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ELIZABETHAN English, on a superficial view, appears to present this great point of difference from the English of modern times, that in the former any irregularities whatever, whether in the formation of words or in the combination of words into sentences, are allowable. In the first place, almost any part of speech can be used as any other part of speech. An adverb can be used as a verb,

“They askance their eyes

; as a noun,

“the backward and abysm of time

; or as an adjective,

“a seldom pleasure

. Any noun, adjective, or neuter verb can be used as an active verb. You can happy your friend, malice or foot your enemy, or fall an axe on his neck. An adjective can be used as an adverb; and you can speak and act easy, free, excellent: or as a noun, and you can talk of fair instead of beauty, and a pale instead of a paleness. Even the pronouns are not exempt from these metamorphoses. A he is used for a man, and a lady is described by a gentleman as the fairest she he has yet beheld. Spenser asks us to

“Come down and learne the little what
That Thomalin can sayne.

Calend. Jul. v. 31 (Nares).
And Heywood, after dividing human diners into three classes thus--

Some with small fare they be not pleased,
Some with much fare they be diseased,
Some with mean fare be scant appeased,

adds with truly Elizabethan freedom--

But of all somes none is displeased
To be welcome.

1 In the second place, every variety of apparent grammatical inaccuracy meets us. He for him, him for he; spoke and took, for spoken and taken; plural nominatives with singular verbs; relatives omitted where they are now considered necessary; unnecessary antecedents inserted; shall for will, should for would, would for wish; to omitted after "I ought," inserted after "I durst;" double negatives; double comparatives ("more better," &c.) and superlatives; such followed by which, that by as, as used for as if; that for so that; and lastly, some verbs apparently with two nominatives, and others without any nominative at all. To this long list of irregularities it may be added that many words, and particularly prepositions and the infinitives of verbs, are used in a different sense from the modern. Thus--

“To fright you thus methinks I am too savage,

does not mean I am too savage to fright you.

“Received of the most pious Edward

(170) does not mean from Edward, but by Edward; and when Shakespeare says that “the rich” will not every hour survey his treasure, “for blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure,” he does not mean for the sake of, but for fear of blunting pleasure.

On a more careful examination, however, these apparently disorderly and inexplicable anomalies will arrange themselves under certain heads. It must be remembered that the Elizabethan was a transitional period in the history of the English language. On the one hand, there was the influx of new discoveries and new thoughts requiring as their equivalent the coinage of new words (especially words expressive of abstract ideas); on the other hand, the revival of classical studies and the popularity of translations from Latin and Greek authors suggested Latin and Greek words (but principally Latin) as the readiest and most malleable metal, or rather as so many ready-made coins requiring only a slight national stamp to prepare them for the proposed augmentation of the currency of the language. Moreover, the long and rounded periods of the ancients commended themselves to the ear of the Elizabethan authors. In the attempt to conform English to the Latin frame, the constructive power of the former language was severely strained.

The necessity of avoiding ambiguity and the difficulty of connecting the end of a long sentence with the beginning, gave rise to some irregularities, to the redundant pronoun (242), the redundant ‘that’ (285), and the irregular ‘to’ (416).

But, for the most part, the influence of the classical languages was confined to single words, and to the rhythm of the sentence. The syntax was mostly English both in its origin and its development, and several constructions that are now called anomalous (such as the double negative [406] and the double comparative [409]) have, and had from the earliest period, an independent existence in English, and are merely the natural results of a spirit which preferred clearness and vigour of expression to logical symmetry. Many of the anomalies above mentioned may be traced back to some peculiarities of Early English, modified by the transitional Elizabethan period. Above all, it must be remembered that Early English was far richer than Elizabethan English in inflections. As far as English inflections are concerned the Elizabethan period was destructive rather than constructive. Naturally, therefore, while inflections were being discarded, all sorts of tentative experiments were made: some inflections were discarded that we have restored, others retained that we have discarded. Again, sometimes where inflections were retained the sense of their meaning and power had been lost, and at other times the memory of inflections that were no longer visibly expressed in writing still influenced the manner of expression. Thus Ben Jonson writes:--

“The persons plural keep the termination of the first person singular. In former times, till about the reign of King Henry VIII. they were wont to be formed by adding en thus:--Loven, sayen, complainen. But now (whatsoever is the cause) it is quite grown out of use, and that other so generally prevailed that I dare not presume to set this on foot again.”

He appears to be aware of the Midland plural in en (332) which is found only very rarely in Spenser and in Pericles of Tyre, but not of the Northern plural in es (333), which is very frequently found in Shakespeare, and which presents the apparent anomaly of a plural noun combined with a singular verb. And the same author does not seem to be aware of the existence of the subjunctive mood in English. He ignores it in his Etymology of a Verb, and, in the chapter on Syntax of a Verb with a Noun, writes as follows:--

“Nouns signifying a multitude, though they be of the singular number, require a verb plural: 'And wise men rehearsen in sentence,
Where folk be drunken there is no resistance.' LYDGATE, lib. ii.

And he continues thus:--“This exception is in other nouns also very common, especially when the verb is joined to an adverb or conjunction: It is preposterous to execute a man before he have been condemned.” It would appear hence that the dramatist was ignorant of the force of the inflection of the subjunctive, though he frequently uses it. Among the results of inflectional changes we may set down the following anomalies:--

    Inflections discarded but their power retained. Hence
    1. spoke (343) for spoken, rid for ridden. 2
    2. You ought not walk for You ought not walken (the old infinitive).
    3. The new infinitive (357) to walk used in its new meaning and also sometimes retaining its old gerundive signification. 3
    4. To glad (act.), to mad (act.), &c. (290) for to gladden, madden, &c.
    5. The adverbial e (1) being discarded, an adjective appears to be used as an adverb: “He raged more fierce,” &c.
    6. Other is used for other(e), pl. other men, &c.
    7. The ellipsis of the pronoun (399) as a nominative may also be in part thus explained.
    Inflections retained with their old power.
    1. The subjunctive inflection frequently used to express a condition--“Go not my horse,” for If my horse go not. Hence
    2. as with the subj. appears to be used for as if, and for and if, but (in the sense of except) for except if, &c.
    3. The plural in en; very rarely.
    4. The plural in es or s; far more commonly.
    5. His used as the old genitive of he for of him. Me, him, &c. used to represent other cases beside the objective and the modern dative: “I am appointed him to murder you.”
    Inflections retained but their power diminished or lost.
    1. Thus he for him, him for he; I for me, me for I, &c.
    2. In the same way the s which was the sign of the possessive case had so far lost its meaning that, though frequently retained, it was sometimes replaced (in mistake) by his and her.
    Other anomalies may be explained by reference to the derivations of words and the idioms of Early English. Hence can be explained
    1. so followed by as;
    2. such followed by which (found in E. E. sometimes in the form whuch or wuch);
    3. that followed by as;
    4. who followed by he;
    5. the which put for which;
    6. shall for will, should for would, and would for wish.

The four above-mentioned causes are not sufficient to explain all the anomalies of Elizabethan style. There are several redundancies, and still more ellipses, which can only be explained as follows.

    1. Clearness was preferred to grammatical correctness, and
    2. brevity both to correctness and clearness.
    Hence it was common to place words in the order in which they came uppermost in the mind without much regard to syntax, and the result was a forcible and perfectly unambiguous but ungrammatical sentence, such as:
    1. “The prince that feeds great natures they will sway him.” B. J. Sejanus.
    2. As instances of brevity:--

      “Be guilty of my death since of my crime.

      “It cost more to get than to lose in a day.” B. J. Poetaster.
  1. One great cause of the difference between Elizabethan and Victorian English is, that the latter has introduced or developed what may be called the division of labour. A few examples will illustrate this.

    The Elizabethan subjunctive (see VERBS, SUBJUNCTIVE) could be used

    1. optatively, or
    2. to express a condition or
    3. a consequence of a condition,
    4. or to signify purpose after that.
    Now, all these different meanings are expressed by different auxiliaries--would that! should he come, he would find, that he may see,--and the subjunctive inflection is restricted to a few phrases with if. To walk is now either (1) a noun, or (2) denotes a purpose, in order to walk. In Elizabethan English, to walk might also denote by walking, as regards walking, for walking; a licence now discarded, except in one or two common phrases, such as I am happy to say, &c. Similarly, Shakespeare could write of vantage for from vantage-ground, of charity for for charity's sake, of mine honour for on my honour, of purpose for on purpose, of the city's cost for at the city's cost, of his body for as regards his life, made peace of enmity for peace instead of enmity, we shall find a shrewd contriver of him for in him, did I never speak of all that time for during all that time. Similarly by has been despoiled of many of its powers, which have been divided among near, in accordance with, by reason of, owing to. But has been forced to cede some of its provinces to unless and except. Lastly, that, in Early English the only relative, had been already, before the Elizabethan times, supplanted in many idioms by who and which; but it still retained its meanings of because, inasmuch as, and when; sometimes under the forms for that, in that; sometimes without the prepositions. These it has now lost, except in a few colloquial phrases.

    As a rule, then, the tendency of the English language has been to divide the labour of expression as far as possible by diminishing the task assigned to overburdened words and imposing it upon others. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule--notably who and which; but this has been the general tendency. And in most cases it will be found that the Victorian idiom is clearer but less terse than the corresponding Elizabethan idiom which it has supplanted.

  2. The character of Elizabethan English is impressed upon its pronunciation, as well as upon its idioms and words. As a rule their pronunciation seems to have been more rapid than ours. Probably the greater influence of spoken as compared with written English, sanctioned many contractions which would now be judged intolerable if for the first time introduced. (See 461.) This, however, does not explain the singular variation of accent upon the same words in the same author. Why should "exile," "aspect," "confessor," and many other words, be accented now on the first, now on the second syllable? The answer is, that during the unsettled Elizabethan period the foreign influence was contending with varying success against the native rules of English pronunciation. The English rule, as given by Ben Jonson, is definite enough. "In dissyllabic simple nouns" (by which it is to be supposed he means un-compounded), "the accent is on the first, as 'bélief,' 'hónour,' &c." But he goes on to say, that "all verbs coming from the Latin, either of the supine or otherwise, hold the accent as it is found in the first person present of those Latin verbs." Hence a continual strife over every noun derived from Latin participles: the English language claiming the new comer as her naturalized subject, bound by English laws; the Latin, on the other hand, asserting a partial jurisdiction over her emigrants. Hence accéss and áccess, precépt and précept, contráct (noun) and cóntract, instínct and ínstinct, relápse and rélapse. The same battle raged over other Latin words not derived from participles: commérce and cómmerce, obdúrate and óbdurate, sepúlchre and sépulchre, contráry and cóntrary, authórize and aúthorize, perséver and persevére, cónfessor and conféssor. The battle terminated in a thoroughly English manner. An arbitrary compromise has been effected between the combatants. Respéct, relápse, succéss, succéssor, were ceded to the Latin: áspect, cóllapse, 4 áccess, sépulchre, were appropriated by the English. But while the contest was pending, and prisoners being taken and retaken on either side, we must not be surprised at finding the same word ranged now under native, now under foreign colours.
  3. Words then used literally are now used metaphorically, and vice versâ.

    The effect of this is most apparent in the altered use of prepositions. For instance, by, originally meaning near, has supplanted of in the metaphorical sense of agency, as it may in its turn be supplanted by with or some other preposition. This is discussed more fully under the head of prepositions (138). Here a few illustrations will be given from other words. It is not easy to discover a defined law regulating changes of metaphor. There is no reason why we should not, with Beaumont and Fletcher, talk of living at a “deep 5 rate” as well as a “high rate.” But it will be found with respect to many words derived from Latin and Greek, that the Elizabethans used them literally and generally; we, metaphorically and particularly. Thus "metaphysical" was used by Shakespeare in the broader meaning of "supernatural;" and "fantastical" could be applied even to a murder, in the wide sense of "imagined." So "exorbitant" was out of the path, uncommon; now only applied to that which is uncommonly "expensive." So extravagant (

    “The extravagant and erring spirit,

    ) has been restricted to “wandering beyond the bounds of economy.” "To aggravate" now means, except when applied to disease, "to add to the mental burdens of any one," hence "to vex;" but in Sonn. 146 we find “to aggravate thy store” in the literal sense of to add to the weight of or increase. So journall meant diurnal or daily; now it is restricted to a "daily" newspaper or memoir. The fact is that, in the influx of Greek and Latin words into the English language, many were introduced to express ideas that either could be, or were already, expressed in the existing vocabulary. Thus we do not require "metaphysical" to express that which is supernatural, nor "fantastical" to express that which is imagined; "exorbitant" is unnecessary in the sense of "uncommon;" "extravagant" (though it has a special force in

    “the extravagant and erring spirit,

    ) is not in most cases so obvious as "wandering;" "increase" is simpler than "aggravate," and "daily" more English than "diurnal." Similarly "speculation" is unnecessary to express the power of seeing, "advertised" useless in the sense of "warned" or "informed" (Lear, iv. 6. 214), "vulgar" in the sense of common. Such words, once introduced into the language, finding the broader room which they had been intended to fill already occupied, were forced to take narrower meanings. They did this, for the most part, by confining themselves to one out of many meanings which they had formerly represented, or by adopting metaphorical and philosophical instead of literal and material significations; and as the sense of their derivation and original meaning became weaker, the transition became easier. This is not merely true of words derived from Latin and Greek. "Travail," for example, finding itself supplanted in its original sense by "work" or "labour," has narrowed itself to a special meaning: the same is true of "beef," "pork," &c.

    On the other hand, some Latin and Greek words that express technicalities have, as the sense of their exact meaning was weakened, gradually become more loosely and generally used. Thus, "influence" means now more than the mere influence of the stars on men; "triumph," "preposterous," "pomp," "civil," "ovation," and "decimate," have lost much of their technical meaning. Of these words it may be said, that Shakespeare uses them more literally and particularly than we do. Thus, "triumph" is used for a show at a festival; "civil" is used for peaceful;

    “preposterous ass

    is applied to a man who put music before philosophy;


    is used in its technical sense for a tithed death.

    One cause that has affected the meaning of Latin-derived words has been the preference with which they have been selected in order to express depreciation. This has narrowed some words to an unfavourable signification which they did not originally possess. Thus, "impertinent" in Elizabethan authors meant not to the point; "officious" could then mean obliging, and a clever person could be described as

    “an admirable conceited fellow


    A classical termination (446) may sometimes be treated as active or as passive. Hence "plausibly" is used for with applause actively.

    “The Romans plausibly did give consent.

    “A very inconsiderate (inconsiderable) handful of English.” N. P. Appendix 31. Thus, on the one hand, we have “fluxive eyes” (eyes flowing with tears: L. C. 8), and on the other the more common passive sense, as "the inexpressive she" (the woman whose praises cannot be expressed).

    With respect to words of English or French origin, it is more difficult to establish any rule. All that can be said is that the Elizabethan, as well as the Victorian meaning, may be traced to the derivation of the word. Why, for instance, should not Ben Jonson write-- “Frost fearing myrtle shall impale my head.” Poetast. i. 1. i.e. take in within its pale, surround, as justifiably as we use the word in its modern sense of "transfixing?" Why should not sirens "train" (draw or decoy--trahere) their victims to destruction, as well as educators "train" their pupils onward on the path of knowledge? We talk of a world of trouble to signify an infinity; why should not Bacon E. 38) talk of "a globe of precepts?" Owing to the deficiency of their vocabulary, and their habit of combining prepositions with verbs, to make distinct words almost like the Germans, the Elizabethans used to employ many common English words, such as "pass," "hold," "take," in many various significations. Thus we find take in the sense of

    1. "bewitch;"
    2. "interrupt" ("You take him too quickly, Marcius," B. J. Poetast.);
    3. "consider" ("The whole court shall take itself abused," B. J. Cy.'s Rev. v. 1);
    4. "understand" ("You'll take him presently," E. out &c. i. 1); and
    5. "resort to" ("He was driven by foule weather to take a poor man's cottage," N. P. 597).
    With prepositions the word has many more meanings. "Take out"="copy;" "take in"="subdue;" "take up"="borrow;" "take in with" (Bacon)="side with;" "take up"="pull up" of a horse. And these meanings are additional to the many other meanings which the word still retains. To enter further into the subject of the formation and meaning of words is not the purpose of this treatise. The glossaries of Nares and Halliwell supply the materials for a detailed study of the subject. One remark may be of use to the student before referring him to the following pages. The enumeration of the points of difference between Shakespearian and modern English may seem to have been a mere list of irregularities and proofs of the inferiority of the former to the latter. And it is true that the former period presents the English language in a transitional and undeveloped condition, rejecting and inventing much that the verdict of posterity has retained and discarded. it was an age of experiments, and the experiments were not always successful. While we have accepted copious, ingenious, disloyal, we have rejected as useless copy (in the sense of "plenty"), ingin, and disnoble. But for freedom, for brevity and for vigour, Elizabethan is superior to modern English. Many of the words employed by Shakespeare and his contemporaries were the recent inventions of the age; hence they were used with a freshness and exactness to which we are strangers.6 Again, the spoken English so far predominated over the grammatical English that it materially influenced the rhythm of the verse (see Prosody), the construction of the sentence, and even sometimes (460) the spelling of words. Hence sprung an artless and unlaboured harmony which seems the natural heritage of Elizabethan poets, whereas such harmony as is attained by modern authors frequently betrays a painful excess of art. Lastly, the use of some few still remaining inflections (the subjunctive in particular), the lingering sense of many other inflections that had passed away leaving behind something of the old versatility and audacity in the arrangement of the sentence, the stern subordination of grammar to terseness and clearness, and the consequent directness and naturalness of expression, all conspire to give a liveliness and wakefulness to Shakespearian English which are wanting in the grammatical monotony of the present day. We may perhaps claim some superiority in completeness and perspicuity for modern English, but if we were to appeal on this ground to the shade of Shakespeare in the words of Antonio in the Tempest,-- “Do you not hear us speak?” we might fairly be crushed with the reply of Sebastian-- “I do; and surely It is a sleepy language.”

1 Compare

“More by all mores.

2 It should, however, be stated that the n is often dropped in Early English.

3 Morris, Specimens of Early English, p. xxxiii. Inf. loven. Gerund, to lovene.

4 Collapse is accented on the last syllable in most dictionaries.

5 “How brave lives he that keeps a fool, although the rate be deeper, But he that is his own fool, sir, does live a great deal cheaper.”

6 Exceptions are "eternal" used for "infernal" (O. iv. 2, 130; J. C. i. 2. 160; Hamlet, i. 4. 21); "triple" for "third" (A. W. ii. 1. 111); "temporary" for "temporal" (M. for M. v. 1. 145); "important" for "importunate" (Lear, iv. 4. 26); "expiate" for "expired" (Rich. III. iii. 3. 23); "colleagued" (Hamlet, i. 2. 21) for "co-leagued;" "importing" (ib. 23) for "importuning." The Folio has "Pluto's" for "Plutus" (J. C. iv. 3. 102).

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