Hast Thou Heard('st) How to Conjugate Verbs?
In our last article, we looked at when to use
"thee" vs. "you" pronouns. But any student of languages knows that it's
not enough to use a pronoun...you've got to conjugate it with the
Well, let's give you a basic primer on when to use(th? st?) verbs. (And why the image below is WRONG ON SO MANY LEVELS.)
In the same way, the second person pronoun (thee/you) has particular verbs. BUT DID YOU KNOW that there's also a particular verb for the third person (she/he/it/they)? We'll cover the basics of both in this article.
When should I use "-est" and -"eth"?
You should | Thou shouldst
You travel far | Thou travellest far
You gave him | Thou gavest him or Thou gav'st him
You dance | Thou dancest (Yes, really)
As you can see, the "thee" form adds an extra, tricksy sound to verbs. (Which is why it may have been dropped in the language, in favor of the easier to conjugate "you" verb.)
For this third person, singular, intimate/lower person, you add -eth. Sometimes. The -eth is frequently dropped if it doesn't scan (more on that in a minute.)
Thou shouldst | He should (drop the -eth...it's weird.)
Thou travellest far | She travelleth far
Thou gavest him | They gaveth him (Note that "they" is singular here)
Thou dancest | It danceth (But see Note below!)
While at one time it was good grammar to add on "-eths" everywhere, even Elizabeth verse dramatists would frequently drop it, because an extra -eth is just unwieldy.
NOTE: The "I Love Lamp" Rule.
There's a tendency, once you've learned about -eth to put it on everything. But truly think...how often are you going to talk about, oh, a piece of furniture in an intimate or lower person context. So while you can say: "The lamp lighteth the room," what are you trying to convey dramatically to us? That the speaker loves (or disdains) lamp?
However, the "-eth" ending can be used poetically, in a sort of "I feel smol" about X-inanimate object way. So: "It shineth like the sun." I mean, you're not best friends with the sun. You're definitely not higher than it. But at the moment, regarding the light cast from the sun, you're feeling pretty smol...and so you might throw in an -eth.
Irregular Verbs...That You'll Use A Lot
it's uncommon (and unwieldy) to add on -est and especially -eth to
various verbs, there are a few common and sometimes irregular verbs that
are worth going over. You can get a fuller list here.
Alternate and Double Verbs
When you're writing verse, especially if you're using strict repeated meter, an extra "-est" or "-eth" can throw off your scansion. You have a few options here. In this case, let's use the verb "to dance."
- Forget the "thou" form. Just use "you" and conjugate appropriately
Thou dancest like wind upon the ocean wave => You dance like wind upon the ocean wave
(You'll note this doesn't work for "he/she/it.") She danceth like wind upon the ocean wave => She dances like wind upon the ocean wave
- Use the past tense instead
Thou dancest like wind upon the ocean wave => Thou danced like wind upon the ocean wave
She danceth like wind upon the ocean wave => She danced like wind upon the ocean wave
- Invert the verb and the pronoun. There's a loophole in conjugating, where if the verb comes first, you don't have to add -est or -eth, because it suddenly become an imperative verb. This works with the "thou" form...but not necessarily with "he/she/it."
Thou dancest like the wind upon the ocean wave => Dance thou like the wind upon the ocean wave
She danceth like the wind upon the ocean wave => Dances she like the wind upon the ocean wave
- Use a contraction
Thou dancest like wind upon the ocean wave => Thou danc'st like wind upon the ocean wave (I grant you...this is stretching it a bit!)
(You'll note this doesn't work for "he/she/it.") She danceth like wind upon the ocean wave=>She danc'th?!?!?!? No. No. Not at all.
- Use a double verb
THIS IS A POPULAR CHOICE...IT'S ALSO SUPER OVERUSED.
Thou dancest like wind upon the ocean wave => Thou dost dance like wind upon the ocean wave
She danceth like wind upon the ocean wave => She doth dance like wind upon the ocean wave
More About Double Verbs
It's incredibly popular to use double verbs in order to get around a tricky -est or -eth conjugation. Most commonly, playwrights and poets will go for the "do [verb]" doubling. However, I implore you to try to not. It ends up sounding clunky and ungrammatical, and is super difficult to say aloud. Your verse becomes stilted, and it's just pain pain pain pain pain.
Let's look at some examples. Try to read them aloud and see what you think.
- Without double verb
He whispereth in mine ear of hope
But thou demandest I heed him not
- With double verbs. You'll notice the scansion's gone awful. You can put in any of the above verbs, and it's the same outcome for shall, may, will, can, etc.
- Forget "thou" and use modern English
- Use the past tense
- Invert the verb and pronoun...when you can. This can be tricky, as it turns the second line into a question.
- Use a contraction...if you can. The -eth form doesn't really have a contraction. The -est form can be forced into an 'st.
Ultimately...It's About Style
What works for you? What is easy for your actors to say? What gives the vibe you want the audience to pick up? So long as you aren't going around having folks say: "I giveth thou the gift he gav'st me" or something egregious, but try out some of the tricks from above, you'll be fine.