What's in a Word? Pairs and Merisms in 3 Nephi

James T. Duke’s recent Journal of Book of Mormon Studies article on “Word Pairs and Distinctive Combinations in the Book of Mormon”1 invites us to ponder “the deeper meanings” of word pairs that appear in two syntactic forms: parallel structures and conjoined pairs. In my History of the English Language course at Brigham Young University, I invited students to focus attention specifically on conjoined word pairs in the scriptures. They searched for pairs of words linked with conjunctions (and, or, nor) in order to better understand the meaning of selected set expressions in the King James Bible and the Book of Mormon. They also analyzed the meaning of the pairs according to semantic relations such as synonyms, antonyms, and complements. These terms are defined and exemplified in the following table:

Synonyms Pairs of words that have the same or similar meanings: faithful and true, evil and wicked, firm and steadfast
Antonyms Pairs of words that have antithetical or contradictory meanings: good and evil, righteous and wicked, true and false
Complements Pairs of words that have distinct yet reciprocal meanings: kings and queens, silver and gold, bows and arrows

Pairs of synonyms often have the effect of emphasis, so that faithful and true can mean “very faithful.” Pairs of antonyms often create antithesis, so that the word good is the categorical opposite of the word evil. Complementary pairs are often related by contiguity; bows are not the same as arrows, but they go together as a set.

For the first part of his term project, Josh Sorenson tabulated students’ findings to assist me with research for this study. I have examined his tables and added commentary from my research on the pairs that students identified. In the Old Testament, Katie Sorensen identified the complementary pair male and female in Genesis 1:27. Both elements of the pair came into Middle English from early French. According to Strong’s dictionary in the electronic edition of the Latter-day Saint scriptures,2 the word male is a translation of the transliterated Hebrew root zkhr, meaning “marked, remembered, male.” The word female is a translation of the transliterated Hebrew root nqbh, meaning “perforated, designated, female.” Although the meanings of the elements male and female are complementary rather than synonymous, both have their semantic roots in the marking of domestic animals in order to distinguish them as part of one’s flock.

In the New Testament, Brian McMillan found the synonymous pair holiness and righteousness in the prophecy of Zacharias (Luke 1:75). Both elements of the pair have their modern English roots in Old English. According to Strong’s dictionary, the word holiness is a translation of the transliterated Greek root hósios, which includes connotations such as “piety” and “right.” The word righteousness is a translation of the transliterated Greek root dikaios, which includes connotations such as “equity,” “justification,” and “holy.” Since holiness includes the sense of “right,” and righteousness includes the sense of “holy,” we can label the elements of this pair as synonyms.

The next table contains Book of Mormon pairs that Sarah Swank gathered from Lehi’s vision in 1 Nephi 8. Column 1 gives the scriptural reference; column 2, the elements of the pair; column 3, the part of speech of the conjoined lexical items; and column 4, the semantic relationship between the elements. The semantic classification of pairs can be ambiguous and overlapping. For example, the pair dark and dreary in 1 Nephi 8:4 comes from two Old English roots that mean “without light” and “bloody,” so they could constitute a pair of complements as well as synonyms:

1 Nephi 8:4, 7 dark and dreary adjective synonyms
1 Nephi 8:9, 20 large and spacious adjective synonyms
1 Nephi 8:20 strait and narrow adjective synonyms
1 Nephi 8:26, 31 great and spacious adjective synonyms 1 Nephi 8:27 old and young adjective antonyms 1 Nephi 8:36 dream or vision noun synonyms

The pair from 1 Nephi 8:36 occurs near the end of the chapter when Nephi writes, “After my father had spoken all the words of his dream or vision . . .” This pair seems to be an echo of Lehi’s words at the beginning of chapter 8, “Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision” (v. 2). The synonymy of the pair is supported by parallel structures and Hebrew roots in other scriptural cross-references. Conjoining dream with vision into a pair seems to be an ellipsis (reduction) of larger parallel syntactic structures found in Numbers 12:6, Job 7:14, Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17, and 1 Nephi 1:16. In other words, many of the conjoined pairs that we can identify as rhetorical figures in scriptural texts seem to be abridgments of larger syntactic units. Perhaps such larger structures became so common or familiar that they were clipped into shorter idiomatic expressions, standing as telegraphic placeholders for richer meanings.

Book of Mormon pairs from 1 Nephi 14 that Sarah Haskew identified and labeled are shown in the following table:

1 Nephi 14:3, 9, 15, 17 great and abominable adjective complements
1 Nephi 14:4 wickedness and abomination noun complements 1 Nephi 14:7 temporally and spiritually adjective antonyms 1 Nephi 14:23 plain and pure adjective complements

In 1 Nephi 14:23, Nephi uses the phrase plain and pure with two other pairs to describe the revelations of the apostle John:

Wherefore, the things which he shall write are just and true; and behold they are written in the book which thou beheld proceeding out of the mouth of the Jew; and at the time they proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, or, at the time the book proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, the things which were written were plain and pure, and most precious and easy to the understanding of all men.

Although the words plain and pure could be synonyms, an examination of the corresponding terms in the Hebrew Old Testament suggests that the underlying meanings may be different but complementary, as Sarah indicated. The transliterated Hebrew word nakoah means “straightforward, equitable, correct, right” in Proverbs 8:8–9: “the words of my mouth . . . are all plain to him that understandeth.” On the other hand, the transliterated Hebrew word tahor means “clean, fair, bright, sound, clear, uncontaminated” in Psalm 12:6: “The words of the Lord are pure words.” Although it occurs only once in the standard works, the pair plain and pure seems to be a shorter representation of more extensive expressions found in other passages of scripture.

Stanley Thayne found pairs in 2 Nephi 2, a chapter famous for complementary and antithetical concepts that illustrate Lehi’s teaching that “there is an opposition in all things” (v. 11):

2 Nephi 2:10 truth and holiness noun complements
2 Nephi 2:11 holiness nor misery noun antonyms 2 Nephi 2:11 good nor bad noun antonyms 2 Nephi 2:14 profit and learning noun complements 2 Nephi 2:14 heavens and earth noun antonyms

Although the phrase the heavens and the earth may be read as a pair of antonyms with contradictory meanings, a careful reading of 2 Nephi 2:14 suggests that the words may be complementary rather than antithetical. The words heavens and earth have a contiguous relationship that can represent the entire universe with everything and everyone in it:

And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.

In fact, the Old Testament begins with the same complementary pair that Lehi uses in his sermon: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them” (Genesis 2:1).

For the second part of his term project, Josh Sorenson created a preliminary inventory of word pairs in 3 Nephi. Using his data and my own comprehensive inventory, I have examined, categorized, and cross-referenced the conjoined pairs in 3 Nephi. In addition to synonyms, antonyms, and complements, I found pairs that seem to act as merisms and hendiadys, as defined below:

merisms Pairs of terms that represent a whole set of items that point to a larger totality; the blind and the deaf = {the blind, deaf, lame, mute, paralyzed, wounded, insane, diabetic, etc.} = “all who are afflicted in any way”
hendiadys Pair of words in which one term acts as a modifier for the other; joy and praise = “joyful praise”

The semantic relationships between the first and second elements of each of the 132 coordinate pairs in 3 Nephi can be classified and tallied as follows:

<42 pairs

synonyms 28 pairs
antonyms 4 pairs
complements 42 pairs
merisms hendiadys 16 pairs

Because semantic relations can vary depending on how the scriptural context is interpreted, I was careful to ensure that, whenever possible, each word pair in my classification was supported by a cross-reference to another scripture in which the elements appear together in a pair, a series, or a parallelism of similar or identical meaning.

The following chart lists 28 synonymous pairs found in 3 Nephi:

3 Nephi Conjoined Pairs Cross-References
1:4 signs and miracles Deuteronomy 29:3
1:22 lyings and deceivings Jeremiah 9:5
2:2 lead away and deceive 1 Nephi 16:38
2:2 foolish and vain Lamentations 2:14
2:11 wars and contentions Isaiah 41:12
2:12 freedom and liberty Alma 43:49
3:1 leader and governor none
3:2 right and liberty Alma 43:26
3:13 flocks and herds Genesis 13:5
5:22 blessed and prospered Mosiah 2:22
6:4 prosper and wax great Jeremiah 5:28
6:4 equity and justice Proverbs 1:3
6:20 sins and iniquities Exodus 34:9
6:28 given and administered Moroni 10:8
7:19 devils and unclean spirits Luke 9:42
7:25 witness and testimony Mosiah 21:35
8:25 cry and mourn Jeremiah 48:31
9:9 sins and wickedness Deuteronomy 9:27
10:2 lamenting and howling Jeremiah 4:8
10:8 weep and howl James 5:1
10:10 praise and thanksgiving Nehemiah 12:46
10:13 sunk and buried up 3 Nephi 9:6, 9:8
10:14 see and behold Judges 21:21
11:1 marveling and wondering 3 Nephi 15:2
18:32 return and repent Joel 2:14
24:16 hearkened and heard Isaiah 42:23
25:4 statutes and judgments Leviticus 18:26
30:2 lyings and deceivings Psalm 120:2

In 3 Nephi 2:2, a foolish and a vain thing resembles and reverses a phrase in Lamentations 2:14, “Thy prophets have seen vain and foolish things for thee.” The phrase wars and contentions in 3 Nephi 2:11 has a counterpart in the parallelism of Isaiah 41:12:

Thou shalt seek them, and shalt not find them, even them that contended with thee: they that war against thee shall be as nothing, and as a thing of nought.

The synonymy of the pair lyings and deceivings in 3 Nephi 1:22 and 30:2 is supported by parallel structures in Jeremiah 9:5:

they will deceive every one his neighbour, and will not speak the truth: they have taught their tongue to speak lies, and weary themselves to commit iniquity.

Some may wonder why a speaker or writer would deliberately choose the redundancy of a pair of synonyms. Such repetition can enhance memory, add emphasis to important concepts, or intensify emotion in significant messages.

The following table shows four pairs of antonyms in 3 Nephi whose semantic relationship consists of words that have antithetical or contradictory meanings:

3 Nephi Conjoined Pairs Cross-References
12:36 black or white Matthew 5:36
13:24 God and Mammon Matthew 6:24
24:18 righteous and wicked Ecclesiastes 3:17
28:17 mortal or immortal 1 Corinthians 15:53

The contrast between the words righteous and wicked in 3 Nephi 24:18 (see Malachi 3:18) appears in at least 100 other scripture references. One example is found in Ecclesiastes 3:17, “God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.” In Strong’s dictionary, the transliterated Hebrew root for righteous is tsdhq, meaning “just, lawful, righteous, morally clean.” The root for wicked is rsh’, meaning “bad, guilty, ungodly, morally wrong.” The antithetical contrast is obvious.

The next table shows 42 pairs of words in 3 Nephi whose semantic relationship is neither synonymous nor antithetical but complementary. In 3 Nephi 1:14, the Father and the Son are not the same person, so they are not synonyms; neither are they opposed to each other in a contradictory sense as antonyms. Rather, they complement each other in meaning, purpose, and role (see Matthew 28:19).

1:18iniquity and unbeliefAlma 45:1223:3have been and shall beJacob 7:924:3refiner and purifierMalachi 3:326:4great and last2 Nephi 2:2626:14teach and ministerRomans 12:7

3 Nephi Conjoined Pairs Cross-References
1:14 Father and Son Matthew 28:19
1:29 lyings and flattering words Proverbs 26:28
2:10 preaching and prophesying Nehemiah 6:7
2:11 death and carnage none
2:16 young men and daughters Jeremiah 11:22
3:12 demands and threatenings 3 Nephi 3:11
3:14 day and night Genesis 8:22
4:12 threatenings and oaths none
4:14 stood and fought Mormon 2:23
4:14 overtaken and slain Deuteronomy 19:6
4:33 repentance and humility Helaman 11:9
5:5 condemned and punished 2 Nephi 9:25
6:10 pride and boastings Helaman 12:5
6:13 railing and persecution none
6:13 humble and penitent Alma 27:18
6:20 preaching and testifying Acts 8:25
6:27 friends and kindreds Alma 10:4
6:30 law and rights none
7:21 power and Spirit Luke 1:17
7:22 sicknesses and infirmities Matthew 8:17
8:12 tempest and whirlwinds Amos 1:14
8:23 darkness and destruction Psalm 91:6
9:2 sons and daughters Joel 3:8
9:5 prophets and saints Revelation 16:6
11:40 more or less Numbers 22:18
12:6 hunger and thirst Isaiah 49:10
13:19 moth and rust Matthew 6:19–20
13:19 break through and steal Matthew 6:19–20
15:17 one fold and one shepherd John 10:16
17:25 hear and bear record 1 Nephi 14:27
18:3 brake and blessed Mark 14:22
18:29 eateth and drinketh Genesis 24:54
19:18 Lord and God John 20:28
20:35 Father and I John 10:30
20:36 uncircumcised and unclean Isaiah 52:1
25:2 go forth and grow up Malachi 4:2
27:4 murmur and dispute Philippians 2:14

The complementary words iniquity and unbelief make a pair unique to the Book of Mormon. In English etymology, the Latin roots of the word iniquity mean “not + equitable,” whereas the Germanic roots of unbelief mean “not + loving.” The negated items in the pair exemplify the rhetorical figure litotes, as in the advertisement that portrays Seven-Up as the “Un-Cola.” Instead of saying “their sins and their doubts,” 3 Nephi 1:18 uses a pair of two negated forms: “they began to fear because of their iniquity and their unbelief.” Future studies of word pairs in the Book of Mormon could include a thorough search for such rhetorical figures and forms.

Merisms may be seen as a special kind of complementary pair with an expanded scope. Calvert Watkins explains the function of merisms as metonymic connectors in an “A, B : C” formula. The specific A and B elements refer to a set of subordinate items (hyponymns) that refer to C, a more general “totality of notion.”3 Not only do merisms appear as textual figures in the Indo-European family of languages, of which English is a member, but they are also a part of the Afro-Asiatic family, or Hamito-Semitic tradition, that Hebrew, Arabic, and Egyptian belong to. This table shows 42 pairs of subordinate items in 3 Nephi whose semantic relationship constitutes a merism, or superordinate totality. The last column suggests a larger meaning that the figure may be pointing to:

27:1prayer and fastingDaniel 9:3communication with God

3 Nephi Conjoined Pairs Cross-References Meanings
1:1 judge and governor Daniel 3:2–3 leadership roles
1:6 joy and faith Galatians 5:22 fruits of the Spirit
1:22 signs and wonders Deuteronomy 4:34 extraordinary events
1:25 jot or tittle Matthew 5:18 scripture
1:27 holds and secret places Judges 6:2 retreats
1:30 faith and righteousness 1 Timothy 6:11 good character
2:1 heard and seen Philippians 4:9 perceive; experience
2:18 contentions and dissensions Jarom 1:13 violence
3:19 revelation and prophecy 1 Corinthians 14:6 the word of the Lord
4:2 beasts nor game none wild animals
4:4 horses and cattle Exodus 9:3 domesticated animals
4:31 singing and praising 2 Samuel 22:50 vocal music
5:18 just and true Philippians 4:8 virtuous
5:20 God and Savior 2 Samuel 22:2 Deity
6:27 lawyers and high priests Alma 14:18 governing officials
7:17 power and authority Revelation 13:2 priesthood
8:12 thunderings and lightnings Exodus 20:18 aspects of storm
8:25 killed and stoned Matthew 21:35 taking life violently
8:25 mothers and daughters Jeremiah 16:3 female family members
9:8 hills and valleys Ezekiel 6:3 geographical features
9:15 heavens and earth Genesis 2:1 the whole universe
9:18 Alpha and Omega Revelation 1:11 eternal
9:18 beginning and end Revelation 1:8 eternal
9:19 sacrifices and burnt offerings Leviticus 7:37 memorials to Deity
9:20 broken heart and contrite spirit Psalm 34:18 whole soul
12:17 law or prophets Luke 24:44 scriptures
12:19 law and commandments Genesis 26:5 teachings of the Lord
15:18 stiffneckedness and unbelief 2 Nephi 32:7 failures
16:9 hiss and byword 1 Nephi 19:14 object of derision
17:9 sick and afflicted Alma 1:27 victims of misfortune
18:1 bread and wine Genesis 14:18 total sustenance of life
18:15 watch and pray Matthew 26:41 be reverent
18:21 wives and children Genesis 30:26 family
18:25 feel and see 3 Nephi 11:15 know
18:29 flesh and blood Numbers 19:5 physical body
24:3 gold and silver Malachi 3:3 wealth
24:4 Judah and Jerusalem Isaiah 1:1 the covenant people
24:8 tithes and offerings Nehemiah 12:44 debt to God
25:1 root nor branch Malachi 4:1 eternal family ties
26:1 great and small 2 Chronicles 36:18 everything
26:4 nations and tongues Isaiah 66:18 everyone

The merism in 3 Nephi 1:6 of “your joy and your faith” seems to point to the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23, “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” Both the pair and the list represent Christlike character as a whole. Similarly, the pair faith and righteousness in 3 Nephi 1:30 can be read as a merism. The total concept of good character is cataloged in 1 Timothy 6:11: “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness” (see also 2 Timothy 2:22).

Because merisms can act as both symbols and indexes, they can deliver literal and figurative meanings at the same time. The emblems of the sacrament in 3 Nephi 18:1–3 are literally “bread and wine,” symbolizing the body and blood of Christ. In addition, these elements point to a totality of sustenance and nourishment. Calvert Watkins explains that the Hittite pair grains and grapes and the Greek pair bread and wine serve as deictic expressions for “all agricultural products and alimentation.”4 Similar constructs appear in the Hebrew Old Testament (see Genesis 14:18; 1 Samuel 16:20; 2 Samuel 6:19; 16:1; 2 Kings 18:32; Isaiah 36:17). The symbols of the sacrament reveal that Christ is the sustainer of mortal life and the source of eternal life. He is the “bread of life” (John 6:35) and the “living water” (John 4:10–11); he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Further research on word pairs in the Book of Mormon could include a look at the syntactic figure of hendiadys, a pair of conjoined words in which one element actually modifies the other grammatically. In the following table are 15 pairs of words whose syntactic elements constitute various modifier/head relationships.

3:10rights and government3 Nephi 3:10rights of government

3 Nephi Conjoined Pairs Cross-References Meanings
2:3 wickedness and abominations Ezekiel 8:9 wicked abominations
2:12 church and worship Alma 43:45 church worship
3:10 lands and possessions Genesis 36:43 land of possession
3:16 great and marvelous Revelation 15:1 greatly marvelous
4:7 great and terrible Deuteronomy 1:19 greatly terrible
6:20 death and sufferings Hebrews 2:9 suffering of death
7:3 chief(s) and leader(s) Alma 43:44 chief leader(s)
8:4 doubtings and disputations Romans 14:1 doubts caused by disputations
8:14 great and notable Acts 2:20 very famous
9:2 iniquity and abominations Ezekiel 36:31 loathsome perversions
9:9 murders and combinations 2 Nephi 9:9 combinations of murder
9:18 light and life John 8:12 light of life
21:21 vengeance and fury Micah 5:15 furious vengeance
25:5 great and dreadful Daniel 9:4 very powerful

In 3 Nephi 2:3, the “noun + noun” pair wickedness and abominations (see 3:11; 7:15; 9:7, 10, 11, 12; 30:2) may actually be an adjective modifying a noun as in Ezekiel 8:9, “Go in, and behold the wicked abominations that they do here.” The pair great and marvelous events (see 3 Nephi 3:16; 5:8; 11:1; 17:16–17; 19:34; 21:9; 26:14; 28:31–32) may actually be occasions that leave us “marveling greatly” (Joseph Smith—History 1:44). Either way, the language of the Lord and his servants in the scriptures is great and marvelous. Our attention to the details of the divine dialogue will not be ignored or unrewarded!

Please send questions or comments to Cynthia_Hallen@byu.edu.


  1. James T. Duke, “Word Pairs and Distinctive Combinations in the Book of Mormon,” JBMS 12/2 (2003): 32–41.
  2. James Strong, ed., New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, in The Scriptures: CD-ROM Resource Edition 1.0. A widely available printed version of Strong’s classic work is The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990).
  3. Calvert Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), 41–46.
  4. Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon, 45.