Strait and Straight in the Book of Mormon
This material is largely adapted from Paul Y. Hoskisson's, "Straightening Things Out, the Use of Strait & Straight in the Book of Mormon," JBMS, 12/2, 2003, 58-71.
In modern-day English the words strait and straight are homophones. Homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings-they are not synonyms. Strait means narrow, restricted, rigorous, difficult, and exacting. Straight has a few meanings including without a bend or curve, direct, the shortest distance between two points. It also means direct or without hindrance; for example, "After school, I want you to go straight home." Straight also means right, correct, honest, upright, and righteous, as in, "Following his scrape with the law in his youth, he lived straight for the rest of his life." Or, "You can trust him to be straight (or straight up) in all his dealings"; or "Tell me the straight truth." In Greek and Hebrew the word equivalents of strait and straight are neither homophones nor synonyms. The Bible, therefore, is not ambiguous in its use of these two words. In the Bible there is no confusion between the two words.
There are twenty-three verses in the Book of Mormon which contain one or the other of these words, or their variations. In all, there are twenty-seven instances of the use of either of these words.
Three factors combine to create the potential for confusion between strait and straight in the Book of Mormon:
1. It is all too natural among English speakers to confuse homophones, especially homophones whose written forms appear as similar as do strait and straight. In the prophet Joseph Smith's day, the confusion apparently was widespread, if Webster's 1828 dictionary is any indication. It states, erroneously to be sure, that strait and straight are "the same word" and that to distinguish between them is "wholly arbitrary." Some of this confusion persists, even today.
2. In each of the English speaking editions of the Book of Mormon, from the original 1830 edition to the most recent one, there have been changes in the use of one or the other of these two words. For instance the original manuscript (since much of the original manuscript is destroyed, those pieces that remain contain only eleven of the twenty-three verses where either strait or straight is used) reads strait in ten instances and straight in one. The printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon spells all twenty-seven instances as strait, regardless of the contextual meaning. The typesetter of the first printed edition changed all twenty-seven occurrences to read straight in that 1830 printed edition. The fact that the printer's manuscript used entirely one spelling and the 1830 printed edition used entirely the other exemplifies the confusion of spelling and meaning surrounding strait and straight in those years-a fact that Webster's 1828 Dictionary mistakenly legitimizes.
Since the original edition, editors have changed fourteen of the twenty-seven instances of straight to strait. These changes must have been based on a realization that the context of some of the passages containing straight called for the other meaning, represented by strait (that is, "narrow").
3. There is no opportunity to appeal to the original Book of Mormon text (the plates of Mormon and the small plates of Nephi) because they are not available. Neither do we know which spelling the Prophet Joseph intended in any single passage. In contrast to the Book of Mormon, the biblical passages containing strait or straight leave no doubt that these two English homophones are not synonymous. The reason there is no confusion in the Bible is that strait and straight are translations from known languages, either Hebrew or Greek, in which the equivalents of strait and straight are neither homophones nor synonyms.
The context within the Book of Mormon together with comparisons of similar phrases in the Bible will make it possible in all but one case to determine whether strait or straight is meant.
The following four Book of Mormon verses contain the word straight and are related to or dependent on a well-known biblical passage, Isaiah 40:3: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." They are: 1 Nephi 10:8, Alma 7:9; Alma 7:19, and Alma 37:12. Isaiah 40:3 refers to John the Baptist who, in preparation for Christ's ministry, was sent to restore the gospel one last time under the law of Moses. Also Isaiah 40:3 supports the Latter-day Saint understanding that forerunners precede the coming(s) of the Messiah and restore (straighten = make right) the kingdom of God (the Way of God). An examination of the Hebrew word that is translated in the King James Version as straight will help clarify the use of straight in these Book of Mormon verses that seem to be dependent on Isaiah 40:3. The Hebrew word translated as straight comes from a root in the Semitic languages, ysr, which means "right, correct" and has the meanings in Hebrew of "straight, smooth, proper, right, level," and so on. For instance, in Deuteronomy 9:5 the noun from this root (meaning the correct thing) is paralleled with righteousness and is translated as uprightness: "Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness [straightness] of thine heart."
Two other verses, 2 Nephi 4:33 and Alma 37:44 in contrast to Isaiah 40:3, do not speak of God's paths but of mortal man's path and do not use the plural but rather the singular path or course. The straight path in 2 Nephi 4:33 is characterized by having no "stumbling block": "Wilt thou make my path straight before me! Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way-but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way, but the ways of mine enemy." Thus, the meaning of straight in this verse is not not crooked but rather clear or unencumbered. In Alma 37:44 the word straight must be understood in the sense of "direct," much like the English sentence "She went straight to the boss": "For behold, it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land."
The expression strait and narrow occurs four times in our present Book of Mormon: 1 Nephi 8:20; 2 Nephi 31:18; 2 Nephi 31:19; and Helaman 3:29. Some would object to the use of the word strait here, rather than straight. First, the use two terms together-strait and narrow-obviously redundant. Both words mean the same thing. Secondly, there does exist a commonly used proverbial English expression "straight and narrow." Thus, one might expect that this proverbial phrase "straight and narrow" should be used when the expression appears in the Book of Mormon. Apparently, however, this common expression has its origins in a misreading or misunderstanding of the phrase "strait gate and narrow way" in Matthew 7:14. This means that the common English phrase "straight and narrow" should read "strait and narrow."
An appeal to the King James Version for an example of "strait and narrow" modifying a noun does not help. The KJV contains neither the phrase "strait and narrow" nor "straight and narrow." Therefore, the KJV cannot be used directly to justify either position. The Hebrew text of the Old Testament is, however, another matter. It does contain an analogous, synonymous word pair to strait and narrow, and apparently it does not contain an analogous, synonymous word pair to straight and narrow. The Hebrew word pair tswr/tsrr and tswq mean, respectively, "distressed, straitened, narrow, slim, constrained" and "siege, constrict; straitened, constrained, narrow" (see Job 36:16; Job 15:24; Psalm 119:143; and Isaiah 30:6). Brother Hoskisson wrote, "In every instance that I could find in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament where this word pair occurs [tswr/tsrr and tswq], no matter what form the roots take, tswr/tsrr always comes before tswq, just as strait in English nearly always comes before narrow when the two are bound in the same phrase" (Ibid., 64). It is precisely these two Hebrew words that have been used to render into Hebrew the Greek of Matthew 7:14, "strait gate and narrow way." One reason the English Bible translations of tswr/tsrr and tswq do not use the adjectives strait and narrow in the same verse is that tswr/tsrr and tswq almost always appear in a noun or verb form in the Hebrew text, analogous to the reading in 2 Nephi 31:9, "straitness of the path" and "narrowness of the gate."
Another Book of Mormon passage which may be included with those containing the phrase "strait and narrow" is Jacob 6:11 because of the close parallels between Jacob 6:11 and these passages. Jacob 6:11, then, is justified in containing the word strait.
The word pattern or combination of words including strait or straitness and gate or path and narrow or narrowness of the gate, path, or way is found in five verses in the Book of Mormon: 2 Nephi 31:9; 2 Nephi 33:9; Jacob 6:11; 3 Nephi 14:14; and 3 Nephi 27:33. The precedent is set for all of these by Matthew 7:14 which reads "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life."
Generally it is accepted that straight is most often the correct modifier when straight modifies the word course and especially when it placed immediately contiguous to course (Reynolds and Skousen, "Strait and Narrow," 32). This rule applies in Alma 37:44; Alma 50:8; and Alma 56:37.
Brother Hoskisson argues that 2 Nephi 9:41, which reads "O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him," could just as easily read strait instead of straight. He points out that the poetic form of these lines is as follows:
Behold, the way for man is narrow,
but it lieth in a straight course before him.
He argues that since narrow parallels straight. He writes, "If straight is read in 2 Nephi 9:41, then this verse would be the only verse in all of Latter-day Saint scriptures, including the Hebrew Bible, in which straight rather than strait parallels narrow. . . . This fact alone should be enough to propose reading strait." He does allow, however, that straight is a reasonable reading, especially in light of the word but. If the word strait were used, the last two lines of the poetic construct above would read, in effect, "the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a narrow course." The word but would seem that a contrast is to be drawn between the two phrases, and thus the present reading of straight is most appropriate.