Better Bible Study Tip #37: Pay Attention to Font Style

Did you know that most Bible translations will occasionally change up the font style in order to give clues about the original text? For example, look at Genesis 1:2 in the New King James Version:

“The earth was without form, and void; and darkness wasa on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

Notice that the word “was” is written in italics, with a small superscript “a” inserted on the top right hand corner of the word. If you look the footnotes at the bottom of the page, you will see the following note:

1:2 aWords in italic type have been added for clarity. They are not found in the original Hebrew or Aramaic.”

So basically, translators were faced with a choice. Since the original text did not include the word “was” at this point, they could leave it out completely. This would be a more precise way to make the translation read “word-for-word”, but leaving out the verb would result in really poor English. The translators have resolved this difficulty by putting the word in italics and adding a footnote so that the reader can know that the word was isn’t in the original text. The KJV uses the same trick. Pretty cool!

Another trick used by translators involves the usage of capital letters. For example, notice how the ESV translates Psalm 110:1.

“The LORD says to my Lord:
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.'”

Notice how the first word “LORD” is written in all capital letters. This is a trick used by translators to tell the reader that the Hebrew word being translated is the divine name, YHWH (or “Yahweh”). This distinguishes the personal name of God from the generic Hebrew word for “lord” or “master”, the word adon.

In Psalm 110:1 both words are used. Since the first word “LORD” is in all capital letters, and the second word “Lord” isn’t, we can understand that David was saying “Yahweh says to my Master.” The NIV, NKJV, and KJV use this trick as well.

The NASB will occasionally begin a verse with a bold letter in order to indicate that a new paragraph is beginning, and will uses all capital letters to indicate when the authors are quoting from other scriptures.

Every translation is unique in how they use font styles. The best way to understand these clues is to pay attention to footnotes and to read the preface to your translation. So pay attention to font style. When font style changes, there’s a good chance the translators are giving you a clue about the original text.