Grammar Pet Peeves: Thee, Thou, and Thorn
by Kat Otis
An adventurer walks into Ye Olde Tavern. A hooded elf sitting in the far corner says, crankily, “Thee are late.” And somewhere, in a land far away, an historian has a brain aneurysm and falls down dead.
No, not the evil historian who flunked you one year in high school and ruined that whole summer. A really cool historian. The kind of historian who writes historical fantasy books in her spare time and whose fans will cry if her brain explodes from bad grammar. You don’t want to make her fans cry, now do you???
Those of you who just said yes… perhaps you should be reading G.R.R. Martin.
For the rest of you, I’ll explain a few things about late medieval/early modern English grammar and why the three errors in my first two sentences are enough to make me chuck a book into the fireplace. (Don’t panic, my fireplace is nonfunctional.)
Let’s start with the infamous “Ye Olde Insert-Noun-Of-Choice-Here” phrase. No, the problem isn’t the extra ‘e’ in ‘olde’ – before English was standardized into its current configuration, that was a perfectly acceptable way to spell the word. The problem is the ‘ye.’
Once upon a time, English did not use the 26 letters we all know and love – or hate – today. I won’t go into all the details except to mention that there used to be a cool letter called ‘thorn.’ Thorn – þ – is pronounced the same way we pronounce ‘th,’ so ‘þe’ and ‘the’ are essentially the same word. But in certain fonts, þ kind of looks like a ‘y,’ thus the ‘ye’ mistake arose from people misreading older fonts and alphabets.
Okay, so names like “Ye Olde Blogge” are giggle- or groan-worthy, depending on your personality. But the next two grammar mistakes are serious enough to make me wish I had a functional fireplace. I managed to cram two excruciatingly painful mistakes into three little words of dialogue: “Thee are late.”
The first mistake is the misuse of the pronoun ‘thee’ when I should have written ‘thou.’
The second-person singular pronouns ‘thou,’ ‘thee,’ ‘thy,’ and ‘thine’ confuse a lot of people since today we only use three second-person pronouns: ‘you,’ ‘your,’ and ‘yours.’ Basically, modern English has collapsed ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ into a single pronoun – ‘you’ – which makes it difficult to know which of the older pronouns should be used as a subject or object of a sentence. But trust me, misusing these pronouns makes your wise old elf/wizard/whatever sound like Jar Jar Binks.
Luckily, there’s an easy fix! Just (temporarily) replace the second-person pronoun with its first-person equivalent and any errors become painfully clear:
thou/thee/thy/thine = I/me/my/mine
Using this method, “Thee are late” becomes “Me am late.” (I was serious about the Jar Jar Binks, people!) Clearly this should have been “I am late” instead. A quick consultation with my equivalency list shows that ‘I’ matches up with ‘thou,’ so I’ll just plug the right pronoun in and now we’ve got “Thou are late.”
But wait! We’re not finished yet, because you can’t just switch out a pronoun without changing the conjugation of the associated verb. That brings me to the second, less obvious mistake. Writing “Thou are late” is just as incorrect as writing “I are late” – right pronoun, wrong verb conjugation.
Sadly, there is no easy rule to remembering correct second-person singular conjugations since English has so many irregular verbs. In general, you’re adding ‘st’ to the end of the verb so, for example, ‘dance’ becomes ‘dancest’ or ‘bake’ becomes ‘bakest.’
However, the most common verbs you’ll want to use are probably the irregular ones, which leaves you with few options other than memorization or Googling snippets of Shakespeare. Some of the verb conjugations worth knowing include hast (have), saist (said), shalt (shall), wilt (will) and – of course – art (are). Thus we finally end up with the grammatically correct, “Thou art late.”
So the next time thou art on thy way to þe local tavern, take pity on a persnickety historian and get thy grammar right – even if it makes thee late!
Kat Otis writes speculative fiction – everything from historical fantasy to urban fantasy, with a bit of science fiction thrown in for good measure.
Her short fiction has appeared online in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and Daily Science Fiction and in the anthologies Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress XXVI and Cucurbital 2. She is a 2009 graduate of Uncle Orson’s Literary Boot Camp and an active member of Codex Writers. She can be found on twitter as @kat_otis
When not reading or writing, she likes to hike and take pictures, and is a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America.