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 correct verb.

So what's a verse dramatist who's attempting to sound ye olde English-ish to do?

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.)
Think about learning any pronoun sets in any language.  Part of it is learning how to conjugate the verbs associated with the pronoun.  For example, in English, unless you're writing for a very specific character, you'd probably write: "We are" and not "I are" or "She is" and not "I is."

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"?

  • Use -est or 'st when conjugating with "thou"
Verbs that are connected to the second person singular/intimate ("thee") will add an -est or 'st to the end of the verb.  So:

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.)

  •  Use -eth when conjugating with "he/she/they"...if you would use "thou" for that person if you were talking to them.
This one's a little tricky.  So, basically, if you're talking about a third person (he/she/they) and you feel intimate towards them, or they're of lower rank, or you want to be intimate with them, or to belittle them...then you use this special conjugation to show what your relationship is to them.
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

While 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.

Please note: although They can be used in English as singular or plural, it still retains the same verb conjugation no matter the number of people "they" refers to.

  • To be
I am                      We are
Thou art                You are    
He/She/It is           They are
  • Was
I was                          We were
Thou wert                  You were  
He/She/It were/was   They were
  • Will (Shall is the same conjugation)
I will                    We will
Thou wilt             You will
He/She/It will      They will
  • Would (Could and Should are the same conjugation)
I would                  We would
Thou wouldst         You would  
He/She/It would     They would
  • Can
I can                       We can
Thou canst             You can  
He/She/It can         They can
  • May
I may                     We may
Thou mayst           You may
He/She/It may       They may
(You could use "mayeth" but...why.)
  • To Have
I have                                 We have
Thou hast                           You have
He/She/It hath (if "thou")   They have
He/She/It has (if "you")
  • To Do
I do                                     We do
Thou dost                           You do
He/She/It doth (if "thou")   They do
He/She/It does (if "you")

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


 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.
He does [or doth] whisper in mine ear of hope
But thou dost demand I heed him not
NOTICE: that the double verb isn't really needed, and is kind of clunky.  Let's try one of our other substitutions instead.  Look at how the verb choice changes the scansion.
  • Forget "thou" and use modern English
He whispers in my ear of hope
But you demand I heed him not.
  • Use the past tense
He whispered in my ear of hope
But thou demanded I heed him not.
  • Invert the verb and pronoun...when you can.  This can be tricky, as it turns the second line into a question.
Whisper he in my ear of hope
But demand thou I heed him not?
  • Use a contraction...if you can.  The -eth form doesn't really have a contraction. The -est form can be forced into an 'st.
He whispereth in my ear of hope
But thou demand'st I heed him not. 

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.


Popular Posts