ESV critics hit by backfiring punctuation

Okay, so that headline sounds like it should appear in the Babylon Bee, but hear me out. I’m referring, of course, to the recent announcement that the latest revision of the English Standard Version has now become the pretentiously titled Permanent Text. Quite a few criticisms have been leveled at the ESV’s revision committee and its publisher for this move, and I agree with almost all of the criticisms that I have seen thus far.

So I’m not writing to disagree with any of those criticisms, but to point out the importance of typography.The first blog post I read criticizing the petrification of the ESV text was Scot McKnight’s “The New Stealth Translation: ESV,” in which the following passage appeared:


Clicking through, I learned that the “anyone but” is someone named Sam Powell (to the best of my recollection, I’ve never met this gentleman or heard of him before), writing on his own blog, My Only Comfort, in a post entitled “Genesis 3:16.”

Again, I’m not here to bash Scot or Sam, but I do want to point out that Sam’s, and therefore Scot’s, inverted comma is backwards. And yes, this makes a difference.

Before I unpack that statement, let me quickly explain a couple of things for my readers who haven’t studied Hebrew. If you’re a biblical studies professional or a student who paid attention in Hebrew, you can probably skip to the next paragraph at this time. (a) When you take a word from one language and represent its sounds by spelling out the words in a different language’s alphabet, that’s called transliteration. If I see מֶלֶךְ in a Hebrew text and represent it as king in my English discussion, that’s translation. If I see מֶלֶךְ in a Hebrew text and represent it as melek in my English discussion, just reproducing the sounds, that’s transliteration. (b) The Hebrew language has always had vowel sounds, but Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew were written without vowel “points” until the fifth century AD/CE or later. (c) There are two Hebrew letters that are pretty close to silent in modern pronunciation. Their names are ʾalef, which looks like א, and ʿayin, which looks like ע. To be more precise, א is a glottal stop and ע is a pharyngeal fricative, so they should both make an audible difference in the word, and should not quite sound like each other. (d) Since languages that use a Latin-based alphabet tend not to have symbols for glottal stops or pharyngeal fricatives, scholars need a non-letter symbol to represent א and ע in transliteration. The standard solution is a raised half-ring open toward the left (Unicode 02BE) for א, and a raised half-ring open toward the right (Unicode 02BF) for ע. But since many typefaces don’t include these characters, and they are in a part of the Unicode range that can be difficult to access on modern Western keyboards (which is why you need a character mapping utility like PopChar), many scholars and presses substitute an apostrophe or “right single quotation mark” (HTML ’ or Unicode  2019) for א and an inverted comma or “left single quotation mark” (HTML ‘ or Unicode 2018) for ע.

“I know, very technical,” to quote Sam Powell. But it matters. Scot’s preposition, copied-and-pasted from Sam’s post, is spelled ʿel. It may not be immediately evident if you’re looking at a sans-serif typeface, but in a serif typeface like the one Scot uses (see the screen shot above), it’s quite clear. If you reverse-transliterate ʿel into Hebrew, you get עֶל, a word that does not exist in Biblical Hebrew. The word Sam was talking about is אֶל, which should be transliterated with the half-ring facing the other way, as ʾel.

So did I really write this whole long post just to correct an apostrophe misspelled as an inverted comma? Yes. Why? Because even though עֶל does not exist in Biblical Hebrew, עַל does. If you take away the vowel mark—see point (b) two paragraphs above—and focus on the consonantal text, then Sam wrote and Scot copied על instead of אל. And—this is why this matters—על really can mean “contrary to.” Sam’s whole point is that אל doesn’t mean “contrary to,” but then he goes and misspells the word as על, which can mean “contrary to” or “in opposition to,” so the misspelling causes his actual words to be contrary to (על?) his point.

Now it‘s quite clear to me that Sam meant to be talking about אֶל, and aside from the misspelling, he dealt with אֶל in a quite responsible fashion. (There are certain aspects of his presentation I would nuance differently, but I’d come out with the same final assessment of the ESV’s rending “contrary to” in Genesis 3:16—it’s wrong.) There’s also a better-than-even chance that Sam’s blogging software introduced this error, rather than Sam’s own typing. I offer this post not as a criticism of Sam, or of Scot for quoting him, but as a cautionary tale for all of us who refer to Hebrew terms in our writing, especially online writing: watch your apostrophes and inverted commas, folks. When you’re using them as stand-ins for proper ʾalef and ʿayin half-rings, using the wrong one can make you say something different from what you mean.

2 thoughts on “ESV critics hit by backfiring punctuation

  1. Sam Powell

    Thank you for the correction. You are right. You’ve never met me or heard of me. In the big picture of evangelical stars, I am about as nobody as one gets.
    I knew the proper transliteration, but was hindered by my type setting, and didn’t think anyone would care, since it was pretty clear which one I was talking about. Anyway, I stand corrected, and will take more care next time.
    And you’re right. It doesn’t mean “contrary to” (-:


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