Chaucer's Grammar

Index

Nouns * Personal Pronouns * Adjectives * Adverbs Verbs * Preterites * Preterite Present * Impersonal Verbs

 

NOUNS

Nouns in Middle English, like those in Modern English, generally add -s if the word ends with a vowel or -es if the word ends with a consonant to indicate the possessive and plural.

Singular

Possessive

Plural

Meaning

Regular

aventure

aventures

(chance,risk)

stound

stoundes

(time, moment)

wight

wightes

wightes

(creature)

Short vowel and consonant

bryd

bryddes

bryddes

(bird)

god

goddes , goddis

goddes , goddis

(god)

Irregular

deer

deer

(deer)

hors

horses

hors

Stem changes

mous

mouses

mys

(mouse)

gos

goses

gees

Old -en plurals

eye, ye

eyen, eighen, yen

(eye)

fo, foo

fon [foos]

(enemy)

too

toon [toos]

(toes)

Notice that words ending with consonants preceded by short vowels double their consonants before adding the usual endings.

Some nouns retain the OE dative ending (-e) when they appear as the object of a pronoun in certain fixed expressions&emdash;such as lif. and on live or bed, and to bedde. A select few nouns sometimes appear with no inflection for the genitive singular, such as Lady Chapel (Our Lady's Chapel) and fader soule (father's soul). Others are brother, chirche, and herte.

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PERSONAL PRONOUNS

Subject

Possessive

Object

I, ich

my, myn

me

thou

thy, thyn

thee

he

his

him

she

her

hir(e)

it, hit

his

it, hit

Plural

we

oure

us

ye

youre

you

they

hire

them, hem

Note particularly those forms that differ from Modern English (in boldface). Though there is no hard and fast rule, the "thou" form is generally used as the familiar form of address to children, intimates and inferiors. Conversely, the "you" form is used in polite situations and when addressing superiors.

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ADJECTIVES

There are two possibilities for adjectival inflection. The so called "weak" inflection is used after definite articles, and possessives, in the vocative (O goode God), and often before proper names; it is formed by adding e to the base word. The "strong" inflection is used the rest of the time, and is simply the base word with no inflection when singular. Both strong and weak adjectives add e in the plural.

Weak

Strong

Singular

sik lay the goode man

his opinion was good

O goode Custance

A good man was ther

Plural

for the goode men

his hors were goode

Comparative Adjectives

As in Modern English,-er and -est are added to the adjective stem to form the comparative and superlative forms, though there are some irregular forms.

Positive

Comparative

Superlative

Regular

strong

stronger

strongest

grete

gretter

grettest

Irregular

good

bet

best

bad

badder , werse

werste

muche(l)

mo

meste

"many, more, etc."

Iyte(l)

lasse/lesse

leeste

"small, smaller "

In a few archaic forms the OE genitive -es is preserved:

alleskinnes-of every kind

noskinnes-of no kind

The old form alder (or alther ) is sometimes used with the superlative to form a compound adjective:

alderbeste-best of all

alderlest-least of all

alderfirst-first of all

alther-fairest-fairest of all

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ADVERBS

Adverbs Adverbs are formed from adjectives by adding -ly, -liche or -e. See the Vocabulary list at the end for some of the most common Chaucerian adverbs.

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VERBS

The present tense is formed with -e, -rest, and -eth in the singular and -en in the plural:

I,ich here, finde

thou herest, findest

he, she, hit hereth, findeth

we, ye, they heren, finden

The pronoun thou is often suffixed to the verb (usually in questions):

herestow do you hear?

woostow do you know?

*Note: when the stem of the verb ends in -d or -t, the third person singular form is often contracted:

he fynt - he findeth

he rit - he rideth

The present subjunctive is easily formed by the simple addition of -e to the verb stem. Note that the subjunctive is used much more frequently in Middle English than it is today.

Indicative

Doun on hir knees falleth she to grounde.

She falls down on her knees to the ground

Subjunctive

And he falle, he hath non helpe to rise

If he should fall, he would have no help to get up

A verray pestilence upon yow falle!

May a real plague afflict you!

Al falle it foule or faire

Whether it turn out good or evil

The imperative singular usually has no ending (occasionally -e is added to the stem); plural imperatives add -eth to the stem. Stems ending in a vowel usually do not add anything.

Singular

Go bet! (Go quickly!)

Com hider, love, to me (Come hither, l ove, to me)

Plural

Gooth forth! ([you, pl.] go forth.!)

"Cometh neer," quod he, "my lady Prioress."

( Come nearer, " he said "my lady Prioress. ")

[note the use of the plural imperative for polite address]

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PRETERITES

As in Modern English the preterite is formed by the addition of -d or -t to the verb stem (the weak conjugation) or by a change in the stem vowel (the "strong" conjugation as in sing, sang, sung). In the weak conjugation the personal endings are often superadded:

 

Sing.

Plu.

Sing.

Plu.

I herde

we herden

I wente

we wenten

thou herdest

ye herden

thou wentest

ye wenten

he herde

they herden

he wente

they wenten

Strong verbs form their preterites by regular vowel changes. No personal singular endings are added, but the second person singular and plural have a different vowel from the first and third persons singular. This distinction had already begun to fade by Chaucer's time, however, and the same vowel is frequently used throughout the preterite. Take the verb ginnen (to begin) as an example:

I gan

thou gonne

he, she, it gan

we gonnen

The past participle of both strong and weak verbs frequently has a y prefix; the weak past participle ends in -d or -t, the strong in -e or -en. Example: (y)gonne and (y)herd. As always, the verbs "been," to be, and "gon," to go, are irregular. The forms for the present and preterite are as follows:

< P>Sing.

Plu.

Sing.

Plu.

I am

we be(e)n, aren

I was

we were(n)

thou art

ye be(e)n, aren

thou were(n)

ye were(n)

he/she/hit is

they be(e)n, aren

he were(n)

they were(n)

Past participle - (y)be(n)

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PRETERITE PRESENT

These are usually auxiliary ("helping") verbs, and many of them survive in Modern English. Their present tense is formed on an old preterite, so that the third person singular has no inflectional ending. Their preterites are weak.

Present Sing ular

Present PIural

Preterite

dar, darst (dare)

dorste, durste

may, mayst (to be able)

mowe(n)

myghte, myghtest, myghte(n)

mot, most (must, may)

mote(n)

moste,muste, muster, mosten

owe, owest, oweth (ought, owe, own)

owe(n)

oght, oughtest, oughten

tharf (it is necessary)

thurfen

thurfte

kan, kanst (know how, know)

connen

coude

woo(s)t (know, discover)

witen

wiste

shal, shalt (must)

shul, shulle(n)

sholde, sholdest, sholden

* shal also has its modern sense of futurity.

Be careful. These words often have meanings different from their Modern English counterparts.

Some Special Cases

The verb "ginnen," to begin, is most often used in the preterite as a mere auxiliary signifying past time: he gan riden (he rode). Its sense of beginning is usually apparent only when the dependent infinitive is preceded by for to: he gan for to riden (he began to ride). The verb "don," to do, is often used with a causative sense: he did don him sleen (he had him killed).

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IMPERSONAL VERBS

Middle English has a great many impersonal constructions. These are some of the most common:

him liketh

it pleases him

him list

it pleases him; he wants

him reweth

it pains hirn ; he rues, repents

hire mette

it dreamed to her; she dreamed

us nedeth

it is lacking to us; we need

deigned hym nat

it was not proper to him; he disdained

hire oughte

it was right for her; she ought

us moste

it is necessary for us; we must

it remembreth me

I remember

Note the difference between the personal verb thenke(n) and the impersonal thynke(n): the subject of thenken is in the nominative case (I); since thynken is impersonal, it takes not a subject pronoun, but rather an object pronoun (you, hir).

thenke(n)

And after wyn on Venus moste I thynke

After drinking I must think of Venus (lovemaking)

Nay, nay, I thoghte it revere, trewely!

No, no, I never thought it (such a thing), truly!

thynke(n)

Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?

Who was the most generous, as it seems to you?

But nathelees, hir thoughte that she dyde

But nevertheless, it seemed to her that she was dying

 

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