Why the Oxford English Dictionary (and not Webster’s 1828)

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In order to properly consider possible meaning in the Book of Mormon (BofM), we must use the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Royal Skousen opened the door to this approach,1 but unfortunately many have resisted accepting it as valid or have not understood the advantages inherent in it. The usual method of consulting Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language has serious drawbacks. First, that approach is based on the incorrect assumption that the English language of the text is Joseph Smith’s own language or what he knew from reading the King James Bible (kjb). That incorrect assumption leads us to wrongly believe that nonbiblical lexical meaning in the BofM is to be sought in 1820s American English, or even perhaps from Smith making mistakes in his attempt to imitate biblical language (which is a canard). Second, by using Webster’s 1828 dictionary we can easily be led astray and form inaccurate judgments about old usage and we can miss possible meaning in the text.

Let us consider the second point and a concrete example related to usage. To begin with, the OED definitively tells us that the pronoun ye was used to address both a single person and more than one person, and in both subject position and object position, starting in Middle English and continuing on into the Early Modern English era (EModE). Ye was a versatile pronoun.2 The OED has a very helpful entry on this point.3 [Page 66]Webster’s 1828 has nothing on this. Here is one example taken from the Early English Books Online database (EEBO):4

1507 Walter Hilton Scala perfectionis
If thou loue moche god, ye lyketh for to thynke vpon hym mocheIf thou love much God, ye liketh to think upon him muchwhere like = ‘feel inclined to’

Note the close switch from thou to ye, even though it refers to the same person,5 as we see in various places in the BofM (see, for example, 1 Nephi 17:19 and Jacob 7:6). Note the third-person singular inflection after ye, as we see in Helaman 13:21; 13:34 and elsewhere (see Royal Skousen, ed., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text [New Haven, CT: Yale UP 2009]). This 1507 example is representative of many others that are found in the English textual record. Here is another example from Tyndale:

1573 John Foxe, ed. The vvhole workes of W. Tyndall (d. 1536) [EEBO]
… if thou vowe to go and visite the poore, … it is wel done, and a sacrifice that sauoureth well, ye wil happly say, that ye will go to this or that place … .… if ye abyde in me, and my wordes also abyde in you, then aske what ye wyll and ye shall haue it. If thou beleue in Christe and hast6 the promises whiche God hath made thee in thine hart, then go on pilgrimage … .

The entry for the word ye in Webster’s 1828 states that it is the nominative plural of the second person, nothing more. The dictionary misses that ye was frequently used for singular address in EModE. We have just seen examples of this, and it can rather easily be found in Shakespeare. The OED points this out with several relevant examples. The kjb itself slides almost imperceptibly and frequently between ye/you and thou/thee in passages such as Deuteronomy 13:1–5 and Matthew 6:1–9, to give just two examples.7 Webster’s 1828 also misses that ye was frequently used as a grammatical object during the early modern era, including by Shakespeare. The BofM has this usage (e.g. Alma 14:19 [Page 67]and Mormon 3:22), and the OED points this out with several relevant examples.

Misleading views, such as the one that Webster’s 1828 provides us with, have led some to blithely make inaccurate pronouncements on this aspect of BofM grammar. Some even go so far as to claim, without sufficient analysis or expertise, that there is a massive misuse of archaic personal pronouns in the text. Yet it is the unknowing critics who have been mistaken.8 It is simply that there was a massive amount of variation in EModE, and the BofM is a text that has a complex mixture of unexpurgated language from the EModE period and beyond. While Webster’s 1828 sheds no light on the matter, the OED elucidates this issue.

Let me also say at this point that it is wrongheaded to propose Moroni as translator in order to account for “errors” in the text.9 He [Page 68]may have been involved in the divine translation effort, but to employ him as an explanatory device in order to account for putative errors is misguided. The English-language text is too complex, diverse, and even well-formed to ascribe it to a non-native translation effort. Again, as I have stated in an earlier paper,10 the BofM is not full of grammatical errors. Rather, it is full of EModE — some of it is typical and pedestrian, some of it is elegant and sophisticated, and some of it is, to our limited or uninformed way of thinking, objectionable and ungrammatical. The BofM also contains touches of modern English and late Middle English. It is not a monolithic text, and we are just beginning to learn about its English language. (A striking example of late Middle English is provided at the end of this short study.) I have certainly come to realize that it is not the text of the BofM that is full of errors, but rather our judgments in relation to its grammar.

Let us now consider an example that shows the shortcomings of Webster’s 1828 in relation to meaning in the BofM:

Moroni 1:1
I had supposed to not have written more, but I have not as yet perished.

What is the meaning of suppose in Moroni 1:1? There are a few possibilities. One that I favor in this context is ‘incline (or tend) to think,’ with the implication of a mistaken belief (see OED definition 8).

Webster’s 1828 tells us that suppose can mean, among other things, ‘believe,’ ‘imagine,’ or ‘think.’ The OED has these senses (sense is its favored term for ‘meaning’), but it also has several additional meanings that are possibly relevant and that are not found in Webster’s 1828, including ‘expect.’ The OED states that this sense of the verb suppose [Page 69]is obsolete, providing examples to the year 1760.11 Because Webster’s 1828 does not have the meaning ‘expect,’ this is good evidence that it was truly obsolete by the 1820s.12 In this way Webster’s 1828 is useful. But because suppose in Moroni 1:1 could convey a notion of ‘expect,’ and since the sense is not found in Webster’s 1828, we find that this reference dictionary is inadequate in relation to BofM textual meaning and usage, just as we have seen is the case with the personal pronoun ye. Moreover, the BofM phrase it supposeth me, as discussed below, amply demonstrates the inadequacy of Webster’s 1828 dictionary and the superiority of the OED in relation to BofM meaning and syntax.

The phrasing had supposed to and had supposed that is found mainly in the first half of the EModE era. In fact, 95% of the instances that I have located in that period are from before the year 1600. In addition, there are relatively few examples of this wording to be found in the much more extensive textual record of the 1700s and early 1800s. Thus it is reasonable on that basis alone to seek older meaning in this case.

Here is an OED quotation from the influential printer/publisher William Caxton:

1474 Caxton Chesse iii. iii. (1883) 100
He was ryght seeke And … men supposid hym to dye.‘He was very13 sick and men expected him to die’

This is from one of the earliest books printed in English. In this example, as in Moroni 1:1, suppose is used with a following infinitive with a future orientation. The OED tells us that suppose with the meaning ‘expect’ was always used with a complement referring to the future. So in that way the meaning is a good fit with Moroni 1:1. The following excerpts taken from EEBO are very similar syntactically to Moroni 1:1:14

1474 when she approached unto her enemies and had supposed to have distressed them, she found them arrayed and ranged [Page 70]in good ordinance of battle | 1474 he took leave of King Affer and the Egyptians, and had supposed to have departed thence | 1474 I had supposed to have remained and continued a stable virgin | 1477 the realm of Myrmidon which he had supposed to have enjoyed | 1485 And of that of which the ass had supposed to have had grace, honor, and profit, he had shame and damage | 1492 I made by the virtue of some enchantments die suddenly the espouse, whom he had supposed to have enjoyed.

This evidence points to suppose = ‘expect.’ But we must duly consider other possibilities such as ‘believe,’ ‘imagine,’ and ‘think.’

Let me state at the outset of the following brief semantic analysis that such argumentation can be exceedingly difficult. I do not lay claim to any special insight on the matter. I can only do my best to argue based on examples, syntax, and the authority of the OED. With that said, we note that Moroni 1:1 involves infinitival complementation after the verb suppose, which is used in the pluperfect. In addition, the understood tense of the complement to not have written more is the anterior future, or the future in the past. We have seen several examples of this, from the beginning of the EModE era. But we note that the other meanings under consideration — ‘believe, imagine, think’ — can also be used with future complementation. However, ‘imagine’ and ‘think’ also semantically work with complementation that has a present-tense orientation, while ‘believe’ and especially ‘expect,’ with its clear future anticipation, do not, as in these rewritings for Moroni 1:1:15

I imagine I won’t write anything else right now (imagine = ‘have in mind; entertain an idea’).
I think I won’t write anything else right now (think = ‘have in the mind’).
? I believe I won’t write anything else right now (believe = ‘have a belief’).
?? I expect I won’t write anything else right now (where expect ≠ ‘think, imagine’).

These same verbs are all grammatical with the future orientation of Moroni 1:1:

I imagine I won’t write anything else in the future.
[Page 71]I think I won’t write anything else in the future.
I believe I won’t write anything else in the future.
I expect I won’t write anything else in the future.

If we use infinitival complementation, only the phrasing with expect is felicitous in present-day English:

? I imagine to not write anything else in the future.
? I think to not write anything else in the future (where think ≠ ‘intend, design, purpose’ as in 2 Nephi 5:3: “Our younger brother thinketh to rule over us”).
? I believe to not write anything else in the future.
I expect to not write anything else in the future.

Syntactically (both historically and contemporaneously), and with its obligatory future orientation, suppose = ‘expect’ fits the context well: Moroni had not expected to have engraved16 again because he thought he would be dead before he had another opportunity to do so. Relying on Webster’s 1828, we miss this possibility. Yet as indicated, the others are possible in present-day English with finite complementation, and ‘tend to think’ (implying mistaken belief), is semantically a good fit: Moroni had mistakenly thought that he would not have had an opportunity to engrave again.

How about the split infinitive? Skousen discusses this passage, noting that the wording was transposed to not to have by the 1830 typesetter (matching Moroni 1:4), and that “[t]he idea that split infinitives are somehow wrong in English is a complete artificiality.”17 The linguist Jespersen observed: “The name [split infinitive] is misleading, for the preposition to no more belongs to the infinitive as a necessary part of it, than the definite article belongs to the substantive, and no one would think of calling ‘the good man’ a split substantive.”18 Here is a 16c example that is similar to the split-infinitive syntax of Moroni 1:1:

1551 Anne Cooke Bacon tr. (Ital. orig. by Bernardino Ochino, d. 1564) [EEBO]
[God] is not also compelled of hys perfecte goodnes, mercie and charitie, to not haue created the worlde, … .

▪ ▪ ▪

[Page 72]In further support of the assertions made at the beginning of this paper in favor of using the OED, I make the following observations:

  • The BofM is full of King James English whose meaning obligatorily derives from the 1500s (since much kjb language derives from 16th-century translations, especially Tyndale’s).
  • The BofM has quite a few instances of older, nonbiblical meaning, including:

    counsel = ‘ask counsel of, consult,’ used in Alma 37:37; 39:10; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1547.19

    depart = ‘divide,’ used intransitively in Helaman 8:11; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1577.20

    scatter = ‘separate from the main body (without dispersal),’ as used in the BofM’s title page; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1661.21

    choice = ‘sound judgment’ or ‘discernment,’ used as an abstract noun in 1 Nephi 7:15.22

  • Past-tense syntax with did matches only mid to late 1500s usage.
  • Complementation with the verbs command, cause, suffer matches only the late 1400s and the 1500s.23
  • [Page 73]Syntax like Nephi’s brethren rebelleth (in the prefaces to 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi) corresponds to 1500s usage; it is not in the kjb and was obsolete in the 1800s.

In view of the foregoing observations and evidence, I assert the following:

  • There is undeniably substantial evidence in the BofM of EModE meaning and syntax that was inaccessible to Smith and scribe.
  • Smith could not have known the obsolete meaning of some of these words except from context because semantic shifts are unpredictable and unknowable to anyone in the absence of specific philological study.
  • The pervasive EModE syntax as well as the existence of obsolete, inaccessible (nonbiblical) meaning in the text mean that Smith must have received specific words from the Lord throughout the translation.
  • Therefore, the wording of the BofM did not come from Smith’s mind; he dictated specific words that were given to him.
  • God was in charge of the translation of the English-language text of the BofM; no mortal translated it.
  • Smith translated the BofM in the sense of being the person on earth integrally involved in conveying Christ’s words from the divine realm to our earthly sphere; Smith was not the translator in the conventional sense of the term.
  • Much of the literature devoted to difficult or interesting meaning in the BofM wrongly assumes that word choice derives from Smith’s mind; that means that in many cases the approach and even some of the conclusions, as far as meaning is concerned, have been wrong.
  • It is time to stop referring to Webster’s 1828 dictionary when seeking English-language meaning in the BofM; while many old senses persisted into the 1820s, a considerable number did not; only the OED covers virtually all the range of usage found in the BofM.

▪ ▪ ▪

The final section of this paper addresses the old phraseology it supposeth me, found four times in the BofM (twice in one verse). The language [Page 74]was objected to as contrived by Edward Spencer over a century ago.24 This curious syntax is found in a lengthy late 14c poem written by a contemporary of Chaucer.25 The OED calls the construction inverted, and notes the status as rare1 (discussed below):

1390 Gower Confessio Amantis (‘The Lover’s Confession’) book 5, lines 22–23
Bot al to lytel him supposeth, Thogh he mihte al the world pourchace.‘But it seemed all too small to him, though he could buy the whole world.’

Both the dictionary and a website with margin notes,26 from which I have made the above rendering, indicate a meaning of ‘seem’ for suppose in this construction. The OED status rare1 indicates “that only one … actual instance of the use of the word in context is known.”27

This 33,000-line poem was printed for the first time by Caxton in 1483, and it was reprinted in 1532, 1544, and 1554.28 We also find it in the second volume of a 21-volume collection of English poetry published in 1810,29 and in a three-volume work published in 1857.30

[Page 75]





The phrase it supposeth me is similar to methought in methought I saw (1 Nephi 8:4; Alma 36:22),31 a phrase used twice by Milton in Paradise Lost (London: 1667) [book 7, line 1099; book 10, line 152]:



Methought conveys ‘it seemed to me,’ deriving from the Old English verb þyncan = ‘seem,’ distinct from OE þęncan = ‘think’ (whence modern English think).

The following OED quotation has the old verb think = ‘seem’ used similarly to supposeth me — in both sense and syntax:

1530 Tindale Pract. Prelates I vij
The maryage of the brother with the sister is not so greuouse agenst the lawe of nature (thinketh me) as the degrees aboue rehersed.

The OED indicates under the etymology section of [think, v.2] that him thought and he thought were practically equivalent, that there was no difference of import between me thinks and I think. By extension, it supposeth me is practically equivalent to I suppose, with no difference in import between them. We have already discussed a variety of meanings of suppose; additional ones mentioned in the OED are ‘intend,’ ‘assume as true,’ ‘take for granted,’ and ‘suspect.’ According to the OED, John Gower used supposeth elsewhere in his poem Confessio Amantis with senses of ‘imagine’ and ‘suspect.’

Here are the relevant Book of Mormon passages, with some possible alternate senses for the phrase it supposeth me given in brackets:

Jacob 2:7–8 [ ‘I believe/imagine’ ]
And also it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech
concerning you before your wives and your children,many of whose feelings are exceeding tender and chaste and delicate[Page 76]before God, which thing is pleasing unto God.And it supposeth me that they have come up hitherto hear the pleasing word of God,yea, the word which healeth the wounded soul.

Words of Mormon 1:2 [ ‘I expect’ (future complementation: he will witness)]
And it is many hundred years after the coming of Christthat I deliver these records into the hands of my son.And it supposeth me that he will witness the entiredestruction of my people.But may God grant that he may survive them,that he may write somewhat concerning themand somewhat concerning Christ,that perhaps some day it may profit them.

Alma 54:11 [ ‘I suspect’ ]
But behold, it supposeth me that I talk to you concerning these things in vain,
or it supposeth me that thou art a child of hell.32

Could Joseph Smith have known about this inverted syntax? I suppose he could have seen it, had he spent time reading Middle English poetry. Was it accessible to him? No. This grammatical structure is exceedingly rare, the embodiment of obsolete usage. Had he ever seen it, he hardly would have recognized it and been able to transform it:


Yet the text employs inverted syntax with suppose appropriately and consistently four times. The implications are evident:

  • [Page 77]The Lord revealed a concrete form of expression (words) to Joseph Smith.
  • The Book of Mormon contains some Early Modern English language whose syntax is independent of the King James Bible (it even has some transformed late Middle English syntax).
  • The text itself reveals its divine origins.

1 Royal Skousen, “The Archaic Vocabulary of the Book of Mormon,” Insights: A Window on the Ancient World 25 (2005), 2–6.

2 But by the end of the 16th century (16c), you had become dominant in subject position.

3 The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. on CD-ROM, v.4 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), ye, pers. pron. 2nd pers. nom. (obj.), pl. (sing.).

4 Chadwyck-Healey <eebo.chadwyck.com>.

5 Modern edited versions have thou likest instead of ye lyketh. See, for example, Rev. J. B. Dalgairns, ed., The Scale (or Ladder) of Perfection (Westminster: Art and Book Company, 1908), 126.

6 Note the subjunctive variation (“if thou believe … and hast”) as we see in the BofM at, for example, Mosiah 26:29, Helaman 13:26, and Moroni 7:44.

7 These can often be ascribed to the underlying Hebrew and Greek (either wholly or in part), complicating the issue. In some biblical cases, justifying the pronominal switching in English as a move between singular and plural referents makes for a strained analysis.

8 Not addressed here, but important, is the use of thou with plural referents. This is seen quite a few times in the Earliest Text (the most egregious instances have been edited out) and will be thoroughly addressed in the forthcoming volume 3 of the critical text project.

Here I would like to note that all serious readers of the King James Bible implicitly know that thou is (generally) a singular pronoun. So this is not a mistake that one can reasonably expect Joseph Smith would have made. Many other assumed mistakes are much more likely than this one. But we also note that the King James Bible at times clearly goes against this general stricture: “and say unto Zion, Thou art my people” (Isaiah 51:16); “I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people; and they shall say, Thou art my God” (Hosea 2:23). In Isaiah and Hosea thou is used with a general plural referent, and in the latter the text makes a close switch back to a singular referent. See also the frequent switching in Deuteronomy 13:1–5 and Matthew 6:1–9. In these verses thou and related forms (thee, thy, thine) can very reasonably be viewed as applying to general plural referents.

The sometimes expansive Book of Mormon usage of second-person singular pronouns with specific plural referents could be ascribed in isolation to Joseph Smith making mistakes in attempting to follow biblical usage. However, because there is so much language in the Earliest Text that Smith could not have known, it is most reasonable to think that he simply received the words that he dictated. And these words included the use of thou, etc. applied rather liberally in places to certain plural referents, perhaps for a strengthening effect (as in 1 Nephi 7:8 and Mosiah 12:30—see Joseph Wright, The English Dialect Dictionary, Vol. 6 [Oxford: Henry Frowde, 1905], 101).

9 See Roger Terry, “What Shall We Do with Thou? Modern Mormonism’s Unruly Usage of Archaic English Pronouns,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 47.3 (2014), 56. There is good material in this article, but there are also problems with his analysis vis-à-vis the BofM. The main one is the view that the BofM is full of grammatical errors. That misleading view was promulgated right after its publication, perpetuated by many, including influential church leaders and scholars, and has now been re-asserted, which is a regrettable circumstance because it is inaccurate from the point of view of EModE, which is the language of the book. I also disagree with the author’s tendency to consider kjb variation to be well-formed syntax while ascribing BofM variation to grammatical errors. I also note the following regarding Terry’s article: has/hath variation in the BofM (9.5% has) matches the variation found in the textual record of the late 1600s (Shakespeare employed has 16.5% of the time); the BofM’s partially levelled past-participial system is also a match with this time period; as shown above, Tyndale employed close ye thou alternation in his independent writing, as other contemporary authors did, and just as the BofM does; needs is an adverb, not a verb, so it never carried  th inflection.

10 Stanford Carmack, “A Look at Some ‘Nonstandard’ Book of Mormon Grammar,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014), 216ff.

11 OED suppose, v. †4 = ‘expect.’ The dictionary states that the verb with this sense is often combined grammatically with an infinitive “referring to the future.” The BofM context is the pluperfect of suppose followed by an infinitival verb phrase used in an anterior future context.

12 Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language [Volume 2, London: 1756], from which Webster borrowed heavily, does not have ‘expect’ either. (Volume 1 was published in 1755.)

13 OED right, adv. 9b.

14 Accidentals regularized; alternate senses for suppose such as ‘intend’ are possible (see OED definition 5).

15 In these expressions I have put Moroni 1:1 language in the present tense, with more = ‘something more/else’; thus I use present-day English ‘not…anything else’ (cf. Moroni 1:4).

16 OED write, v. 1b = ‘engrave.’

17 Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, 6 parts (Provo, UT: FARMS and BYU, 2004–09), 3890.

18 Otto Jespersen, Essentials of English Grammar (London: Allen & Unwin, 1933), 345. See the following for several interesting and insightful quotes: David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995), 195.

19 See Royal Skousen, “The Original Text of the Book of Mormon and its Publication by Yale University Press,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 7 (2013), 90–91.

20 See Skousen, “The Original Text,” 91.

21 OED scatter, v. †2d. Some usage is found in the 1700s in Google books, but it was obsolete by the 1800s.

22 This sense of choice is actually in Webster’s 1828, via Johnson 1755, who quotes only Francis Bacon writing in 1625; the last OED quote is poetic (probably archaic) from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). So in the absence of specific evidence to the contrary, we can take this to be a sense that was obsolete by the 19c. Webster’s entry is unreliable here — echoing Johnson with variation, quoting early 17c Bacon; it appears there was obsolescence in meaning by the 19c.

23 See Stanford Carmack, “What Command Syntax Tells Us About Book of Mormon Authorship,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 13 (2015), 212–16.

24 Edward B. T. Spencer, “Notes on the Book of Mormon,” The Methodist Review, Ed. William V. Kelley, Vol. 87 — 5th series, Vol. 21 (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1905), 36.

25 The webpage <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confessio_Amantis> provides background. This quote is relevant and instructive (emphasis added): “While not of immense importance as a source for later works, the Confessio is nonetheless significant in its own right as one of the earliest poems written in a form of English that is clearly recognizable as a direct precursor to the modern standard, and, above all, as one of the handful of works that established the foundations of literary prestige on which modern English literature is built.” Accessed October 2014.

26 John Gower, Confessio Amantis, Vol. 3, ed. Russell A. Peck with Latin translations by Andrew Galloway (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2004) [Robbins Library Digital Projects, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series] <d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/peck-gower-confessio-amantis-book-5>. Accessed January 2015.

27 OED § General explanations. Caxton’s me supposeth in Polychronicon (1480, 1482) does not have modern English me, but the Middle English indefinite pronoun me (< OE man), meaning ‘one.’ So although me supposeth appears to be the same syntax as him supposeth, it is not. In Caxton’s Polychronicon it means ‘one supposes.’ See Churchill Babington, ed., Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Monachi Cestrensis together with the English Translations of John Trevisa and of an Unknown Writer of the Fifteenth Century (London: Longmans, Green, 1865–69), 1:lxiv; 1:111; 2:167.

28 Reinhold Pauli, ed., Confessio Amantis of John Gower, 3 vols. (London: Bell and Daldy, 1857), 1:xli–xliii.

29 Alexander Chalmers, ed., The Works of the English Poets, from Chaucer to Cowper, 21 vols. (London: Printed for J. Johnson et al., 1810) 2:123.

30 Pauli, Confessio Amantis of John Gower.

31 See the excellent discussion in Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants, 159–60.

32 There are dozens of instances of the phrase child of hell in the EEBO database, including this one:

1648 William Fenner Wilfull impenitency, the Grossest Selfe-Murder
Thou art yet a child of hell, an heire of damnation, wilfull in thysinnes to this houre.

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About Stanford Carmack

Stanford Carmack has a linguistics and a law degree from Stanford University, as well as a doctorate in Hispanic Languages and Literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in historical syntax. In the past he has had articles published on Georgian verb morphology and object–participle agreement in Old Spanish and Old Catalan. He currently researches Book of Mormon syntax as it relates to Early Modern English and contributes, by means of textual analysis, to volume 3 of Royal Skousen’s Book of Mormon critical text project.

22 thoughts on “Why the Oxford English Dictionary (and not Webster’s 1828)

  1. It seems like the case for Early Modern English grammar and syntax in the book of Mormon is getting stronger and stronger. Isn’t it time to start look for this in Smith’s journals and other personal writings? If it’s not there, a detailed paper demonstrating that would be really helpful to all of us trying to make sense of it all.

    • It seems unlikely that Joseph or any of his associates would have understood the complex nature of the text’s grammar and syntax. Besides, historians have been scouring the primary source documents for many decades now. If there were something substantive which revealed the nature of the English translation, we would probably already know about it.

  2. Thanks again Stanford

    As I see the way this issue is unfolding, I suspect that there remains a need to more fully demonstrate just how unique the Book of Mormon text is. Most of the time we compare it to texts like View of the Hebrews, The Late War, or The American Revolution, which Carmack did in a previous article. But what about other relevant texts?

    I suspect that critics are already searching for instances of EModE which might have been missed in the current studies. I don’t know a whole lot about the thoroughness of the database searches. Is it very likely that someone could find something that might substantially reduce the power of Carmack’s argument? Is there any contemporary (or nearly so) text out there that even comes close to the archaic usage of the Book of Mormon?

    I think that one of the potential challenges of Stanford’s argument is that it relies heavily on proving a negative. It asserts that the Book of Mormon text is unique and claims that mimicking archaic syntax and usage (in the specific ways that the BofM does) would have been beyond Joseph Smith’s natural ability.

    To claim uniqueness, however, requires that we can adequately survey the host of texts out there. If I recall correctly, this is what got the critics in trouble with their insistence that “secret combinations” was a word exclusively or uniquely associated with masonry. Utilizing database technology helped demonstrate that the claim was not accurate. There actually were instances of “secret combinations” outside of the masonic context.

    Yet Carmack’s argument is already using the new database technology. It seems to be what makes his claims possible and relevant. I guess my question is how thorough and exhaustive is it? How far can we trust that in 10 years from now the textual database won’t considerably expand and that our searching power won’t also be refined. What percentage of overall texts are in the current databases? How reliable are the methods of Carmack’s searches? What holes or gaps exist where something could have slipped beneath his notice?

    Perhaps Carmack has adequately supplied this type of information in a previous article and I simply didn’t grasp it. But I think it is important. To sell the argument we have to sell the uniqueness of the Book of Mormon text and the impossibility (or remote likelihood) of its being Joseph’s own creation. And this relies heavily on the thoroughness of the databases and the soundness of the methods which utilize them. Perhaps this could be the substance of a future article.

    Wow. The ignoratti sure are good at assigning homework aren’t we!

  3. It would appear that neither Joseph Smith or anyone else in his time frame “wrote” the Book of Mormon. This added to Perry’s Poetic Parallelisms, etc. proves that the “…ignorant plow boy” could not have written that “gold bible”.

    • This is of course an interesting study that gleans more information about the Book of Mormon. However, let us be more humble about what exactly the significance of this information is concerning this sacred book. Just my two cents. And my gratitude to the author for putting in this hard and time consuming work.

  4. Stanford and Royal

    I was thinking today about the remaining oddities in the Book of Mormon text and wondered if perhaps they might relate to Hebrew constructions. I suspect you guys have already considered this, but I just thought I would throw it out there. If something like the if/and conditionals can make it into the English translation, then why not other direct-translation oddities for which there is no known English equivalent. Or perhaps they are related to some sort of Mesoamerican linguistic influence that we have no experience with. Anyways, just a thought.

  5. “In fact, 95 of the instances that I have located in that period are from before the year 1600.” Is the 95 supposed to be a percentage (“In fact, 95% of the instances that I have located in that period are from before the year 1600.”)? Or is there a missing total before “instances” (for example, “In fact, 95 of the 1,238,688 instances that I have located in that period are from before the year 1600.”)?

    • I would say no. To paraphrase the NT, the Book of Mormon was made for man, and not man for the Book of Mormon. From what I can see, most of the changes make the text more understandable to a modern English reader. Looking at the original text is really of interest to scholars. Lay members are more interested in the meaning of the text than the text itself. I think that moving the text back to its original form would cause the text to become somewhat of a hinderance to its stated goal to bring people to Christ.

        • Well James, that’s what people used to think when they saw some odd wording. Now we see how truly intricate and sophisticated the text has been all along, thanks to the research of scholars such as Bros. Carmack, Skousen, and others.

          • If the original is so sophisticated, then shouldn’t we pushing to bring the original back like the above person said? Isn’t the original with all the “errors” in grammar really the way God wanted it, according to the theory espoused here?

          • It’s an interesting question. Take this example:

            1 Nephi 5:11
            and also of Adam and Eve, which was our first parents

            It’s been thought to be bad grammar by Smith (I think this one’s in Wikipedia, actually). Yet we find out that it is EModE syntax from the 16c:

            1566 EEBO A06932 Thomas Becon A new postil conteinyng …
            not after the maner of Adam and Eue, which was made of the grounde.

            So does the church want to go back to “which was” or stick with modern “who were”? There are advantages to both. The modern wording is easier for us to read. The earliest text, in hundreds of instances, points directly to the objective impossibility of Smith or anyone else of his time composing the Book of Mormon.

  6. My thinking lines up Stanford Carmack. The “strange” early modern English syntax is an indication that neither Joseph Smith nor his contemporaries wrote the Book of Mormon. That might be helpful for those who do not already have a testimony of the Book of Mormon. But for those who have received a witness that it is the word of God, that early modern English wording becomes a hindrance to understanding. Thus the need to, slightly, modernize it. Otherwise people might concentrate on the grammar instead of the meaning behind the words.

  7. @stanfordcarmack

    I was wondering if you could answer a question about why you believe “depart” was that was used used intransitively in Helaman 8:11 is non-biblical. To me the language parted hither and tither is biblical language found in 2 Kings 2:14. There is a high liklihood that I am just not fully understand the English grammar being discussed, but I have this question. Thanks.

    The BofM has quite a few instances of older, nonbiblical meaning, including:
    counsel = ‘ask counsel of, consult,’ used in Alma 37:37; 39:10; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1547.19
    depart = ‘divide,’ used intransitively in Helaman 8:11; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1577.20
    scatter = ‘separate from the main body (without dispersal),’ as used in the BofM’s title page; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1661.21
    choice = ‘sound judgment’ or ‘discernment,’ used as an abstract noun in 1 Nephi 7:15.22

    Helamen 8: 11 Therefore he was constrained to speak more unto them saying: Behold, my brethren, have ye not read that God gave power unto one man, even Moses, to smite upon the waters of the Red Sea, and they parted hither and thither, insomuch that the Israelites, who were our fathers, came through upon dry ground, and the waters closed upon the armies of the Egyptians and swallowed them up?

    2 Kings 2:14
    14 And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the Lord God of Elijah? and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over.

      • Now I am going to show my full ignorance….

        depart = ‘divide,’ used intransitively in Helaman 8:11; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1577.20

        How is depart used intransitively(or anywhere?) in Helaman 8:11….?

        • Steve, It bothered me that no-one answered your question 🙂 You may not see this since this article was posted so long ago, but… your confusion is that you are looking at Heleman 8:11 in the modern version of the Book of Mormon. Royal Skousen showed that the original printer’s manuscript of the BofM had the word “departed” instead of “parted” in this verse. He surmises that the BofM typesetter at the printing shop changed it to “parted” because he couldn’t imagine that “departed” was correct and that is what we have had in the BofM ever since. In all of his analysis, Stanford uses Skousen’s Yale edition of The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text which has taken the BofM as close as possible back to its originally dictated grammar.

  8. I would have to disagree with the primary premise of this argument [In order to properly consider possible meaning in the Book of Mormon (BofM), we must use the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)].

    For a linguist to use “must” is quite a strong word considering the idea that learning can come from the best books plural, waste-wear-out-lives to bring truth to darkness, and so on.

    The OED’s first volume was not published until 1884. JS was born in 1805, raised by parents that taught him to read using the family KJV bible. OED does have a stronger etymology history of words with a better timeline of first use. 1828 is in the public domain whereas OED may never be based on the constitutional monarchy.

    In regards to extract unique grammatical syntax from the text, that may be a bit of a leap – like finding patterns in white noise since the translation has some inherent system error due to multiple scribes and human error. Certainly chiasmus and other structures have been identified, but the human translation process is being ignored. Translation was a phenomological event, meaning the angels who instructed JS had to do so based on JS’ world view and understanding so that he could perform the translation.

    “Horse” is a nice example of this, as it may (not) have been in existence historically, or it could have been a best-guess translation of a word in his vocabulary most similar to the animal tapir (similar to “god dog” or “big dog” being the Native American word for horse).

    The language JS and his scribes had available to them were many times the essence of the translation with the exception of proper names and places. If you try to say “ye” is inaccurate in the 1828 dictionary, fine, it may be inaccurate. We have no knowledge if JS had access to the 1828 dictionary in his lifetime (very unlikely). It may be more likely that JS had access to some americanized form of the english dictionary/grammar as a pamphlet (e.g., Blue-Back Speller) as cultural separation, IMO, was a result of the Revolutionary War.

    Consider the word “steel” – here the 1828 is quite superior to OED in terms of context. Bessemer did not take out a patent of the modern steel process until about 1856.


    JS had a concept of “steel” which was the best word in his vocabulary to describe Nephi’s bow.

    OED may be a good source, but 1828 may be as well, especially considering the scope of Noah Webster’s Opus to define the American language using the KJV as his primary source.

    For someone with your education credentials, I find it disappointing you would have such a premise.

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