The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XV. Changes in the Language since Shakespeare’s Time

§ 4. Changes in grammar

The story of English grammar is a story of simplification, of dispensing with grammatical forms. Though a few inflections have survived, yet, compared with Old English, the present-day language has been justly designated one of lost inflections. It is analytic, and not synthetic. This stage had virtually been reached by the beginning of the seventeenth century, though certain modifications have taken place since then.

One of those is the supersession, in the standard language, of verb forms like cometh (originally midland and southern) by northern forms like comes. In the early seventeenth century, the prose usage was still -eth. The Authorised Verson has nothing else. In poetry, especially dramatic poetry, the form in -s was a licence borrowed from colloquial speech, and helpful for metre or euphony, as when Shakespeare has in The Merchant of Venice,

  • Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves;
  • and
  • It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
  • For a time, the custom prevailed of writing -eth, but pronouncing -s. In 1643, Richard Hodges says,
  • howsoever wee use to write thus, leadeth it, maketh it, noteth it, raketh it, perfumeth it, etc. Yet in our ordinary speech … we say leads it, makes it, notes it, rakes it, perfumes it.
  • He also gives a list of words “like in sound and unlike in their signification and writing,” where we find such groups as,
  • Cox, cocks, cocketh up the hay.
  • Furze, furreth, furs.
  • Jests, gests, gesteth.
  • Mr. Knox, hee knocketh many knocks.
  • Rites, rights, wheel-wrights, righteth, writeth.
  • Waits, weights, waiteth.
  • Gradually, -s predominated, but -eth did not disappear. It was heard in church, though, even there, -s was frequently sounded instead. In The Spectator (no. 147), Steele denounces
  • a set of readers, who affect forsooth a certain gentlemanlike familiarity of tone and mend the language as they go on, crying instead of pardoneth and absolveth, pardons and absolves.
  • In an earlier Spectator (no. 135), Addison speaks of
  • the change which has happened in our language by the abbreviation of several words that are terminated in eth, by substituting an s in the room of the last syllable, as in drowns, walks, arrives … which in the pronunciation of our forefathers were drowneth, walketh, arriveth. This has wonderfully multiplied a letter which was before too frequent in the English tongue, and added to that hissing in our language, which is taken so much notice of by foreigners; but at the same time humours our taciturnity and eases us of many superfluous syllables.
  • In the days of the romantic revival, poets resuscitated the -eth, which continues to live in poetry and, also, to some extent, in prose. The poet finds it advantageous for rhythm, or rime, or euphony. Swinburne, in Atalanta in Calydon, rimes saith with breath, while Tennyson, in The Lady of Shalott, sings,

  • And so she weaveth steadily,
  • And little other care hath she.
  • Another inflectional shortening occurs in the -ed of verbs. In early modern English, the weak vowel here was dropped in the spoken language, except, of course, in forms like mended, rooted. In the higher language, however, -ed was fully sounded after all consonants, especially by poets for the sake of metre, who naturally also dropped the vowel if necessary, as Shakespeare in

  • Hugg’d and embracëd by the strumpet wind.
  • Gradually, the colloquial usage encroached upon the literary. In the passage of The Spectator already cited, Addison protests against this loss of a syllable.
  • “The same natural aversion to loquacity,” he says, “has of late years made a very considerable alteration in our language by closing in one syllable the termination of our praeterperfect tense, as in these words, drown’d, walk’d, arriv’d, for drowned, walked, arrived, which has very much disfigured the tongue, and turned a tenth part of our smoothest words into so many clusters of consonants.”
  • The full syllable has lived on in the liturgical language, where we have blessëd, cursëd, belovëd, believëd.

    During the last two centuries, the second person singular of verbs (as lovest, lovedst, wilt love) has gradually vanished from ordinary usage. This has gone hand in hand with the disuse of thou. In Middle English, French influence led to the employment of ye, you as a ceremonious substitute for thou, thee; and, by 1600, the plural had come to be the regular polite form of address, while the singular remained chiefly in family use (parent to child, master to servant) and for contempt. Thou, consequently, became generally obsolete, though still retained in poetry, in liturgical language, sporadically in dialects, and by quakers—who employ thee as nominative construed with third singular. The surrender of thou is, to some extent, a loss. English has no longer the advantage of a familiar as well as a polite style of address nor the clearness arising from the power to make a formal distinction in number.

    Further simplification in the verb is found in the disappearance of subjunctive forms. The only remaining parts are be and were, and the forms without -s in the third singular of the present tense. The syntax, also, of the subjunctive has greatly shrunk since Middle English days, and is still shrinking. At times, however, the tendency has been checked. In the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, were of rejected conditions and unfulfilled wishes seemed to be regularly giving place to was. But it has recovered lost ground, and in such constructions was for were is now a distinct vulgarism. The subjunctive, however, has been entirely or almost entirely abandoned in the following—indirect assertions: “I think he be transformed into a beast” (As You Like It); indefinite adjective clauses: “a prone and speechless dialect such as move men” (Measure for Measure); concessive clauses regarded as real: “no marvel though thou scorn thy noble peers, when I, thy brother, am rejected thus” (Edward II); and clauses of future time. The last construction is still, occasionally, found, especially in poetry: Tennyson writes,

  • Till in all lands and through all human story
  • The path of duty be the way to glory.
  • At the present time, Othello’s “Judge me the world” would regularly be expressed by “Let the world judge me”; and, generally, forms with may, might, should, would are, for clearness, preferred to simple subjunctives. In “Hadst thou been here, my brother had not died,” the apodosis would take the compound form.

    Other syntactical losses since Shakespeare’s day include the constructions “good my lord” and “I know thee who thou art”; against and without as conjunctions; the ethic dative; the accusative and infinitive as subject, now superseded by the construction with for: “for a man to behave so is absurd”; be as the auxiliary of perfect tenses in certain intransitive verbs, a usage still existing in instances like “he is gone.” In the Elizabethan age, me as the ethic dative was sometimes felt to be obscure and was easily mistaken for the direct object. This ambiguity Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew, 1, 2, ad init.) seized upon to bewilder the clown Grumio—

  • Petruchio. Villain, I say, knock me at this gate
  • And rap me well, or I’ll knock your knave’s pate.
  • Grumio. My matter is grown quarrelsome. I should knock you first,
  • And then I know after who comes by the worst.
  • These old usages have been revived in recent times in poetry and historical fiction; but, unless skilfully and sparingly employed, they are apt to offend, as when Stevenson overdoes the ethic dative in The Black Arrow.

    In certain nouns, the same combination of sounds may stand for different ideas. To the ear, horses represents the genitive singular as well as all the plural cases. To the eye, this defect is so far remedied by the device of the apostrophe: horse’s, horses, horses.’ This distinction began to appear in the seventeenth century, but it was not a settled usage till the eighteenth.

  • “The gradual restriction of the apostrophe to the genitive,” says Henry Sweet in his New English Grammar, “apparently arose from the belief that such a genitive as prince’s in the prince’s book was a shortening of prince his, as shown by such spellings as the prince his book.”
  • The employment of his for the genitive suffix was most prevalent from 1400 to 1750. In the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, it was chiefly used with proper names ending in a sibilant, or to avoid an awkward inflectional genitive. It occurs in Dryden, as in Astraea Redux,
  • Such is not Charles his too too active age.
  • The Prayer Book of 1662 has, “And this we beg for Jesus Christ his sake.” The Pilgrim’s Progress, part II, has “Gaius his kindness to Feeble-mind.” Many an old tome is inscribed “John Smith his book”; and the usage (which still survives, in book-keeping for example) was turned by Dickens into a joke in “Bill Stumps, His mark.”

    Many changes exemplify what Addison calls humouring our national taciturnity, while they do no injury to clearness of expression. Old and Middle English revelled in multiplying negatives for emphasis. The practice was retained by the Elizabethans; but, in time, the principle prevailed that two negatives contradict each other and make an affirmative. In standard English, we now find one negative only, though, colloquially, we may still hear the old redundancy. Double comparison, another Elizabethan characteristic—Ben Jonson reckoned it an elegancy of style, “a certain kind of English Atticism”—began to die out in the seventeenth century, and now survives only as a vulgarism. Occasionally, however, it appears in poetry, as in Swinburne’s Atalanta,

  • Touch the most dimmest height of trembling heaven
  • The desire to lop off superfluities accounts for various types of omissions, as of in “That is no use”; the verb after to in “Are you going?”—“I should like to,” or “He must leave now, though he doesn’t want to”; and it is in “as usual.” Swift still wrote the last in full (Gulliver’s Travels, part II, chap. 1), “Whereof three or four came into the room, as it is usual in farmers’ houses.”

    Further condensation is seen in the wide use in modern English of the attributive noun instead of a phrase more or less lengthy. The usage began in Middle English, and has been vigorously extended in present-day language. It is regularly employed in all kinds of new phrases, as when we speak of birthday congratulations, Canada balsam, a motor garage. Compound expressions are similarly applied, as loose leaf book manufacturers, The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, a dog-in-the-manger policy.

    The attributive noun is not an isolated phenomenon in English. It belongs to the widespread tendency whereby a part of speech jumps its category. The dropping of distinctive endings made many nouns, for example, identical with the corresponding verbs; and, consequently, form presented no obstacle to the use of the one for the other. The interchange was also facilitated by the habit of indicating a word’s function or construction by its position in the sentence. This liberty became licence in the Elizabethan age. “Almost any part of speech”, says E. A. Abbott, “can be used as any other part of speech.” Later usage has been more restrained, but of the liberty advantage has been amply and profitably taken. The following are examples of nouns converted into verbs in recent times: ape, balloon, burlesque, cartoon, dovetail, gas, laager, lampoon, loot, palaver, sky, tailor, telescope, tiptoe, tool: of verbs into nouns: build, flutter, haul, shampoo, sip, sneer, sneeze, splash, tinkle, trend; of adjectives into verbs: grey, tidy. To distinguish the double function, the pronunciation is sometimes varied, as a good rec’ord but to record’ it; an agëd man but he ag(e)d rapidly.

    An extreme instance of this freedom appears in sentences transformed, for the nonce, into attributes, as when Dickens writes, “a little man with a puffy ‘Say-nothing-to-me-or-I’ll-contradict-you’ sort of countenance”; or into verbs, as in Browning’s lines,

  • While, treading down rose and ranunculus,
  • You “Tommy-make-room-for-your-uncle” us.
  • One might have expected that the tendency to simplify would lead English to abolish the strong conjugation with its numerous complications; but, apparently, any bias towards uniformity has been counteracted by conservatism linked with the superiority which the strong verbs possess in clearness, brevity and ease of pronunciation. Weak forms have, indeed, been adopted, as crowed for crew, climbed for clomb, melted for molten. On the other hand, certain verbs, as dig and stick, formerly weak, are now strong. It was in the eighteenth century that dug prevailed over digged, which is the only form found in Shakespeare, The Authorised Version and Milton. Dug and stuck are easier sounds than digged and sticked. Within the strong conjugation, numerous changes have been made. In the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, there was a general movement towards supplanting the form of the perfect participle by the form of the past indicative. Shakespeare used mistook for mistaken, drove for driven, wrote for written. Goldsmith and other eighteenth-century writers did the same; and, in their days, drank threatened to supersede drunk. In present-day English, the original participles have, as a rule, been restored, though stood has permanently displaced stonden.

    Other parts of speech have been regularised. One instance is the modern distinction between who and which as relatives. In the Elizabethan age, these pronouns could refer indifferently to persons and things, a usage which lasted into the eighteenth century. In the first half of the preceding century, they had seemed likely to drive out that; but, in time, that recovered lost ground and even encroached upon the others. Steele (The Spectator, no. 78, cf. no. 80) sets forth the grievances of who and which in a petition to Mr. Spectator—

  • … your petitioners, being in a forlorn and destitute condition, know not to whom we should apply ourselves for relief, because there is hardly any man alive who has not injured us. Nay, we speak it with sorrow, even you yourself, whom we should suspect of such a practice the last of all mankind, can hardly acquit yourself of having given us some cause of complaint. We are descended of ancient families, and kept up our dignity and honour many years, till the jacksprat that supplanted us.
  • Later in the eighteenth century, who and which came again into favour; and the three relatives have since been advantageously employed to fulfil different functions.

    In Elizabethan English generally, a strange welter appears in the cases of pronouns—nominative for accusative, accusative for nominative. Since then, order has been, for the most part, restored: nominative and accusative are, as a rule, correctly employed. We have still, however, such expressions as “Who is that for?” But “It is me” is not frequent till the first half of the eighteenth century. Before that, “It is I” was general. In Middle English, the two methods of comparing adjectives—by inflection and by periphrasis—were employed indiscriminately. Later, the method was regularised; and inflectional comparison became restricted to monosyllables and to such disyllables as the addition does not make discordant. Sixteenth-century writers supply examples of what we now consider uncouth shapes—eloquenter, virtuouser, artificialest, excellentest, famousest, learned’st, tediousest, unwillingest. Sometimes, the pages of recent poets and prose-writers bristle with forms like daringest, wonderfulest, wretcheder.

    In Middle English and early modern English (for example, in Shakespeare and The Authorised Version), shall and will, when employed as auxiliaries, are not in conformity with present-day usage. This established itself in the seventeenth century, but only in England. It never got a footing in the Scottish or the Irish dialect; and natives of Scotland and Ireland find it hard, if not impossible, to acquire the standard system with its intricate rules.

    By the beginning of the modern English period, do was in regular use as an auxiliary; and it seemed as if the forms with do and did were to oust those without. At first, no fixed principle guided the employment of do write, did write, for write, wrote. It might be euphony, or perspicuity, or metre, or caprice. Compare the following:

  • So they did eat, and were filled.
  • Mark, viii, 8.
  • Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.
  • Romans, xii, 15.
  • It lifted up its head, and did address
  • Itself to motion.
  • Hamlet, 1, 2, 215 f.
  • In the early seventeenth century, however, the language began to restrict do to certain special functions. “Does he write?” came to take the place of “Writes he?” “He did not write” the place of “He wrote not.” In affirmations, the custom arose of avoiding do except for emphasis, or in particular cases where the order of words requires it, as in “So quietly does he come,” “Nor did he hesitate.” But the indiscriminate use of unemphatic do did not readily vanish; and that gave point to Pope’s gibe in 1711,
  • While expletives their feeble aid do join.
  • In his Dictionary (1755), Johnson brands unemphatic do “as a vicious mode of speech.” A quarter of a century later, he writes (Lives of the Poets), “The words do and did, which so much degrade in present estimation the line that admits them, were in the time of Cowley little censured or avoided.” In spite of Johnson, later poets have gladly availed themselves of do and did for purposes of metre. Till recent times, doest and dost, doeth and doth were not differentiated in use. In vain one searches the 1611 edition of The Authorised Version to find why doth appears in one place, doeth in another. The nineteenth century made doest, doeth, the verb of full meaning, dost, doth, the auxiliary.

    But, during the last three centuries, English has not merely been regularised and simplified. It has also devised new grammatical material to improve the old or replace the lost.

    One of the most striking inventions is its. A clear and unambiguous possessive was required for neuters, in place of the old his and the stopgap it, both felt to be inconvenient. The earliest known instance of its is in Florio’s Worlde of Wordes (1598), where part of the explanation of spontaneamente is “for its owne sake.” Though in colloquial use before this date, the new pronoun found favour in literature very slowly. It does not occur in the 1611 edition of The Authorised Version. A few examples appear in Shakespeare, but only in plays printed after his death, while three are met with in Milton’s poetry and some in his prose. Its, however, was too useful to be ignored and, by 1660, had won a place in the language. The idea that it was an upstart had disappeared before the end of the century, and Dryden censured Ben Jonson for writing in Catiline,

  • Though heaven should speak with all his wrath at once,
  • remarking “Heaven is ill syntax with his.” So quickly was the old usage forgotten.

    Our period has also established a new verbal—the gerund. This form orginated in the use of nouns in -ing preceded by the and followed by of. The preposition was frequently omitted, a construction which lasted till through the eighteenth century. Steele writes, “a very great difference between the reading a prayer and a gazette”; Swift, “you owe the cultivating those many virtues”; and Goldsmith, “the gaining two or three battles, or the taking half a score of towns.” But the had also been dropped, as in Shakespeare’s “Deserve well at my hands by helping me”; and this shorter form was destined to prevail. Though always retaining certain noun functions, these -ings forms were considered to belong to verbs; and, by analogy, others were constructed which had not and could not have nouns to correspond, as “He boasts of having won the game,” “He was annoyed at being contradicted.”

    In the syntax of the gerund, a genitive case or a possessive pronoun must sometimes precede, as “we could prevent his knowing it.” To express the same notion, a variant construction is “prevent him knowing,” found frequently in recent writers. This has been attacked as ungrammatical and illogical, but is defended on the ground of long descent and greater concreteness.

    A noticeable feature of the English verb is its wealth of tenses, whereby precise and accurate expression is given to many shades of meaning. Though our mode of tense formation by auxiliaries began in Old English and was gradually extended in Middle English, it has been, for the most part, settled and developed in modern times. Forms like I am writing existed long ago; but it was well into the seventeenth century before the current distinction arose between I am writing, the actual present, and I write, the present of general application or of habit. “Our friends all stay for you,” in The Merchant of Venice, and, “Behold, three men seek thee,” in The Acts of the Apostles, show the usual mode of expressing the actual present three centuries ago, while the regular form to-day would be are staying and are seeking. The double forms are also distinguished in the past and the future tenses. The corresponding passive forms in -ing were much later in origin than the active, and at first met with fierce opposition, in spite of their manifest convenience and freedom from ambiguity. Constructions like “The house is being built” and “Rabbits were being shot in the field” have not been traced further back than the last decade of the eighteenth century. These forms, however, were inevitable, since English makes a wider use of the passive voice than any other modern literary language. How untrammelled the English passive is, may be seen in the fact that, not content with a construction like “A book was given him,” the language has devised “He was given a book.”

    Two other constructions may be mentioned. The genitive in -’s must stand immediately before its governing noun or separated therefrom only by qualifiers. This produced the peculiar modern usage by which -’s is detached from the word really governed, and attached to some group containing that word, as “The father-in-law’s gift,” “The Duke of Oldenburg’s dominions.” The detachment has gone too far in “The man I saw yesterday’s attempt,” where the relative clause is regarded as united with man to make one compound word. Another innovation, involving a minor change, is “the split infinitive,” when a word or phrase is inserted between the to and the verbal part of the infinitive. Though existing in Middle English, this construction seems to have become most common in the second half of the nineteenth century. It has been defended on the plea of occasional superiority in clearness and emphasis. Purists, however, have energetically denounced it and sometimes branded its presence as a sign of stylistic depravity. And certainly many examples are extremely ugly and in very bad taste.

    The extent to which English grammar has been simplified, has tempted some to speculate whether it could not be simplified still further. They have suggested that we might dispense with these and those; and might drop s in the third person of the present tense. Others demand the evolution of fresh material—new pronouns of the third person for indirect speech, and a new pronoun, of singular number and common gender, to refer to everyone, each, in order to avoid the inconvenience of “Everyone did what they could” or “Each did his or her best.”