Understanding the English of the King James Bible

A Brief Lesson in Early Modern English

This article will be a very brief overview of some of the differences in English grammar present in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. This article is by no means a comprehensive guide to all of the linguistic differences. One could spend their entire life trying to write such an article. For that same reason, I won't be dedicating lots of time to differences in vocabulary.

The KJV was written in the dawn of the 17th century during a period that linguists call Early Modern English (EME). The works of William Shakespeare could also be classified under the banner of EME, so you should (hopefully) find this article useful even if you're not religious.


Modern Pronouns

Before delving into EME, let's first make sure we understand pronouns in modern English.

Pronouns in English are inflected into three distinct cases: Subjective, objective, and possessive. They may also be called nominative, accusative, and genitive respectively.

Inflection is a fancy way of saying that a word changes its form to indicate its meaning. English was originally a highly inflected language (like Latin), meaning that most words in the language had unique forms depending on their role in the sentence. By the 17th century, most of this inflection was lost, which is convenient for us.

Only the pronouns retained some of their inflections, as is the case in modern English. Let's review our most common pronouns:

Modern English Pronouns
Subjective Objective Possessive
1st Pers. Sing. I me my
2nd Pers. Sing. you your
3rd Pers. Sing. he/she/it him/her/it his/her/its
1st Pers. Plur. we us our
2nd Pers. Plur. you your
3rd Pers. Plur. they them their

Now allow me to explain what you subconsciously already know:

The subjective case represents the subject of the sentence, i.e. the doer of the action. The objective case represents the object of the sentence, or the receiver of the action. In the sentence "he kissed her", "he" is the subject, the one doing the kissing; "her" represents the object, the one being kissed. The possessive case just denotes possession.

Now what's nice is that you've subconsciously absorbed all this information already in your many years of speaking English. You probably haven't ever paid a chart like the one above much mind, and the good news is that you don't really need to.

Still, this information is worth knowing and may be of assistance when trying to parse the KJV's bizarre word order. Take this verse:

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; Genesis 5:1

The word order is confusing, but remember the grammatical functions of "he" and "him". The underlying grammar hasn't really changed.

… made he (God) him (man);

"He" (God) is the one doing the making, and "him" (man) is the one being made.

Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created. Genesis 5:2

"He" (God) created "them" (male and female). If we used "him" and "they" respectively, it would completely invert the meaning; it would imply that God was the one being made and that male and female were the ones doing the making.

These rules are also helpful to know when seeing new pronouns*.

Bonus Tip: How Do I Use "Whom?"

The word "whom" has gradually fallen out of common usage. Enough people started using "who" in its place that now "whom" seems rare. Many voluntarily choose not to use "whom" because they erroneously believe that the rules for using it are really complicated. They're actually dead simple!

The Inflection of "Who"
Subjective He Who
Objective Him Whom
Possessive His Whose

"Whom" is just the objective form of "who". But again, you don't even need to think about this. Just remember this:

If you would use "he", use "who", if you would use "him", use "whom".

He called him.
Who called him? (he → who)
He called whom? (him → whom)

Keep this little mnemonic in mind if you're ever unsure about which form to use.

Pronouns of EME

The process of losing inflected forms that is currently affecting the word "whom" has already affected the various forms of the second person pronoun "you".

EME Pronouns
Subjective Objective Possessive
1st Pers. Sing. I me my/mine
2nd Pers. Sing. thou thee thy/thine
3rd Pers. Sing. he him his
1st Pers. Plur. we us our
2nd Pers. Plur. ye you your
3rd Pers. Plur. they them their

Thou, Thee, & Ye

Unlike modern English, EME had a distinction between the singular and plural forms of second person pronouns and verb conjugations, the latter of which we will address later.

N.B. When talking to multiple people, English speakers will often clarify by saying things like "you all", "you guys", "you people", etc. In this way, one could say that the singular/plural distinction has crept its way back into the English language.

Anyway, let's look at some examples from Exodus:

And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known. Exodus 2:14

In this passage, a single person (Moses) is being spoken to, so "thou" and "thee" are used. "Thee" is the objective form; if Moses was being spoken about in the third person, the word "him" would be used in its place. "Thou" is the subjective; if Moses was being spoken about in the third person, "he" would be used in its place.

Who made him a prince and a judge over us? intendeth he to kill me, as he killed the Egyptian?

Here's an example using "ye" and "you":

And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. Exodus 6:7

In this passage, multiple people (the Israelites) are being spoken to, so "ye" and "you" are used. If they were being spoken about in the third person, "them" would be used in place of "you", "they" in place of "ye", and "their" in place of "your". Try reading the passage that way!

And I will take them to me for a people, and I will be to them a God: and they shall know that I am the LORD their God, which bringeth them out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.

Mine, Thy, & Thine

The article "a" becomes "an" when it precedes a vowel. Likewise, "my" and "thy" became "mine" and "thine" respectively when preceding a vowel sound.

a shoe / my shoe / thy shoe
an eye / mine eye / thine eye

Here are some examples:

Ye shall do my judgments, and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein: I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 18:4
The nakedness of thy son's daughter, or of thy daughter's daughter, even their nakedness thou shalt not uncover: for theirs is thine own nakedness. Leviticus 18:10

…of course, the KJV is annoyingly inconsistent in this regard. It seems that this rule had become optional by this point, as there are times where "my" and "thy" precede vowel sounds.

It shall not be baken with leaven. I have given it unto them for their portion of my offerings made by fire; it is most holy, as is the sin offering, and as the trespass offering. Leviticus 6:17

In this example, it happens to the same word in the same verse!

And if it be an unclean beast, then he shall redeem it according to thine estimation, and shall add a fifth part of it thereto: or if it be not redeemed, then it shall be sold according to thy estimation. Leviticus 27:27

Verb Conjugations

Some Modern Examples

English is relatively unique in its (relatively) simple verb conjugations. Verbs in the present tense don't really change their form all that much, so the pronoun is mandatory.

Modern English Verb Conjugation
Sing. Plur.
1st Pers. I speak we speak
2nd Pers. you speak
3rd Pers. he speaks they speak

This is in stark contrast to many other European languages (including old English), such as Spanish, where each person and number has a different form.

Spanish Verb Conjugation
Sing. Plur.
1st Pers. hablo hablamos
2nd Pers. hablas hablan
3rd Pers. habla

Since the person and number is already implied by the form of the verb, Spanish speakers will typically omit the pronoun, only keeping it for emphasis or extra clarification.

The Present Tense

Thankfully, EME is still pretty simple by our standards. It does have some extra verb conjugations, but verbs are almost always paired with pronouns (as is the case in modern English).

EME Verb Conjugation
Sing. Plur.
1st Pers. I speak we speak
2nd Pers. thou speakest ye speak
3rd Pers. he speaketh they speak

Sometimes the spelling may vary slightly, but the target sounds of "-est" and "-eth" remain the same.

"See" Early Conjugation
Sing. Plur.
1st Pers. I see we see
2nd Pers. thou seest ye see
3rd Pers. he seeth they see
"Say" Early Conjugation
Sing. Plur.
1st Pers. I say we say
2nd Pers. thou sayest ye say
3rd Pers. he saith they say

Common Exceptions

And, of course, there are some exceptional verbs.

"Be" Early Conjugation
Sing. Plur.
1st Pers. I am we are
2nd Pers. thou art ye are
3rd Pers. he is they are
"Have" Early Conjugation
Sing. Plur.
1st Pers. I have we have
2nd Pers. thou hast ye have
3rd Pers. he hath they have
"Do" Early Conjugation
Sing. Plur.
1st Pers. I do we do
2nd Pers. thou dost ye do
3rd Pers. he doth they do
"Shall" Early Conjugation
Sing. Plur.
1st Pers. I shall we shall
2nd Pers. thou shalt ye shall
3rd Pers. he shall they shall
"Will" Early Conjugation
Sing. Plur.
1st Pers. I will we will
2nd Pers. thou wilt ye will
3rd Pers. he will they will

…and so on.

The good news is that you're probably not going to need to drill yourself to remember these charts by heart. Chances are that you'll pretty quickly get an intuitive feel for what is being written, just based on the little bits of advice I've given you plus your pre-existing knowledge of modern English. Having not been given the conjugation of "was" or "should", you should nevertheless be able to understand this verse with minimal difficulty:

And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? Genesis 3:11

The Past Tense

Only the second person singular has a unique form of the simple past tense.

"See" Early Past Tense Conjugation
Sing. Plur.
1st Pers. I saw we saw
2nd Pers. thou sawest ye saw
3rd Pers. he saw they saw
"Trust" Early Past Tense Conjugation
Sing. Plur.
1st Pers. I trusted we trusted
2nd Pers. thou trustedst ye trusted
3rd Pers. he trusted they trusted
And they told him, and said, We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. Numbers 13:27

Many verbs from this time had different past tenses than they do today, such as "builded" and "digged" instead of "built" and "dug" respectively. It usually ends up being pretty obvious; any gaps in knowledge are typically filled in by context clues.

And Moses and the priests the Levites spake unto all Israel, saying, Take heed, and hearken, O Israel; this day thou art become the people of the LORD thy God. Deuteronomy 27:9

You can probably guess what "spake" is the simple past tense of.

Peculiarities of Modern English

"Do" Support

The English of the KJV seems weird to us. In truth, we're the weird ones.

Verb Negation

One of the single most bizarre things about modern English is that most verbs in English cannot take negation by themselves.

Here's a brief little sentence in Spanish:

Hablo inglés.
I speak English

Negating a verb in Spanish is as simple as adding the word no in front of the verb.

No hablo inglés.
Not I speak English

In English, our negation is the word "not" and it comes after the verb.

I am happy. ↔ I am not happy.
I have seen it. ↔ I have not seen it.

Logic would then follow that the negation of "I know" would be "I know not", but we say not don't say this. We would instead say "I do not know". Auxiliary verbs such as have (as part of the perfect tense), may, can, will (as part of the future tense), would, must, etc. can still be negated by themselves, but virtually all other verbs (including the word "do" itself!) must "offload" the negation onto another word, typically the word "do".

This also goes for the past tense. The verb is kept in its "present" form and the auxiliary "do" is thrown into the past tense:

I laughed not. → I did not laugh.

This is perhaps the single most bizarre thing about English and is a major annoyance both to foreigners learning English and English speakers trying to learn other languages. Other languages have words meaning "do", but they aren't used in this way.

This grammatical quirk was still in an "embryonic stage" at the time of the KJV. One could therefore make the argument that foreigners might have an easier time understanding the grammar of the KJV than they would the grammar of today.

And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? Genesis 4:9
But unto the tribe of Levi Moses gave not any inheritance: the LORD God of Israel was their inheritance, as he said unto them. Joshua 13:33
Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots. Luke 23:34

Objective pronouns are inserted before the word "not".

And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. Genesis 28:16
But the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb, and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before me empty. Exodus 34:20
And Hezekiah was glad of them, and shewed them the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious ointment, and all the house of his armour, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah shewed them not. Isaiah 39:2

Once you've wrapped your head around this peculiarity, it will make the KJV and other early English writings much easier to read. It will also come in handy when trying to learn other languages. Try thinking up some simple sentences and rewriting them to use the early style of negation until it really clicks in your mind.

The Negative Imperative

"Imperative" is just a fancy way of referring to a command. If you say "run away!" the word "run" is being rendered in the "imperative" mood.

The same "do" rule applies. If you want to scare someone, you might say "be afraid!" The negation of this is "don't be afraid". Think about how you would say this in EME.

And when thou standest before him, be not afraid in thine heart, but shew unto him according to thy word; and he will entreat thee well. Judges 10:16
And the LORD appeared unto him the same night, and said, I am the God of Abraham thy father: fear not, for I am with thee, and will bless thee, and multiply thy seed for my servant Abraham's sake. Genesis 26:24

Bear in mind that this applies even to the word "do" itself. The negation of "do it!" is "don't do it!" Pay attention to the last sentence of this verse:

Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you: but unto this man do not so vile a thing. Judges 19:24

Introducing Questions

You should be starting to sense a pattern. In modern English, we also use the word "do" to introduce questions. "Be" and auxiliary verbs may also introduce questions. As an example, this is a perfectly valid modern sentence:

Have you seen this snail?

But this sounds archaic:

Have you the snail?

I would say "do you have the snail?"

The KJV, again, was written before this trend had caught on. Questions of this sort are typically introduced with the verb followed by the pronoun. Remember back to our example from Exodus:

And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known. Exodus 2:14

Nowadays I would say "do you intend to kill me?"

Here are some more examples:

And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? Matthew 13:10
And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this? Acts 2:12

Interestingly, one will occasionally see "modern" uses of the word "do" throughout the KJV, which serve as interesting little bits of foreshadowing for the direction the language would take. Take this example from 1 Samuel:

And there came a man of God unto Eli, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Did I plainly appear unto the house of thy father, when they were in Egypt in Pharaoh's house? 1 Samuel 2:27

It is important to note that EME is not its own language with a unique set of specific, unbreakable rules. Of course, no language can really be prescribed in this way. EME is a pretty broad banner; the KJV and Shakespeare's works both existed at the very end of this period. One could find the word "building" in both, whereas earlier writings would have the word spelled as "buyldynge"!

All this is to say that you shouldn't treat the KJV as though it's written in a completely different language. You should be as aware of the similarities as you are of the differences. It is my hope that understanding the differences will make the similarities more apparent.

Oh, and that you shouldn't become too worried if one of these "rules" is broken. In all likelihood, the breaking of the rule will lead the phrase to more closely resemble modern English anyway.

Progressive Tenses

Another strange thing about us is our overuse of the progressive tenses; that's when a form of "be" is followed by a verb ending in "-ing". Take this sample sentence:

Where goest thou?

How would you write this in modern English? If you have been following my rules exactly as I have written them up to this point in the article, you might translate it like this:

Where do you go?

This is a valid English sentence, but it doesn't quite pass the gut check. In actual speaking you are far more likely to say:

Where are you going?

Whether the person you're talking to is right now in the process of moving his feet to get somewhere or is explaining his plans for a trip 6 months from now, this is most likely the phrasing you will use.

Say I go to see family while working on this article. They might ask me "what have you been up to?" and I might respond "I'm writing an article". When I say that, I am not at that exact moment in time, right then and there, simultaneously speaking to them and typing away furiously. When I tell someone that I'm "learning Spanish", I am not telling them that my face is currently buried in a textbook; if that were the case they probably wouldn't need my clarification.

We may use the "-ing" forms to express a general sense of action. "I'm reading a book", "I'm taking an online class", "I'm playing this new game" etc. This is unusual. Let's look at Spanish for a comparison:

Leo un libro.
I read (pres.) a book.

This is translated literally as "I read (present tense) a book". This means that I am, in a general sense, reading a book; I've been reading it on and off for the past few days, I might put it down from time to time and go play a game or go for a walk.

Spanish does have an "-ing" form for verbs and it is expressed like this:

Estoy leyendo un libro.
I am reading a book.

This means that I am right now, at this exact moment in time, in the middle of reading my book; my eyes were glued to the page while I uttered these words.

The KJV, again, predates this development and is yet again closer to other European languages in this regard.

Looking back to our famous example from Luke, this gives us the second piece of the puzzle:

Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots. Luke 23:34

Nowadays, I would probably say "they don't know what they're doing".

They said therefore, What is this that he saith, A little while? we cannot tell what he saith. John 16:18

Again, I would probably say "we can't tell what he's saying".


Whither, Wherefore, Whence, etc.

I said I wasn't going to go over vocabulary, and I'm not. There are way too many differences in vocabulary to mention here. One could write an entire book about the differences in vocabulary.

Don't be intimidated by this fact. As mentioned previously, there is a lot of overlap with modern English vocabulary. Context clues will often fill you in on the meaning of an unfamiliar word. The words that remain are generally no more than a quick Google search away.

In this section, I am just going to go over some choice adverbs. These appear frequently and their meaning may not be immediately apparent.

"Whence" and "whither" mean "from where" and "to where" respectively.

Jesus answered and said unto them, Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true: for I know whence I came, and whither I go; but ye cannot tell whence I come, and whither I go. John 8:14

N.B. Don't confuse "whither" (with an h) with "wither"!

Many will write "from whence", but this is technically redundant, as "whence" already implies "from where". Of course, we might want to be careful who we criticize.

Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. Genesis 3:23

"Hence" and "thence" mean "from here" and "from there" respectively.

And the LORD said unto Moses, Yet will I bring one plague more upon Pharaoh, and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go hence: when he shall let you go, he shall surely thrust you out hence altogether. Exodus 11:1

"Hither" and "thither", as you might guess, mean "to here" and "to there" respectively.

His disciples say unto him, Master, the Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest thou thither again? John 11:8

Here's a handy little chart for you to memorize:

Whence, Whither, etc.
where here there
from whence hence thence
to whither hither thither

This fact has become more widely known in recent years, but I still feel like it is worth addressing. "Wherefore" can be misleading. It looks like it says "where" but it really means "why".

In Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet says:

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

What she's really saying is "why are you Romeo?" She's lamenting that the man she loves comes from a rival family; she's not asking where he is. If you pay attention to the rest of her speech, this actually becomes quite obvious.

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,

Keeping that in mind, try reading this passage:

And Moses said unto the LORD, Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? Numbers 11:11

A Parting Message

I'd like to leave you with a very humorous bit of writing from an article titled The King James Grammar Nazi. See how much of it you can understand!

Church marquee with a spelling error
A talent for the lord will whither if not used.

This church marquee puzzleth me. Whither goeth this unused talent? Whence and wherefore is it come? Traveleth it hither and thither like the tongue of an American?

Afore have I believed that a talent unattended would wither or be stolen. Henceforth shall I know that it withereth not, but departeth, though whither is not yet revealed.

Thank you for reading!

*By "new pronouns", I really mean old pronouns that are new (not familiar) to the reader. I disavow the use and normalization of neo- and other so-called "gender nonconforming" pronouns.