What's in a Word? The Language of the Scriptures
Cynthia L. Hallen
The late President Marion G. Romney, while serving as second counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave wise counsel about the way we study the gospel. He recommended a two-dimensional approach that emphasizes language as well as doctrine:
You ought to read the gospel; you ought to read the Book of Mormon . . . ; and you ought to read all the scriptures with the idea of finding out what's in them and what the meaning is and not to prove some idea of your own. Just read them and plead with the Lord to let you understand what he had in mind when he wrote them. . . . Become acquainted with the language of the scriptures and the teachings of the scriptures.1
One way to become acquainted with the language of the scriptures is to learn the names of various sentence structures, grammatical features, and rhetorical figures that commonly occur in Joseph Smith's English translation of the ancient American prophetic records abridged in the Book of Mormon.
Here are a few examples of typical syntactic structures that appear in 19th-century Book of Mormon English. Such structural figures are part of a long tradition of poetic and literary expression in scriptural texts from around the world:
1. Word-order variation (anastrophe and hyperbaton)
2. Interruption (anacoluthia)
5. Fragment (aposiopesis)
6. Conjunctions (polysyndeton and asyndeton)
7. Parallel structure (parison)
The technical terms for word-order variations are anastrophe and hyperbaton. Anastrophe is a general type of inversion for the sake of meter or style rather than emphasis. The words "blessed are ye" are a customary inversion, or anastrophe, of the clause "ye are blessed":
Therefore blessed are ye if ye shall keep my commandments, which the Father hath commanded me that I should give unto you.
(3 Nephi 18:14)
The standard word order for clauses in contemporary English is subject-verb-object/complement (SVO/C). The inversion of that pattern, the object/complement-verb-subject (O/CVS) anastrophe, is found throughout the scriptures and in many classical literary texts. Other examples from the Book of Mormon include "a written word sent he" in Mosiah 29:4 and "this they have done" in Alma 60:9.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), hyperbaton is a "figure of speech in which the customary or logical order of words or phrases is inverted, esp. for the sake of emphasis."2 Hyperbaton is a more marked kind of inversion that may feature a more complex variation of word order, one that may call more attention to itself by emphasizing constituents that we would otherwise overlook, as in 3 Nephi 25:2: "[U]nto you that fear my name, shall the Son of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings" (see also Malachi 4:2). In standard English word order, we would say, "The Son of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings unto you that fear my name."
Readers of the Book of Mormon may sometimes be surprised or even confused by verses that begin with one idea but then are interrupted by another idea. The technical term for this figure is anacoluthia, defined in the OED as the "passing from one construction to another before the former is completed." An example of such an interruption, or anacoluthia, is found at the end of the following verse:
I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites, and having had a knowledge of the land of Nephi, or of the land of our fathers' first inheritance, and having been sent as a spy among the Lamanites that I might spy out their forces, that our army might come upon them and destroy them—but when I saw that which was good among them I was desirous that they should not be destroyed. (Mosiah 9:1)
Other examples of anacoluthia are found in 2 Nephi 25:20, Alma 22:18, Mormon 6:11, and 3 Nephi 28:36–37.
The technical term parenthesis refers to a syntactic structure in which one phrase or clause appears in the middle of another, often as an interrupting idea. The OED defines parenthesis as an "explanatory or qualifying word, clause, or sentence inserted into a passage with which it has not necessarily any grammatical connexion." Such constructions may or may not be marked by commas, dashes, or parentheses. Here is a good example of structural parenthesis, marked with dashes:
And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil—for behold, they have no part nor portion of the Spirit of the Lord; for behold, they chose evil works rather than good; therefore the spirit of the devil did enter into them, and take possession of their house—and these shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil. (Alma 40:13)
Other instances of parenthesis include Mosiah 8:1 and Alma 30:1-2. In the Book of Mormon, sometimes anacoluthia and complex parentheses are hard to distinguish from each other.
In an ellipsis, the author intentionally omits part of a construction. The OED defines ellipsis as "omission of one or more words in a sentence, which would be needed to complete the grammatical construction or fully to express the sense." In 3 Nephi 27:33, the Lord says, "Wide is the gate, and broad the way which leads to death." The verb is does not appear again in the second clause between broad and the way because the copula meaning and parallel structure do not necessitate repeating the verb. In an ellipsis, authors make an expression more concise by leaving out words that readers can fill in mentally for themselves. Alma 44:21 is a good example:
Now the number of their dead was not numbered because of the greatness of the number; yea, the number of their dead was exceedingly great, both on the Nephites and on the Lamanites.
We expect the text to read "both on the side of the Nephites and on the side of the Lamanites," but the words "the side of" are understood from the context.
In standard academic written English today, editors may mark sentence fragments, or incomplete sentences, as a problem in an author's text. However, in less formal writing, many published authors deliberately—and skillfully—employ fragments in the flow of their discourse. The technical term for such fragments is aposiopesis, which the OED defines as a "rhetorical artifice, in which the speaker comes to a sudden halt, as if unable or unwilling to proceed." In 2 Nephi 2:10, we see an example of aposiopesis:
Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement—
Although the expression is punctuated as a sentence with a capital letter at the beginning, the idea does not have an independent (main) clause, and it ends abruptly with a dash. The author moves to a new idea in the next verse: "For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things" (v. 11). With anacoluthia, the author begins with one structure and finishes with another, whereas with aposiopesis, the author begins an idea and never finishes it at all. Other examples of aposiopesis in the Book of Mormon include Jacob 4:1, Mosiah 13:28, and Alma 52:15.
In contemporary written English, we usually separate items in a series with commas and then use a conjunction before the last item, as in "faith, hope, and charity." In scriptural texts, authors used two rhetorical variations of structure for items in a series: polysyndeton and asyndeton. Polysyndeton is the use of multiple conjunctions, placed between every item in a series. We see this in 2 Nephi 9:28: "O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men!" Asyndeton is the lack of any conjunctions between the items of a series. A famous example is the Isaiah passage quoted in 2 Nephi 19:6: "and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." Contemporary readers expect an and before "The Prince of Peace," but an author can accelerate the rhythm and impact of the expression by leaving the conjunction out. Other examples appear in 3 Nephi 18:3, 4 Nephi 1:16, and Mosiah 3:19.
What we call parallel syntactic structure, or parallelism, is called parison in some rhetorical taxonomies. Authors of scriptural and poetic texts use parison as a matrix for repetition and variation of sounds, senses, and structures in memorable and meaningful patterns. Here is a good example of four parallel phrases, or parisonic structure, connected by polysyndeton conjunctions in one verse of scripture:
Behold, it is expedient that much should be done among this people, because of the hardness of their hearts, and the deafness of their ears, and the blindness of their minds, and the stiffness of their necks. (Jarom 1:3)
Parison can occur at every level of language: word, phrase, clause, sentence, and even paragraph. Another example is found in 2 Nephi 14:2.
Unfamiliar constructions can act as stumbling blocks for some readers of the Book of Mormon, so learning the language of the scriptures can improve reading comprehension. Some people may find these rhetorical figures to be rather dry details, but readers can benefit from identifying and naming the features of language that constitute a scriptural text. Other readers may simply enjoy exploring the texture of the text, like admiring the patterns and threads of a master weaver. You are welcome to send comments or questions to Cynthia_Hallen@byu.edu.
1. Marion G. Romney, address given at Seminary and Institute of Religion Coordinators' Convention, 3 April 1973, quoted in Book of Mormon (Religion 121–122) Student Manual, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981), 437–38.
2. Oxford English Dictionary (Cambridge: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003), http://dictionary.oed.com/.