Grammar in early modern English | Oxford English Dictionary (2022)

  • Nouns and adjectives
  • Pronouns and determiners
  • Verbs
  • Modal and auxiliary verbs
  • Gerunds, adverbs, and conjunctions
  • The sentence

This article provides a selection of the main grammatical differences between early modern and late modern English; many more can be found within the OED entries for individual words.

Nouns and adjectives

As in modern English, the only regular noun inflection was the -s ending of the genitive and plural: irregular plurals were mostly the same as those that have survived into recent English. The use of an apostrophe in the genitive singular was optional in the sixteenth century; it was frequent in the seventeenth, but only became established around 1700. In the genitive plural the apostrophe was not used in this period.

An alternative form of the genitive singular throughout the period was the so-called ‘possessive dative’ as in ‘Job’s Patience, Moses his Meekness, Abraham’s Faith’ (Richard Franck, 1694). This was most commonly used after nouns ending in -s referring to masculines, perhaps because it was practically identical in sound with the regular genitive ending in -(e)s. A parallel use with her, e.g. ‘The Excellency of our Church her burial office’, and with their, also occurred.

In Middle English the group genitive (i.e. the genitive of a complex noun phrase like the king of England) was a split construction, e.g. ‘the kinges wyf of England’: this construction was still found in early modern English but was replaced by the familiar constructions seen in ‘the wife of the king of England’ or ‘the king of England’s wife’.

Adjective gradation. All three alternatives easier, more easy, and more easier, were acceptable in this period. In standard English, the rule by which –er and –est are preferred in monosyllabic words and more and most are used in polysyllabic ones, with variation in disyllabic words, was established by the late seventeenth century. In regional dialects -er continued to be preferred in all words, however long. The double comparative was generally used for emphasis (and was praised by the dramatist Ben Jonson).

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Pronouns and determiners

Personal pronouns. In the second person, by 1600 ye was a rare alternative to you; no case distinction remained (in earlier English, ye was the subjective case and you the objective). The use of you as a ‘polite’ form of address to a single person progressively encroached on thou (originally the singular pronoun) until by 1600 thou (and its objective case thee) was restricted to ‘affective’ (both positive and negative) uses (i.e. so as to be intimate or disparaging). By the late seventeenth century you had become normal in almost all contexts and thou and thee were limited to the Bible and religious use, the Quakers, and regional dialects.

In the third person, the possessive of it was his until around 1600. Various alternatives arose, including it (‘it had it head bit off beit (= by it) young’, King Lear) and thereof (‘Sufficient vnto the daye, is the trauayle therof’, Great Bible, 1539); its first appeared in print in the 1590s and was rapidly accepted into the standard language.

Reflexive pronouns. The earlier use of the simple objective pronouns me, thee, us, and so on, became restricted largely to poetic use during the period, as in this example from Milton’s Paradise Lost: ‘Take to thee from among the Cherubim Thy choice of flaming Warriours’. Forms in –self (which early had been restricted to emphatic use) now became the usual ones; plurals—with –selves (replacing –self) after plural pronouns—made their appearance in the early sixteenth century.

Relative pronouns. The relative pronoun that remained common (as it still is), but a number of alternatives existed during the period. the which was inherited from Middle English but became rare by the mid-seventeenth century. which could be used for both persons and things but became rare for persons after 1611. who as a relative pronoun was rare in the fifteenth century and gradually became commoner in the period. The use of the so-called ‘zero relative’ (i.e. no pronoun at all) arose in Middle English but was rare in the sixteenth century. In the early modern period it could be used where the relative was the subject of its clause as well as object (now largely non-standard or poetic), e.g. ‘Life it a burden [zero relative] cannot be born under the lasting..pressure of such an uneasiness’ (John Locke, 1694).

The co-occurrence rules for determiners were somewhat different from those in later modern English. Notably common was the sequence of demonstrative + possessive + noun (‘this your son’).

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The present tense. The second person singular inflection –est naturally declined in importance as the use of thou declined, giving rise to the current arrangement whereby in the present tense only the third singular is marked and all other persons take the base form.

At the start of the period, the normal third person singular ending in standard southern English was –eth. The form -(e)s, originally from Northern dialect, replaced –eth in most kinds of use during the seventeenth century. A few common short forms, chiefly doth, hath, continued often to be written, but it seems likely that these were merely graphic conventions.

Forming the past tense and past participle. The class of ‘strong’ verbs (those which indicate tense by a vowel change and do not have a dental segment added) included a number of verbs which are now only ‘weak’

Examples include: creep: crope, cropen; delve: dolve, dolven; help: holp, holpen; melt: molt, molten; seethe: sod, sodden.

A few ‘weak’ verbs moved into the strong class during the period, including dig, spit, and stick.

The formation of the past tense and past participle of strong verbs showed more variation in early modern English than today. There were a number of changes which began in Middle English and whose results have now been fossilized in present English but which produced a variety of forms in this period.

These were:
i. patterning the past tense on the past participle (as in tore after torn);
ii. adapting the past tense or past participle to verbs with a different pattern (as in slung after sung, etc.);
iii. patterning the past participle on the past tense (as in sat)
iv. dropping the –en suffix of the past participle (as in sung as opposed to ridden).

For example, write had the regular past tense wrote, but also found were writ (with the vowel of the past participle) and wrate (patterned on gave or brake); the participle was written or writ (with loss of –en) and wrote (based on the past tense) was also found. Verbs like bear, break, speak, etc., regularly formed their past tenses with a (bare, brake, spake) and this pattern was even extended to other verbs (wrate, drave). Owing to the Great Vowel Shift these past forms lost their distinctiveness from the present stem (since in a widespread variety of pronunciation, the long a of the past became identical with the long open e of the present) and after 1600 forms with o from the past participle (bore, broke, spoke) became normal.

Regular ‘weak’ verbs in Middle English formed their past tense and past participles in –ed, pronounced as a separate syllable, as it still is in a few fossilized forms such as belovèd, blessèd. During the sixteenth century the vowel was lost in this ending except where the preceding consonant was t or d (e.g. in hated) and the d of the ending was devoiced to [t] after a voiceless consonant (e.g. in locked as opposed to logged). Present English spelling does not regularly show these three variants [id], [d], [t] but in early modern English ‘phonetic’ spellings (’d, d, ’t, t) are quite often found. (This can lead to the obscuration of other distinctions; for example, it is sometimes unclear whether rap’t represents rapped or raped.)

There was an inherited class of verbs which end in a dental and do not add a dental ending to show the past (e.g. cast, set). This class was temporarily enlarged by the borrowing of Latin participles ending in –t used initially as participles and past tenses, e.g. ‘Moste playnly those thynges sem to be euydent, whiche of offyce and good maner be gyue and precept of them’ (Robert Whittinton, 1534), ‘That the pain should be mitigate’ (1560). These were subsequently used in other forms of the verb and developed regular past forms in –ed.

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Modal and auxiliary verbs

to be

The present tense of the verb to be has be-forms alongside the forms (am, are) used in current English: I be, thou beest, we, you, or they be. These were quite common in the sixteenth century, but became rare in the seventeenth, and were ultimately limited to regional dialect. The perfect of intransitive verbs, especially verbs of motion, continued (as in Middle English) to be frequently formed with to be rather than to have. Shakespeare normally uses to be with creep, enter, flee, go, meet, retire, ride, and run.

to do

The periphrastic use of the verb to do, (e.g. ‘those things we do esteeme vaine’ as opposed to ‘to those persons we esteem vain’) arose in Middle English, but its frequency in fifteenth-century prose is below 10 per cent. However, its use in all kinds of sentence rose rapidly during the sixteenth century.

In negative and affirmative direct questions (e.g. do or did you (not) love?), and negative declaratives and imperatives (e.g. I do or did not love, do not love) it virtually displaced the non-periphrastic uses (love(d) you (not)?, I love(d) not, love not) by 1700.

The use of the periphrastic construction in affirmative declarative sentences (I do or did love), however, declined rapidly in the late sixteenth century. After the do-construction had completely displaced the non-periphrastic one in questions and negatives, its use in affirmative declaratives became, in the eighteenth century, a marker of emphasis.

The use of to be + the present participle of the verb is rare in the early modern English period, and the modern use, indicating immediate present action, is absent. Such uses as are found appear to intensify the action: ‘let your plough therfore be going and not cease’ (Hugh Latimer, 1549). There existed a gerundial construction which was similar in form—he is a-praying—and which may have influenced the development of the progressive use. The to be + present participle construction had no passive: ‘the ark was being built’ was expressed by the active the ark was building or the gerundial the ark was in building or a-building.

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Gerunds, adverbs, and conjunctions

The gerund (which has the capability of governing an object or complement) came in this period to be used alongside the verbal noun, giving rise to various mixed uses which are difficult to classify: ‘as in reciting of playes, reading of verses, &c, for the varying the tone of the voice’ (John Evelyn, 1665).

Adverbs without the ending –ly were much commoner in this period.

Examples include:

  • ‘No man spake clear, equal, or without artifice’ (Paul Rycaut, 1681)
  • ‘This proclamacion..was..fair writen in parchment’ (Thomas More, a1535)

The compound adverbs of the form here, there, and where + preposition were in widespread use as equivalents of preposition + this, that (or it), and what, e.g. ‘To make there through a nauigable passage’ (Thomas Blundeville, 1594).

Compound subordinating conjunctions with that as their second element were common in this period.

Examples include:

  • ‘The propertie thereof is to mount alwaies vpwards, vntill that it hath attained to the place destinated vnto it’ (R. Dolman, 1601).
  • ‘Though that the Queene on speciall cause is here, Hir army is moued on’ (William Shakespeare, King Lear)

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The sentence

Inversion of verb and subject

After an adverbial element, a conjunction, or an object, this was frequent in the sixteenth century (perhaps in as many as one-third of sentences), but dropped sharply after 1600.

Examples include:

  • ‘And hereof commeth the destruction of the reprobates’ (James Bell, 1581)
  • ‘My case is hard, but yet am I not so desperat as to reuenge it vpon my selfe’ (Holinshed’s Chronicle, 1587)
  • ‘The sylinges and geastes maketh he off Cedre’ (Bible (Coverdale) 1535)

The multiple negative

In Old and Middle English it was unexceptional to negate more than one element of a sentence, and this remained down to the early seventeenth century, subsequently becoming rare or nonstandard.

Examples include:

  • ‘I wyll not medle with no duplycyte’ (Stephen Hawes, 1503)
  • ‘I can nat sette a gowne, I was never no taylour’ (John Palsgrave, 1530)
  • ‘Hee absented not himselfe in no place’ (Philemon Holland, 1606).

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Where next with the OED Online?

  1. there’s more on the development of early modern English in this overview article, also written by Edmund Weiner. A growing list of commentaries on English in time, charting historical lexicography from Old English to the modern day, is also available.
  2. OED Online traces the usage of words through 3 million quotations from a wide range of international English language sources, including more than 2000 quotations from the philosopher John Locke and nearly 5000 from the diarist John Evelyn. You can also search by source: for example, the OED includes more than 5000 quotations from Paradise Lost.

How do I search for these? with subscriber access to the OED Online you can search the dictionary’s quotation evidence using the Advanced Search option. To search across the OED‘s 3 million quotations by text, author, work title or date use, click on the Quotations tab. The OED also provides thousands of links to authors with entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, to set writers and their work in context.

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