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Editing out the 'bad grammar' in the Book of Mormon

Since its first publication in 1830, the Book of Mormon has been mocked for what seems to be occasionally poor English and bad grammar. In its original version, for instance, Mosiah 10:15 spoke of people who “had arriven to the promised land”; “they was yet wroth,” reported 1 Nephi 4:4; “I have wrote this epistle,” said Giddianhi at 3 Nephi 3:5; “I was a going thither,” Amulek recalled at Alma 10:8; the original version of Helaman 7:8 and 13:37 referred to events “in them days”; and “they done all these things,” reported Ether 9:29.

Virtually all, if not all, of these apparent errors have since been corrected. Indeed, many were corrected by Joseph Smith in the 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon. But they can’t be altogether hidden, and critics have made light of them for nearly two centuries. A genuinely inspired text, those detractors sniff, would have used correct grammar.

This can appear to be a pretty decisive and even embarrassing argument. But it’s not, and it needn’t be. In fact, the supposed grammatical errors may actually represent remarkable evidence for the inspiration of the Book of Mormon. What now seems bad grammar was once entirely acceptable English, even in highly educated circles — but in a period long before Smith. For instance, in 1598, the highly educated English poet and military writer Robert Barret published a book in London titled “The Theorike and Practike of Modern Warres” that we would surely describe today as “academic.” And yet he could write that “The wars and weapons are now altered from them days.” Moreover, in parallel fashion, recent research demonstrates remarkable and specific connections between the vocabulary of the original English text of the Book of Mormon and the English language of the period between 1540 and 1740.

The two principal figures in that research, Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack, will address such issues frankly and directly in a program titled “Editing Out the ‘Bad Grammar’ in the Book of Mormon” on Wednesday, April 6, at 7 p.m. at 1102 Jesse Knight Building on the campus of Brigham Young University. Sponsored by BYU Studies, the Interpreter Foundation, and BYU’s College of Humanities and its Department of Linguistics and English Language, the event is free and open to the public.

Skousen is a professor of linguistics and English language at BYU. He is known among linguists internationally for his theory of analogical modeling and for the quantum computing application of it known as quantum analogical modeling. He is also known for his monumental Book of Mormon critical text project, which is rapidly nearing its 30th birthday. The program will celebrate the publication of the two newest books to emerge from his efforts, “Grammatical Variation.” These two books are massive, each totaling roughly 650 pages, and they discuss in meticulous detail the nonstandard English in the original text of the Book of Mormon and the ways in which not only subsequent editions but also the early scribes and typesetters have tried to “fix” it.

Carmack is an independent scholar holding a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and a law degree from Stanford University, along with a doctorate in Hispanic languages and literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara. His current research focuses on the language of the Book of Mormon as it relates to early stages of English, and he is collaborating with Skousen on Volume 3 of the critical text project.

Skousen’s remarks will explain the history and purposes of the critical text project and then provide an overview of the two newly published books. He will discuss the kinds of grammatical editing the Book of Mormon has undergone since Smith first dictated it to his scribes in the late 1820s — including attempts in subsequent editions to make it read more like the modern standard English we speak and write today.

In his presentation, Carmack will exhibit evidence arguing that the grammar of the earliest text of the Book of Mormon can no longer be dismissed as defective and substandard. In fact, in case after case, the forms and usage patterns in the Book of Mormon strikingly resemble those found in Early Modern English. They aren’t wrong; they’re simply different. But different in a mysterious and intriguing way.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.