Verbs with Thou and Thee

By Maeve Maddox

The pronouns thou and thee were replaced by you in standard English a very long time ago, but the old forms still hold interest for modern speakers. A DWT reader wrote to me recently about a pastor who encourages his parishioners to use the “thou” forms in prayer. Many Bible readers still prefer the King James translation with its thous and thees to more modern ones.

Apart from a religious context, the old forms crop up in advertising and entertainment, often with the wrong verb forms, possibly for intended comic effect.

For example, an insurance ad on television features an agent dressed in paper armor made from insurance policies. He exchanges a few words with another agent. Here are some of their attempts at what the ad writer characterizes as “broken Old English.” It’s not Old English, but it is very broken.

I doth declare that thou have brought overmany discounts to thine customers!
Thou cometh and we thy saveth!
We doth offer so many discounts, we have some to spare.

The second person singular forms fell out of standard use as Middle English passed into Early Modern English.

Without going into too much detail, or trying to account for every variation, I’ll illustrate some of the uses of the forms thou, thee, thy, and thine.

Thou art my friend. (subject)
I love thee. (object)
Is this thy dog? (possessive adjective)
No, I thought it was thine. (possessive pronoun)

Thine was also used as a possessive adjective in front of a noun beginning with a vowel: Is he thine enemy?

Verbs used with the subject form thou usually ended in -st. For example,

What dost thou still in bed, thou lazy lout

Can I go out with my friends, Mother? No, thou canst not.

The -th ending doesn’t go with thou or, as in the insurance ad, with we or any other pronoun. The -th ending signals third person:

What doth he still in bed?

He doth what he liketh best; he sleepeth.

The use of thou still exist in some English dialects, although in altered forms, such as tha.

The use of a second person singular in the “plain speech” of the Society of Friends (Quakers) continued into modern times. Among some Quakers, the archaic verb endings dropped away and the subject form thou was superseded by the object form thee, much as the object form you replaced the subject form ye in standard English.

If you ever decide you want to use archaic pronouns and verb endings in an ad or a historical novel, you might want to review the forms.

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7 Responses to “Verbs with Thou and Thee”

  • Roberta B.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong……but isn’t “ye” the Old English term for second person plural. It would be the origin of “y’all” used as the second person plural in the Southern United States. [I thought we had this discussion back in 2009 – 10 Common ESL Mistakes.]

  • venqax

    We hear this from southern sympathizers quite a bit: y’all or yall is the second person plural of you in Dixie English, or some such. Apparently it is an attempt to legitimate via rationality a substandard dialectical use. But evidence indicates that this is nonsense. Examples of y’all used in the singular and constructions like “all y’all” for the plural as well as random or total use of y’all can be found all over southern speech. There is no “formal” or proper southern grammar distinct from Standard American English. It is a regional dialect and y’all has no better pedigree than *youse*. Use *you* for all yous and leave y’all’s y’all back under the davenport when speaking or writing formally, whether in Bangor or Biloxi.

  • Roberta B.

    @venqax My comment pertained to the Old English word “ye” referenced in the article just to make a point that there is a reason or an origin for certain dialects or usage. Don’t you have an interest in where words come from (written or spoken) and how they have evolved into current usage……..”legitimate” or not?

  • venqax

    @Roberta B.: “Don’t you have an interest in where words come from…?”
    Yes. I wasn’t criticizing your question. I was just questioning the idea that “y’all” was a second person plural, as opposed to just bad grammar, regardless of its origin. I think giving it that label lends it too much legitimacy– implying an alternative standard as opposed to a lack of standards. I agree that whether y’all evolved from ye is an interesting question. I doubt it, but it is interesting.

  • dicere

    @venqax, @Roberta B.
    “Ye” was never a word in the english language – the letter “Y” was simply used as a stand-in for the letter þ (thorn). The original printing press was a Germanic invention and thus was not tailored to english lettering. Therefore, when writing the letter “þ”, “Y” was used as a stand in.

    Furthermore, the word “Ye”, as in “Ye olde English Shoppe” (or some variant thereof, no doubt) is actually the word “The”, not “Thee” or “You”. This would originally have been spelt “þe”.

    The Old English term for polite/plural usage was “You”, whereas in singular/informal situations “þee/þou” (“thee/thou”) would have been used. “You” simply superceded “þou” over time.

  • dicere

    Furthermore, “Y’all” is simply a contraction of “you all”, as indicated by the apostrophe showing omission, common elsewhere throughout the English language (do not > don’t, we are > we’re)

  • dicere

    Redaction: upon further reading, “Ye” was a word, the nominative case of You (accusative case). However, this does not negate my previous point – the confusion here is caused by the lack of a þ in the original printing press.

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