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Early Modern English verbs (part 2)

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explain grammar – here specifically, and further to the previous talk, verbs – and how Shakespeare was able to exploit it.

There is much more to be said about verbs, and this is why we return to the topic here. Verbs can be adjusted to express particular meanings.

We can say “what are you reading?” today to indicate that somebody is engaged in the continuous action of reading. The combination of “are” (part of the verb “to be”) and another verb ending -ing, the progressive form, does the job of conveying that continuous action. But in Shakespeare’s time saying “What do you read my Lord?” could also imply continuous action, even though there is no progressive form. In fact, progressive forms did exist in Shakespeare’s time. They were the new kid on the block, and as such tended to be more suitable for informal contexts.

Another particular meaning that can be expressed is whether the action expressed in the verb has been completed (“perfected”) or not. Today we might say “Jonathan has come”, but back then one might also hear “Jonathan is come”. There are subtle shades of meaning accompanying one as opposed to the other. For example, the choice of “is come” might put more focus on the result of the action.

Finally, verbs can be formed to express the hypothetical, wishes, doubts, and so on. This is the subjunctive. Shakespeare used the subjunctive regularly to capture the anxieties of the character Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (e.g. “if he be married” she worries, rather than saying “if he is married”).

All these areas of grammar involve subtle shades of meaning which can readily elude the modern reader. Keep an ear out for the issues in the video-talk, and mention anything you don’t understand in the comments.

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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