Early Modern English for Authors

Last Updated: October 26th, 2014

Since I seem to keep offering bits and pieces of this advice to people over and over, here’s a guide (which I’ll probably amend as things occur to me) for writing consistent, believable, and easy-to-understand Early Modern English dialogue in your stories.

Note: Yes, I’m aware that this could be tidied up more. I’ll do it if I can ever find the time but I wanted to get this out where people could benefit from it.

1. Second-Person Singular Pronouns

In English today, we use you/your/yours as our all-purpose second-person pronoun family. However, that was not always the case.

As is still the case in modern French, Early Modern English had two sets of second-person pronouns:

Used for speaking formally or addressing groups of people (like “vous” in French).
Used for talking to a single friend or family member or, in some cases, for showing disrespect for a stranger (like “tu” in French).

Using these pronouns is very simple:

The subject of the sentence, just like “I”, “we”, “you”, “he”, “she”, and “they”.
The object of the sentence, just like “me”, “us”, “you”, “him”, “her”, and “them”.
The posessive determiner, just like “my”, “our”, “your”, “his”, “her”, and “their”.
The posessive pronoun, just like “mine”, “ours”, “yours”, “his”, “hers”, and “theirs”.

You can remember these by recognizing that

thee rhymes with me
thy my
thine mine

There’s also a good chart in the Declension section of the Wikipedia “Thou” article.

(This also makes you realize that the common phrase a ‘holier than thou’ attitude is bad grammar and was probably cooked up by people who picked up words like “thee” and “thou” from the King James Bible without understanding how to use them.)

1.1 Verb Forms

Now, this does require special verb forms, but they’re ridiculously simple to remember. Just stick “st” or “est” (Whichever feels right. This was before standard spelling) onto the end of the verb which “thou” directly applies to.

Here are some examples of properly constructed sentences:

  • “Dost thou know him?”
  • “Thou knowest that he hates thee.”

There are irregular verbs, but only four of them and they’re only irregular in the sense that, in five specific tenses, you crunch things down even more to avoid awkwardness.

Here is the list from Wikipedia, slightly adjusted for clarity:

Present Past
you are, you were thou art thou wert
you have thou hast thou hadst
you shall thou shalt
you will thou wilt

Note: While they aren’t irregular conjugations, keep in mind that you can use “you be” and “thou beest” in place of “you are” and “thou art” if you think they’lll help the flavour… just don’t go overboard.

2. Proper use of “mine” and “thine”

In early modern English, “my” and “thy” change form when the next word begins with a vowel:

hand eye
A a hand an eye
My my hand mine eye
Thy thy hand thine eye

This made it easier to speak quickly because, when you ran your words together, you got “my nye” rather than “mye”.

Again, this has a parallel in modern French where, most of the time, you only say the terminal consonant in a word as a way to smoothly flow into the starting vowel on the next word.

3. Proper use of “Ye”

No, this is not about “ye olde shoppe”. That’s just “the old shop”. (There was a period of time before standard spelling when we’d also been forced to abandon the letter Thorn (Þ and þ) by things like italian-made printing type but hadn’t settled on “th” as a replacement yet.)

I’m talking about the pronoun “ye“, which was used before the meaning of “you” became more general. Just like “thou” and “thee” are subject and object, “ye” and “you” are also a subject-object pair.

“Ye gave of your own riches.”

That’s it. There are even a couple of places in modern writing where we still quote it:

  • Oh, ye of little faith.
  • Hear ye, hear ye!

4. Proper use of the “-eth” suffix on verbs

You’ve probably seen phrases like “my cup runneth over”. That’s what we’re talking about. Surprisingly, “-eth” is just the old way to form the present tense of the third-person singular.

Now, we say “God gives and he takes away”. Then, we said “God giveth and he taketh away.” (I don’t have a lisp. I’m just archaic!)

5. Proper use of “Shall”

“Shall” is an interesting verb because it took me a while to assemble a simple explanation. Nowadays, we mostly use “will” in its place but that wasn’t always so.

Basically, “shall” is to “will” as “should” is to “would”. Compare “shall we?” and “will we?”

Using “shall” carries a connotation of intent, command, order, or prophecy. (eg. “Thou shalt not kill”)

In archaic English, where the use of “shall” is expected, using “will” carries the opposite connotation rather than being neutral. “I shall fall asleep” indicates that it’s a decision you’ve made, so “I will fall asleep” carries an undercurrent of “whether I want to or not” by contrast.

As a side note, this means that “shan’t” (the contraction of “shall not”) is used in many places where, now, we’d often use “won’t”.

6. Use of contractions

Given how much of the archaic English we write is spoken by nobles, I should remind less experienced authors that, when speaking that formally, you typically avoid contractions like “won’t” and “shan’t” because “will not” and “shall not” help to reinforce the sense of conviction in your words (which, as a royal, translates to using the might of a political entity to back it up).

7. Use of the “do” auxilliary verb

In the past, people were more likely to save “do” for places where they needed emphasis, so your Early Modern English dialogue can use things like “Dare I?” instead of “Do I dare?” and “I dare not” instead of “I don’t dare” to feel more accurate.

8. Use of “whom”

While many people say things like “to who” today, with “whom” dying off because it doesn’t lend any additional expressive power, if you ask your grandparents (or even your parents, depending on the school they went to), they’ll probably tell you that it was drummed into them that “to who” is bad grammar because “who” is the subject and “whom” is the object.

(“Who gave it to whom?”)

The same principle applies with derived words like whoever (whomever) and so on. As with Thou, the Wikipedia page for Whom is also easy to understand and very helpful in getting used to what has been trimmed from common use.

9. Know the vernacular

One of the biggest differences between Modern English and believable Archaic English is the same as between American English and British English: Which synonyms people prefer when speaking informally.

For example, here are a few of the words and phrases I can think of which can help your archaic speech:

  • You have my gratitude (I’m grateful)
  • Surely you jest (You’ve gotta be joking)
  • Had I but known (If only I’d known)
  • Nary (never a/not any, as “nary a sound”)
  • Nigh (near/nearly, as in “Our doom is nigh” or “Nigh-impregnable”)
  • Nought (nothing, as in “It was all for nought”)
  • Tarry (Wait/stay/delay, as in “I mustn’t tarry longer”.)
  • ‘Tis (An archaic contraction of “it is” which was used as casually as we now use “they’re” or “isn’t”. Given that there was no standard spelling at the time, I prefer to write “T’is” so it’s not mistaken for an opening single quote with no matching closing quote.)
  • Unto (Like “upon” or “to”, but indicating an indirect object, as in “Bestowed unto him”)
  • Unto (Synonym for “until”, as in “unto death”)
  • Yay and Nay (yes and no)
  • Yea (so/this, as in “About yea high”)
  • Yonder (This/That/Here/There/Those, indicating a place. Eg. “Over yonder” or “yonder valley”)
  • Yon (A synonym for “yonder” that may sound more natural in some places.)
  • Ensue (eg. “chaos ensued”)
  • Employ (in its role as a synonym for “use”)
  • Singular (we used to use it instead of “unique”. See, for example, Sherlock Holmes.)

Archaic grammar (especially among nobles) often uses more indirect and/or deferential phrasing. (Basically, hedging your bets when talking to someone.) For example:

  • “I fail to see how/why” instead of “I don’t see/understand how/why”
  • “If you will permit me” instead of “If I’m allowed”

Tip: If you have a friend who’s learning French, ask for their help. A lot of archaic English grammar is more obvious when approached from modern French. (eg. “J’ai peur” -> “I have fear” -> “Have no fear” or “J’ai faim” -> “I have hunger” -> “I hunger”)

10. Never End A Sentence With a Preposition

As long as you know when to make exceptions, following this dying rule helps to lend an educated air to your character. (eg. “I know the place of which you speak” rather than “I know the place you speak of”)

Don’t bother with the also-common “don’t split the infinitive” rule though. That just cripples your ability to make sentences feel good (eg. denying you the option of “to boldly go” by requiring that “to go” remain an undivided phrase).

…and, besides, it was imposed on English’s Germanic grammar by scholars with a hard-on for Latin. (And, as anyone who’s studied French knows, you can’t split the infinitive in Latin because it’s one word. In French, “to go” is “aller” and “we go” is “nous allons”)

11. Lesser-Used Grammatical Moods

As anyone who’s done any kind of academic language study (eg. learning French at College/University) knows , languages have various “moods“.

In English, we commonly use the indicative mood (“You are going to them”), the conditional mood (“You would go to them if…”), the imperative mood (“Go to them”), and the potential mood (“You may go”, “She can go”).

First, I’d like to point out two ways of using the moods you already know in a less common fashion:

  • You can negate the imperative mood without using “do” (“Fear not”)
  • You can form a potential mood using “ought” or “must” (“I ought not go”, “No, you mustn’t!”) since they’re far less common in modern speech. (Except for “oughta” as in “Why, I oughta…”)

Second, I’d like to introduce you to an entire English grammatical mood that has almost died out: The subjunctive.

The subjunctive has several functions (talking about hypotheticals, expressing opinions, and making polite requests) and I know of only two forms which are both distinctive and still in use:

  • If I were (as opposed to “If I was“, used to talk about hypotheticals)
  • I suggest that he beat the drum (as opposed to “he beats the drum”, used to express an opinion)

That second one is how “long live the king” classifies as subjunctive, by the way. If it were indicative, it’d be “long lives the king”. (A reordering of “the king lives long.”)

As Wikipedia points out, there are also two other distinctive constructions which have drifted far enough from common speech to sound flat-out wrong to some modern English-speakers:

  • And if he be not able
  • I will ensure that he leave immediately (“[ensure] [that he leave]” as opposed to “[ensure that] [he leaves]”)

As an author using the subjunctive in the present day, using “If I were” properly is the main thing you want to focus on:

  • “If I was…” is the past conditional. You’re saying “If [factual statement]…” so you use it in phrases like “If I was rich, where did the money go?”
  • “If I were…” is the future subjunctive. You’re saying “If [hypothetical statement]…” so you use it in phrases like “If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack“.

12. Further Reading

First, using a thesaurus to find synonyms that feel more archaic is an easy technique… assuming you grew up speaking English. (For example, we don’t use “permit” as a verb as much as we used to. “If you’ll permit me to…” sounds more archaic than “If you’ll allow me to…”.)

Second, If you’ve got the time and want to make your archaic English feel even more accurate, direct experience can be a big help. Given how messy English was in the days before standardized spelling, my advice is to work backwards from modern English.

Drop by Project Gutenberg and download some books that are still modern enough to read but have sat in the public domain for long enough for the language to have drifted. I recommend starting with the Sherlock Holmes series (text or audio) and then moving on to the original novel version of Frankenstein (audiobook), since they’re both still engaging reads.

(And, for people who have only seen the movies, you’re really missing out. The Frankenstein novel is a deep read and invented the core “speculative fiction” branch of science fiction. There’s a reason only the novel is subtitled “Or, The Modern Prometheus“)

Finally, if you really want to put in an effort and feel like dropping by your local library, ask your local library for Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice (preferably the Definitive Edition) as well as some high school-style annotated copies of Shakespearean plays. You’ll be surprised at some of the ways the language has drifted.

(For example, when Alice says “let’s pretend”. That used to only be meant in the sense of “pretender to the throne”… so a more accurate translation would be closer to “let’s lie” than “let’s play make-believe”)

CC BY-SA 4.0 Early Modern English for Authors by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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