Teaching the Usage of Thee and Thou

By John W. Welch

John W. Welch, “Teaching the Usage of Thee and Thou,” Religious Educator 4, no. 1 (2003): 49–53.

Teaching the Usage of Thee and Thou

John W. Welch

John W. Welch was a professor of law at BYU and editor-in-chief of BYU Studies when this was published.

In his May 1993 general conference address, Elder Dallin H. Oaks encouraged Latter-day Saints to address God by using “special words that have been sanctified by use in inspired communications, words that have been recommended to us and modeled for us by those we sustain as prophets and inspired teachers.”[1] In particular, he mentioned the use of the pronouns thee, thou, thy, and thine to show respect to God,[2] even though those words may seem “archaic. . . unfamiliar and difficult.”[3] Indeed, using these reverent forms of speech when addressing God in prayer or encountering them in the scriptures can be confusing or awkward. But with a little effort, this small hurdle can be removed for people who wish to use these pronouns more comfortably.

The use of thee and thou has shifted somewhat arbitrarily and loosely over the centuries;[4] however, I believe the following six guidelines may be helpful in teaching children or other students or useful simply in keeping the basic patterns in mind. These reminders are not intended to create rigid constraints on the free flow of words uttered in love and humility before the Lord because the essence of prayer is not in the parts of speech but in the sincerity of a person’s heart. The following patterns, however, may increase our familiarity with these forms and raise our comfort level, thus building our confidence and openness in speaking this way before the Lord. Using thee-thou language also helps English speakers to learn foreign languages, most of which have two forms of you that are used in particular circumstances, depending on the local culture.

Guideline 1: Thee is like me. Thy is like my. Thine is like mine.

In other words, in places where it would sound right to use the first-person pronouns me, my, or mine, it is appropriate to use the rhyming second-person forms.

For example, a person would say, “Walk with me.” So in speaking of God, one would say,

“Walk with thee” (not with thou). Similar pairs illustrate this point further:

People thank me.

People thank thee.

My mother knows me.

My mother knows thee.

This is my church.

This is thy church.

The glory be mine.

The glory be thine.

Indeed, when praying, we can formulate a thought negatively in the first person and then resolve it positively in the second person with respect to God:

That they will glorify not me, but thee.

Not my will, but thy will be done.

The thanks be not mine, but thine.

Obviously, more is at work in improving our language than mechanically mastering an archaic form of speech. Thinking “not me, but thee” and “not my, but thy” can shift our attention away from ourselves and to our Father in Heaven. Speaking this way in prayer also reinforces the close relationship that God desires to foster between us and Him, the me and thee.

Guideline 2: Use thine instead of thy when the next word starts with a vowel.

These cases are exceptions to the first guideline. Accordingly:

thy son

thine only son

thy word

thine own word

This rule is similar to what happens in using a or an. English usage requires the use of an when the next word begins with a vowel sound:

a son

 

an only son

a day

an extraordinary day

When the main word begins with an h, the usage can go either way. The King James Bible treats the initial h as a vowel, but modern usage is mixed:

thy foot

thine hand (alternatively, thy hand)

thy mind

thine heart (alternatively, thy heart)

Guideline 3: Use thou as the subject of a sentence or of a dependent clause when you would normally use you.

In grammatical terms, thou is the nominative form. This rule is a little more difficult to apply than the first rule because, as the following example shows, the same word you can be used either as a subject (in the nominative case) or as an object (in the accusative case):

You love us, and we love you.

The first you is doing the loving; the second you refers to the one who is loved. This becomes:

Thou lovest us (Guideline 3), and we love thee (Guideline 1).

Note the similarity in spelling between you and thou, even though the ou is pronounced differently. The two words are closely related (through the German du). This third rule is further illustrated by other examples:

I am here.

Thou art here.

I see.

Thou seest.

You know our needs.

Thou knowest our needs.

You have given us.

Thou hast given us.

Guideline 4: Use ye as the plural equivalent of thou.

The word ye is not likely to be used in prayers, but it appears frequently in scripture.[5] For example, when Jesus instructs individuals how to pray alone in their closets, He says, “When thou prayest.” When He instructs people regarding group prayers, He says, “After this manner therefore pray ye” (3 Nephi 13:6, 9).

Guideline 5: When thou is the subject, the indicative verb ends in -st or -t.

For example:

you have

thou hast

you had

thou hadst

you would

thou wouldst (or wouldest)

you should

thou shouldst (or shouldest)

you know

thou knowest

you love

thou lovest

A simple -t is added to the end of some English verbs where the s sound has dropped out:

you will

thou wilt (not willst)

you are

thou art (not arst)

Other verbs remain the same as in normal speech.[6] Even a verb in the imperative mood with thou as the subject does not change: “Father, glorify thou me with thine own self” (John 17:5).

One of the best ways to learn to appreciate the rhythm and distinctive sound of thee-thou language is to read the scriptures out loud. Especially rich is the entire chapter of John 17, where Jesus prays to the Father. The King James translation renders Jesus’ words:

I have finished the work which thou gavest me.

They have believed that thou didst send me.

I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world.

Sanctify them through thy truth.

That the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.

Guideline 6: When the word who stands in place of thou or refers to God, the verb that follows may likewise end in -st or -t.

Our Father, [thou] who art in heaven.

But this usage is flexible. For example, in the sacrament hymn we sing, “O God the Eternal Father, who dwells (not dwellst) amid the sky.”[7]

Conclusion

In most cases, these six guidelines are the only rules a person needs to know to use thee-thou language. Strictness is not crucial; many variations exist. And if ever in doubt, we can usually avoid awkward or uncertain constructions by rephrasing but retaining the respectful tone. For example, to avoid a sentence like “We ask thee that thou mightest lend us thy mercy,” we might say, “We ask thee to lend us thy mercy” or “Please lend us mercy.” The Lord, who looks upon the heart, will understand and answer the humble prayer that is offered with real intent.

Notes


[1] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Language of Prayer,” Ensign, May 1993, 15–16.

[2] On the rules of English grammar in the 1830s pertaining to the use of thee and thou in respectful discourse, see Noah Webster, An Improved Grammar of the English Language (New Haven: Hezekiah Howe, 1831), 25; Samuel Kirkham, English Grammar (Rochester, New York: W. Alling, 1835), 142–47.

[3] Oaks, “The Language of Prayer,” 16.

[4] The use of you began to replace thou and ye as nominatives in the fourteenth century, eventually becoming common in sixteenth-century speech; but “for a long while the old and the new forms often alternated with each other,” and by the eighteenth century you became the standard in English prose. See George O. Curme, A Grammar of the English Language (Essex, Connecticut: Verbatim, 1977), 2:15–16; 2:527–29; and J. N. Hook and E. G. Matthews, Modern American Grammar and Usage (New York: Ronald Press, 1956), 170. During Elizabethan times, when the King James Version of the Bible was being produced, “there is strong evidence that, while the older ‘eth’ ending continued to be written, it was pronounced as if it were ‘-s’” (Alister E. McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 272. So we cannot insist that the distinctions between these forms must be rigidly or dogmatically enforced.

[5] “In Biblical language ye is now uniformly employed as nominative [plural] and you as dative and accusative [plural]. . . . In the original text of [the King James] version this usage was not so uniform, as there were in it a number of you’s where we now find ye.” Curme, Grammar, 2:15.

[6] For a chart of the full inflection of English verbs, see Curme, Grammar, 1:327–33.

[7] “O God, the Eternal Father,” Hymns (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), no. 175.