Seamus Cooney

A Note on Shakespeare's Grammar

In order to read Shakespeare and other pre-modern writings with full comprehension, you need to be sure you understand a few now-obsolete grammatical features of English. The chief one is the use of the second person singular. In Shakespeare's day -- and in poetry for centuries after it had become obsolete in vernacular speech -- the distinction between the second person singular and the second person plural was very much alive.

So first you need to grasp the grammatical forms. Next you need to become more aware of their connotations. You will find it helpful to draw on your knowledge of French, German, or Spanish -- languages which retain a similar set of connotations for the second person singular.

1. Grammatical forms

A: Pronouns

"In Old English, thou (and its related forms) was used for addressing one person; ye (and its related forms) for more than one. Within these categories, thou and ye were used as clause subject, thee and you as object.

"During Middle English, ye / you came to be used as a polite singular form alongside thou / thee, a situation which was probably influenced by French vous vs tu.

"During Early Modern English, [the language of Shakespeare's time] the distinction between subject and object uses of ye and you gradually disappeared, and you became the norm in all grammatical functions and social situations. Ye continued in use, but by the end of the 16th century it was restricted to archaic, religious, or literary contexts. By 1700, the thou forms were also largely restricted in this way."

-- The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, ed. David Crystal (CUP: 1995), p. 71

Subject Object Possessive
Singular thou thee thine thyself
Plural you ye yours yourself

B: Verb conjugations

I 2nd personhe/she we
to be

PresentI am thou art isareare are
PastI was thou wert was werewere were
to have

PresentI have thou hasthas/hath havehave have
PastI had thou hadst had hadhad had
to do

PresentI do thou dost does / doth dodo do
PastI did thou didst did diddid did
to see

Presentsee thou seest sees/seeth seesee see
Pastsawthou sawest saw sawsay saw
to grow

Presentgrowthou growestgrows/groweth growgrow grow
Pastgrew thou grewest grew grewgrew grew

2. Connotations

"By the time of Shakespeare, you had developed the number ambiguity it retains today, being used for either singular or plural; but in the singular it also had a role as an alternative to thou / thee. It was used by people of lower rank or status to those above them (such as ordinary people to nobles, children to parents, servants to masters, nobles to the monarch), and was also the standard way for the upper classes to talk to each other. By contrast, thou / thee were used by people of higher rank to those beneath them, and by the lower classes to each other; also, in elevated poetic style, in addressing God, and in talking to witches, ghosts, and other supernatural beings. There were also some special cases: for example, a husband might address his wife as thou, and she reply with you.

"Of particular interest are those cases where an extra emotional element entered the situation, and the use of thou or you broke the expected conventions. Thou commonly expressed special intimacy or affection; you, formality, politeness, and distance. Thou could also be used, even by an inferior to a superior, to express such feelings as anger and contempt. The use of thou to a person of equal rank could thus easily count as an insult, as Sir Toby Belch well knows when he advises Sir Andrew Aguecheek on how to write a challenge to 'the Count's youth' (Viola): 'if thou thou'st him some thrice, it shall not be amiss' (Twelfth Night, III.ii.42), himself using a demeaning thou in a speech situation where the norm is you. Likewise, the use of you when thou was expected (such as from master to servant) would also require special explanation."

-- The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, ed. David Crystal (CUP: 1995), p. 71

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    Page posted on September 15, 1996. Revised slightly February 13, 1999.