Archaic Grammar

Ah, thees and thous. There’s something about them that draws most fantasy authors to try using them at least once, I think, though whether or not that attempt ever sees the light of print is a different matter. The sad truth is that far too few of the people who toss archaic grammar into their writing understand how it works.

I must admit up front that I’m hardly the world’s foremost authority on this subject. In fact, it’s entirely possible I say some wrong things in here; if that’s the case, and you can tell me how to fix it, I invite you to e-mail me with the correction. This is my best educated guess of a framework for how such words are meant to be used, but I would welcome the opportunity to improve it. But if you want to use this kind of language in a story (and at the end I’ll talk about some of the reasons why you might want to), then I hope this is of use to you.


Meet the Th’s

Without getting too far into exhaustive technical detail . . . in some languages, nouns decline into cases. What this means is, they change their form depending on what their role in the sentence is. Latin does this, as does German; English, despite its relationship to both of those languages, mostly doesn’t. The one place where you still really see declension going on in English is with pronouns. Take the first person, for example:

  • I will slay the mighty dragon!
  • It is I, the Knight of Foo!

These two examples are both in the subjective case (also called the nominative case). In one, the pronoun is the subject; in the other, it’s a predicate pronoun. The latter example is not always followed in modern colloquial English, though, so “It is I” tends to sound both older and more formal than “It is me.”

  • The mighty dragon slew me.
  • The mighty dragon gave me what-for.
  • The mighty dragon made dinner out of me.

These three examples are all in the objective case. The first uses the pronoun as a direct object; the second, as an indirect object; the third, as the object of a preposition. Sorry for the way this is devolving into seventh-grade grammar class; I promise I’ll get to the archaic stuff in a moment.

  • My decision to go after the dragon wasn’t such a good one.

In English, this is called the possessive case. When discussing other languages (and maybe when discussing English in something more advanced than seventh-grade grammar class), it’s usually called the genitive.

So, what happens when the pronoun in question starts with a th?

“Thou” is the subjective/nominative, “thee” is the objective, and “thy” is the possessive/genitive. Swap them out with I/me/my, if you need to check whether you’re picking the right one (of course, one hopes you’re using I/me/my correctly in the first place — not always true in colloquial English). So you’ll use “thou” for the subject or the predicate; you’ll also use it in direct address. The archaic equivalent of “you bastard!” would therefore be “thou villain!” “Thee” shows up for the direct object, indirect object, or object of a preposition.

(Side note: this is also how one tells when to use “who” or “whom.” Try subbing in “he” or “him.” “Who/m did you give it to?” “I gave it to him.” Ergo, whom.)

“Thy” tangles up with “thine,” with regard to which one you use when. “Thine” works like “mine” in that it can stand alone; you’d say “that sword is mine” or “that sword is thine,” not “that sword is my” or “that sword is thy.” But it also gets used as an adjective modifying a noun when that noun begins with a vowel or an h; therefore, it is “thy sword,” but “thine arrow.” Same goes for “mine.” A special case of this is “thine own” (or “mine own”) as an emphatic way of laying possession on a noun — “Thine own father hast killed thee!” Finally, “thyself” is reflexive, taking the place of “yourself” — “Oh, thou hast killed thyself!”

As for when to use “you” and when to use “thou,” it seems that the common usage now is backward. We tend to think of “thou” as the more formal of the two, but that’s not how it used to be. “Thou” is singular, while “you” is plural, and I think it’s because of this that “you,” when used for the singular, is formal; think of a king referring to himself as “we.” Also, the subjective/nominative case of “you” can be “ye,” if you want that extra touch of archaism.


And Then the Verbs Attackedeth

The verbs are where most people seem to go horribly wrong.

If I’m sorting this out correctly — and I think I am, especially since I’ve had some linguists write in with advice — this is how it works. Verbs ending in “-t” are second person singular. They’re friends with our pronoun “thou” (but not with “you,” because, as noted above, “you” is plural, and takes plural verb forms even when it’s used to refer to one person). Thou dost, thou hast, thou shalt, thou wilt, thou wouldst, thou art, thou wast, thou also wert — the distinction between “wast” and “wert” is one of the indicative vs. the subjunctive, which is a subject for another post.

Related tangent: “will” and “shall” are not entirely interchangeable. According to notes I took from some source I did not, unfortunately, note down (bad researcher), “‘Will’ expresses simple futurity, likelihood or certainty, willingness, requirement or command, customary or habitual action, capacity, and ability.” If the subject of the sentence is the first person, “shall” has that same application. If, however, the subject is in the second or third person, “‘shall’ indicates determination or promise, inevitability, command, or compulsion” — think Ten Commandments for those latter kinds of usage. Then (confused yet?), for any person, “shall” can also “express indefinite future, conditional clauses, doubt, anxiety, or desire.” Source of these statements is most likely the OED. Here endeth the tangent.

Interestingly, modal auxiliaries (can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, ought, etc.) take a different ending in the archaic second-person singular, but not in the third. “Do” and “have,” being not of that class, become both “thou dost/hast” and “he doth/hath,” but there’s no such thing as shalth, canth, wath, or so on.

Auxiliary verbs aren’t the only ones whose form can change, though. You can do it to, well, seems like pretty much any verb. And this is how we end up with hideously unmanageable “archaic dialogue.” Some writers seem unable to resist the urge to stick “-st” on the end of every second-person verb and “-th” on the end of every third-person one, no matter what it is. Contrary to popular belief, though, the endings don’t apply in all situations. As noted above, the third-person ending is not used with modal auxiliaries, nor with plurals; it also seems to have not been used in the past tense (a verb NEVER attackedeth its speaker). Beyond that, you have some choice in when to use -th and when to use the more familiar -s; Shakespeare, I’m told, alternated because he wrote in a time period when that transition was underway. The more -th’s you use, the more hard-core archaic it will sound. The second-person ending is likewise singular only (which is why it doesn’t get used with “you”). With at least some irregular verbs, though, it can be used in the past tense; “thou camest,” for example. You can also use it on non-irregular verbs (“thou lovedst”), but again, the more you follow that usage, the more thoroughly archaic it will sound.

Under no circumstances should you double up on it; you could have a character say “dost thou bite thy thumb at me?” or “bitest thou thy thumb at me?” but NOT “dost thou bitest thy thumb at me?,” unless you want the speaker to sound like an idiot.


When to Commit Archaism

The above stuff is, as near as I can work it out, a set of grammatical rules; what follows now is opinion.

I frankly don’t buy into the idea some people have, that larding one’s prose or dialogue with archaic grammar makes it sound more fantastical. What constitutes fantastical language is, like the subjunctive, another post in its own right, but I don’t think you necessarily need to go beyond the comfort zone of modern English usage to find it.

Another possible use would be to show foreignness in a character’s speech. I’m not such a fan of this one, either, although it depends on which way you use it. One tack would be to have it indicate a character’s lack of fluency in a learned language, but if you think about it, people whose first language is Chinese or Spanish or Arabic or whatever don’t actually say thee or thou. The other, which I think makes more sense, would be to indicate foreign-language dialogue with odd grammar. But you can flag such dialogue for the reader just by putting it in italics or well, saying it’s foreign, which works just as well, maybe better.

Where archaic grammar does have its undoubted place is in — wait for it — making something sound archaic. (Yeah, crazy, I know. Me and my wacky ideas.) I don’t believe I’ve ever actually written a scene of this type, but if I ever had a character speaking to a ghost from the distant past, then I might well use archaic grammar for his dialogue, to give the reader a pervasive sense that he sounds old. Then again, depending on how old of an effect you’re going for, you don’t necessarily need thees and thous; playing with your sentence structure and word choice to make yourself sound like Jane Austen can give just a slight sense of time passed, since we associate that style with the last couple of centuries, rather than the medieval past.

But archaic grammar is something that is very easily overused. Its obstreperousness can be greatly reduced in the hands of a writer who really knows what they’re doing (which I do not, for the record, claim to be), but overall, I’m of the opinion that most people should avoid it most of the time.


NOTE: Many thanks to Aaron Dinkin and Áriel Lopez for flexing their linguistic knowledge on my behalf and correcting errors in earlier versions of this.