must have only one husband, why does this not say that each city may have one or more elders? Is it not like telling a group of children that they need their parents’ permission for something, knowing that some of them may have only one available parent? Granted, a plurality of elders in a congregation is good, in order to avoid one man lording it over a congregation, but this verse does not necessarily say that. Nor does it say that in a city with more than one congregation you may have one set of elders over all of them, although it could be construed that way.

Grammar is a wonderful thing. But sometimes it causes as much confusion as it does clarity.