Just Say No to “Deity Pronouns”

A “deity pronoun” is a pronoun that has been capitalized when it refers to God, such as “He,” “Him,” and “His.” Capitalizing is understandable because we want to show reverence and respect when we refer to God. The problem is that in English we don’t use capital letters to denote reverence, as in Hitler and Satan. I’ve checked a few major Christian publishing houses and none that I found used deity pronouns. That includes Inter-Varsity Press and Zondervan, two major evangelical publishers. The NASB translation uses deity pronouns, but none of the others do. Not the NIV, ESV, CEB, NRSV, HCSB, RSV, nor the KJV. So . . . if you are tempted to capitalize pronouns referring to God, resist the temptation. It is a question of good grammar, not reverence. Here’s a passage from the Zondervan style guide:

The capitalization of pronouns referring to persons of the Trinity has been a matter of debate for many decades. Should He be capitalized when referring to God or not? Impassioned arguments have been offered up on both sides of the question. The following paragraphs outline Zondervan’s policy and the reasoning behind it.

In most cases, lowercase the deity pronoun. Although both the lowercase and capped styles have long and deeply rooted pedigrees in English literature, this manual advocates the use of lowercase pronouns in nearly all situations.

Reasons for Lowercasing. Many religious publishers and most general publishers have adopted the lowercase style, in large part to conform to the styles of the most commonly used versions of the Bible (the King James Version, the New International Version, and the Revised Standard Version). It is the style recognized as contemporary by the greatest number of readers and writers both inside and outside the church.

Because capitalizing the deity pronoun, as well as a vast number of other religious terms, was the predominant style in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century publishing, it gives a book, at best, a dated, Victorian feel, and at worst, an aura of complete irrelevance to modern readers.

Contrary to popular opinion, capitalization is not used in English as a way to confer respect (we capitalize both God and Satan, Churchill and Hitler). As pointed out elsewhere (see “Capitalization: Biblical and Religious Terms”), capitalization is largely used in English to distinguish specific things from general. Jesus is no more specific, in that sense, than Peter, and both should therefore be referred to as he.

Some writers argue that the capitalized style should be used to avoid confusion of antecedents in closely written text (for instance, whether Jesus or one of the disciples is being referred to as he in a given passage). Even in this last case, a careful writer should be able to make the meaning clear without capitalization. After all, the writer should be able to distinguish between the twelve disciples without resorting to typographic tricks.

Many readers, especially the younger ones, do not recognize the reasons for such typographic conventions, and the capitalized pronoun may actually cause confusion or be read as emphasis when none is implied.

Finally, an insistence on the capped style can introduce unintended religiopolitical overtones into a publication. When He is capped for God or Jesus, it can appear to younger readers especially, as though the author is purposely emphasizing the maleness of the deity, in direct response to feminist theologians who argue for the inclusiveness of God. Apart from the merits of either side of that debate, the capitalized deity pronoun introduces a polemical overtone that may wholly detract from the topic at hand.

Is Capitalization Ever Justified? There are some situations in which the capitalization of deity pronouns is preferred, for instance, in books that have a deliberately old-fashioned tone or when the author quotes extensively from a Bible version that uses the capitalized style (such as the New King James Bible or the New American Standard Bible). When deity pronouns are capitalized, though, the words who, whom, and whose should not be. If a publication falls under one of those categories, the author should discuss his or her preference with the editor ahead of time, and the preferred style should be specified on a style sheet so that the other editors and proofreaders involved in the project will be informed.

In Quotations. Even when lowercasing the deity pronouns in a given publication, the capitals should be retained in any quotations from other books that use the capped style. Likewise, if the deity pronoun is capped in a publication, the lowercase should be retained in all quotes where it is found in the original source. Quotations should always retain the style of the original as a matter of accuracy (or unless otherwise noted in a footnote or on the copyright page).

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