Enos 1:23 Textual Variants

Royal Skousen
and there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness preaching and prophesying of wars and contentions and destructions and continually reminding them of death and of the duration of eternity and the judgments and the power of God and all these things stirring them up continually to keep them in the fear of the Lord I say there [was 1ABCDEFGHIJLMNOPQRST|is K] nothing short of these things and exceeding great plainness of speech would keep them from going down speedily to destruction

In this passage, the 1892 RLDS edition accidentally replaced the past-tense was with the presenttense is in the second occurrence of “there was nothing”. The 1908 RLDS edition restored the original past-tense form.

This last sentence in this verse is particularly interesting in that it provides a clear example in the text of a syntactic construction that is apparently unacceptable in current American English, yet there are enough examples of this construction sprinkled throughout the text that we must conclude that it is fully intended—namely, the existential construction “there was (not) something ”:

There is also an example of this construction for which the verb form is the subjunctive were rather than the indicative was:

Semantically, of course, this instance of there were is singular in number and equivalent to there was; note that the subject is the delayed singular noun phrase, a punishment. Unfortunately, the 1830 typesetter complicated this particular example of “there was (not) something ”: his punctuation for this passage (which has continued in all subsequent printed editions) reinterprets the syntax and thereby makes it difficult, if not impossible, to recognize that the passage contains an example of this construction. See Alma 42:16 for discussion.

What we expect in current American English for all these cases is a relative pronoun before the past-tense finite verb form:

revised readings

Of course, the text has actual cases where the existential “there was something” is completed by a relative clause, as in the following example:

On the other hand, all the examples where the relative pronoun seems to be missing involve there was; if the be verb is in the present tense or in the semantic plural (that is, for cases of indicative there is, there are, and there were), the corresponding construction always takes a relative pronoun, as in the following sampling:

In other words, nowhere in the Book of Mormon text we do get constructions like the following hypothetical examples:

revised readings

There is one place in the history of the text where editing has introduced an instance of “there was (not) something ”. In this instance, the 1920 LDS edition deleted the relative pronoun who (originally which):

This example suggests that such usage was acceptable in the early part of the 20th century in the United States. For current speakers of American English, this usage seems unacceptable. (For further discussion of this example, see under Alma 16:8.)

Interestingly, this construction is still found in 20th century British speech, in both the present and past tense:

We also have these two examples from the British National Corpus (www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk): “there is a whitebeam grows aslant the road” and “there is something needs to happen”. (I wish to thank Mark Davies for these examples.) There is also a 17th century example from Samuel Pepys’ diary (27 July 1663): “There was at a distance, under one of the trees on the common, a company got together that sung”.

The critical text will accept all the original instances in the Book of Mormon of the construction “there was (not) something ”. There are too many of these in the original text to assume that they are the result of accidentally omitting the relative pronoun. Nor is there any manuscript variation to suggest that there might have been a tendency to omit, even momentarily, the relative pronoun and thus create such an unusual construction for modern American readers of the book.

Summary: Maintain in Enos 1:23 the past-tense was that occurs twice in the phrase “there was nothing”; also maintain the construction “there was (not) something ”, found not only here but elsewhere in the text.

Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, Part. 2