Grammar & Early Modern English grammar



·       descriptive: the language as it’s really used

o      e.g. some speakers use seen as a past tense: “I seen it.”

o      C18th speakers used written, wrote, and writ as past participle forms of the irregular verb write (OED entry gives different forms/dates)

·       prescriptive: the language as people think it should be used (“proper”, “right”)

o      e.g. the rules for standard English do not permit seen as a past tense

o      C18th grammarians promoted written as the past participle, and tended to

§       rationalize their choice on such grounds as etymology (OE gewriten), politeness, rationality

·       privileged literary authors’ language (conventional)

·       promoted one-form one-function, and to ignore or to proscribe the others


Grammar or “morphosyntax”

·       morphology: word endings (English doesn’t have many), word forms

o      e.g. She love-s cat-s

§       inflexions for 3rd person singular present tense verb, plural nouns

o      e.g. she, her

§       different forms of the 3rd person singular feminine pronoun

·       syntax: word order

o      e.g. She loves cats

§       in English, unmarked sentence order is “SVO”: subject-verb-object

o      e.g. on the mat

§       in English, prepositions precede the nouns they govern

o      e.g. Can you believe it?

§       in English, questions are formed by inverting the subject you and the finite/auxiliary verb can


Grammar terms and concepts

§       A. G. Rigg, Traditional Grammatical Terminology

Early Modern English Morphology


Inflectional suffixes as in Modern English, but with a bit more variation:

·       noun plural –s

o      imposed on most loanwords, e.g. Gk->Lat heros  -> English hero

o      replaced some older native plural inflections

§       e.g. shoen ‘shoes’ (mad Ophelia), i3en ‘eyes’

·       survives in oxen

o      but not always

§       e.g. fishes later becomes fish (by analogy with sheep, deer, etc.)


·       possessive –s

o      from OE –es in many nouns, generalized to others

o      not from reduction of his to is to s, despite widespread C16th /17th “the King his foole” (and Juno hir bed &c.)

o      apostrophe a later development


·       regular verb past ending –ed

o      imposed on loanwords: Lat. aestimare ‘estimate’ conjugated regular as estimated (and see determined below)

o      eventually imposed on some previously irregular verbs (but not yet here):

§       “Three times today I holpe him to his horse” (now helped); “by strong hand wrokne” (wreaked)


Foreign inflexions

·       some learned nouns

o      seraphim, antennae, cacti

o      sometimes generalized to other learned nouns, e.g. octopi (Gk. octopodes)


·       fewer learned verbs – forms now obsolete

o      My bonds in thee are all determinate [‘determined’]

§       -ate adaptation of Latin past participle -atus


Loss of one pronoun

·       e.g. 2nd person singular pronoun (and verb -(e)st)

o      thou

§       in ME, thou marked status (more fixed): lower

§       in EmodE, it marked attitude (more unstable): intimacy, condescension

o      kept by Quakers

o      compensation for its loss:

§       c18th: you was alongside you were

§       PDE dialectal youse, yiz, y’all, you(se) guys, yins


Levelling of some pronoun cases (though pronouns are more conservative than nouns in retaining case distinctions)

·       object form you replaces subject ye:

o      “ye schulden not ete” -> “you should not eat”

o      “Hear ye! Hear ye!”: in earlier English, the subject of the imperative could be expressed

·       in Quaker usage, object form thee replaces subject form thou

o      cf. earlier “I commanded thee / thou shalt eat”


“Reflexive” pronoun in –self/-selves develops

§       subject and object refer to the same thing, e.g. “They made loincloths for themselves [older texts: them ‘themselves’]”


Different/variable forms of irregular verbs (e.g. speak, spoke, spoken)

·       e.g. in past tense “Jesus spake” -> spoke

·       tendency to level the vowel in the past and participle (like regular verbs)

o      in speak, (spake->) spoke, spoken

§       e.g. stand, stood, stood

§       e.g. hold, held, held

o      originally strong verb participles ended in ­–en

o      still around in spoken, written, etc.


Some now-familiar verb forms had moved down from the north

·       are (replaces be, etc.)

·       verb present 3 sg. –(e)s replaces –(e)th

o      variation might be regional, social, stylistic

o      Nevailainen & Raumolin-Brunberg: using “Corpus of Early English Correspondence” to identify and interpret variation




Early Modern English

·       OE had been more “synthetic”, relying on inflexions to indicate a word’s function in a sentence

·       subsequently English has become more “analytic”, relying on word order

o      tendency for single words in older English to correspond to phrases in more recent English


Variation between synthetic (word endings) and newer analytic (word order) strategies, e.g.

·       noun ‘possession’: ‘s vs of 

o      the ‘s is more likely with higher animates & subjective function:

§       the boy’s arrival

§       John’s painting (vs. the painting of John)

o      more exceptions to this tendency in earlier texts, e.g.

§       Syracusa’s sack ‘the sack of Syracuse’


·       adjective comparison: -er/-est vs more and most

o      nothing certainer, feller

·       different strategies from PDE?

o      most unkindest cut of all”

·       both strategies at once?


·       for ‘contrary-to-fact’, inflected subjunctive vs other strategies

o      inflection: If it be thou

o      modal periphrasis (if it could, might, be …)

o      word order: had it been

o      semantics of the subordinating conjunction (if it is…)


Continuing proliferation of phrases

·       multi-word prepositions and conjunctions like on account of

·       not evident in these examples:

o      “They called us, for our fierceness, English dogges”

o      “Let’s assist them, for our case is as theirs”


·       noun adjuncts:

o      Hackney coach, native village, university professor


§       prominent in newspapers where space is an issue!


·       ‘group-verbs’, ‘multi-word lexical item with verbal function’ (Denison/Beal)

o      Look up (= behold)

o      Go back (= return)

o      Sit down (= recline)

§       earlier formations tend to be semantically transparent: out means ‘out’, up means ‘up’

§       often correspond to a single Latinate word of higher register

o      Wise up! Don’t mess it up! Deal with it! You can’t get away with this!

o      Luck out: good or bad?

§       meanings can be very idiomatic / nontransparent


·       some verb phrases indicating ‘aspect’ become grammaticalized

o      progressive or continuous aspect (=ongoing action): I am lecturing

§       That thus he suffers for ‘that he is therefore suffering for’

§       What do you read my Lord? ‘What are you reading?’

·       in earlier English, you’ll find simple forms (suffers rather than is suffering)

o      progressive passive becomes possible: the students are being oppressed

§       the grammar is printing ‘is being printed’

§       Now showing at a theatre near you!

§       early occurrence in Southey’s private letter of 1795 describing dental pain: like a fellow whose uttermost upper grinder is being torn out by the roots


·       auxiliary DO becomes obligatory in negation and in questions

o      negation: I do not smoke (DO NOT + V)

§       earlier strategy for negation (V + not):

·       : “She doubted not”

o      questions: Do you believe her? (AUX + S + V)

§       earlier strategy for questions (VS):

·       “Why commanded God…”

o      by analogy with modal constructions?

§       I will not work -> She did not work

§       Will they do their homework? -> Did they do their homework?

·       other functions

o      now obsolete: optional “dummy” auxiliary, no meaning, useful for adding an extra syllable in metrical texts

§       “What we do determine, oft we break”

o      for emphasis:

§       I do believe in fairies, I do, I do!


·       auxiliary be with intransitive verbs -> have

o      “whanne the eventide was come” -> “when evening had come on”

§       intransitive verbs don’t take direct objects

o      during the change, variants could be selected to stress state (be) or action (have) (cf. Are you finished? Have you finished?)


§       ‘Grammaticalization’ of modal verbs: from ‘lexical’ to ‘attitudinal’

§       lexical: e.g. OE willan ‘to want’

§       attitudinal: e.g. “That will be the doctor”

·       tension in EmodE between the two

·       Hamlet: “I would I had been there”

·       (lexical: desire)  

·       Horatio: “It would have much amaz’d you”

·       (attitudinal: hypothetical prediction)


Lots of variation generally (from PDE perspective!)

·       e.g. irregular verb forms OE wrītan, wrāt, writon, gewriten

o      I wrote, I writ

o      I have written, I have writ, I have wrote

·       e.g. adverbs without and with –ly

o      “She will speake most bitterly and strange

o      Excellent, excellent well”

o      “to knocke you indifferently well”

·       e.g. emphatic/redundant negation

o      “This was no Damosell neyther”

·       e.g. emphatic/redundant comparison of adjectives

o      “This was the most unkindest cut of all”

·       ‘codification’ of English grammar began later

·       ‘control’ of variation in the C18th: stay tuned …


Are there any patterns? Adamson has synthesized some of the changes

·       development of possessive its (in OE it was his)

o      connected with replacement of ‘grammatical’ with ‘biological’ gender in English

·       specialization of other pronouns: who for persons, which for ‘non-persons’

o      blurry areas include infants, pets, personification …

·       “the senseless windes … who in contempt shalle hisse at thee again”

·       “John Mortimer, which now is dead, …”

o      interrogative: who vs what

·       decline of certain impersonals: it dislikes me -> I dislike it, it yerns me not

·       specialization of prepositions by and with

o      ‘He was torne to pieces with a Beare”

o      “I saw him put down the other day, with an ordinary foole



Main sources and/or further reading


Lass, Roger. “Phonology and morphology.” Volume III of The

          Cambridge History of the English Language. 1999.


Adamson, Sylvia. “Understanding Shakespeare’s grammar: studies in small words.”

Reading Shakespeare’s dramatic language: a guide.  Ed. Sylvia Adamson, Lynette

Hunter, Lynne Magnusson, Ann Thompson and Katie Wales. London: Arden, 2001.

Adamson, Sylvia. “Animacy, animism and ‘natural’ language.” Paper presented at LMEC,

30 August 2001.

Blake, N.F.. A grammar of Shakespeare’s language. London: Palgrave, 2002.

Hope, Jonathan. Shakespeare’s grammar. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2003.


Barber, Charles. Early modern English. London: Andre Deutsch, 1976.

Beal, Joan. English in modern times 1700-1945. London: Arnold, 2004.

Görlach, Manfred. Introduction to early modern English. Cambridge University Press.


Nevalainen, Terttu and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg. Historical sociolinguistics: language

change in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Longman, 2003.