OE prose syntax: brief summary

(cf Pyles and Algeo 116-118)


Syntax of sentences


OE poetry uses variation / apposition:

Two (or more) words, phrases, or clauses that are in apposition share the same referent.

Example: My cat Bert was a very fine fellow!

OE example:

ece drihten ... frea lmihtig


OE prose uses more parataxis than PDE prose (PA 15):

Although adjacent clauses could be subordinated to each other in OE, you will notice more parataxis: adjacent clauses could be coordinated (coordinating conjunctions include ond and, ac but) or juxtaposed with no conjunctions.

Example: I came, I saw, I conquered.

OE example:

[GS5] frde sum Samaritanisc man ... wear h mid mildheortnesse ofer hine styred ... genalhte h, and wr his wunda ...


As well as subordination and coordination, OE clauses can also be linked by correlation:

Two or more clauses are introduced by/correlated with the same element (e.g. a when ... a then, aer where ... aer there). We tend to translate one as a conjunction (S...V) and one as an adverb (VS).

OE example:

[GS5] h hine geseah, (SOV)

wear h (VS) mid [6] mildheortnesse ofer hine styred.


This point will be easier to understand after youve read more about word order within clauses.


Syntax within clauses


The word order of OE independent clauses is similar to PDE, but more flexible: SV(O/C). (PA 14)

[GS1] Sum man frde fram Hierusalem t Hiericho


Youll often find the finite verb (the verb that gets inflected for tense, number, etc.) at the end of subordinate clauses. (PA 14)

[GS3] sum scerd frde on m ylcan wege; and h t geseah, h hine forbh


In independent as well as subordinate clauses, pronoun (or light) objects might precede a verb (PA 14):

[GS3] sum scerd frde on m ylcan wege; and h t geseah, h hine forbh


[Light objects can also follow OE prepositions, as well see below.]


VS order is often found in some predictable contexts (PA 14):

       V(S)(O) in imperative constructions: [GS9] Begm hys (VO)

       in questions (but without auxiliary verbs)

       after an adverb or adverbial (e.g. a when, then, ne not)

[GS5] frde sum Samaritanisc man wi hine


Some OE impersonal verbs were used without a subject (PA 10)

[GS10] Hwylc ra rora ync t s s mg e on sceaan befoll?

[it] seems [to] you


Adverbial modifiers in OE were freer in their placement than in PDE:

[GS5] frde sum Samaritanisc man wi hine; h hine geseah, wear h [mid mildheortnesse] ofer hine styred.



Syntax within phrases


Cumulative negation was idiomatic in OE, and used for emphasis.


The negative adverb ne precedes the word it negates, and fuses with words beginning with vowels, /h/, or /w/ (PA 13)


Prepositions usually pre-ceded their objects, but light objects could sometimes precede them:

[ASC29] and him fter rd


OE often seems to be missing articles: OE demonstratives (e.g. se, seo, aet) and determiners like an one and sum a certain had stronger meanings than PDE articles. (PA 6)

The transliteration of Caedmons hymn illustrates this quite well.



OE relied more on inflections, whereas PDE relies more on phrases:


OE had fewer verb phrases (have or be with participles). The simple past and the present (or non-past!) forms had a wider range of meanings and functions. The present could express ongoing action, the future... (PA 7)

[GS1] Sum man ferde [fared, went, but could also be expressed as was going] fram Hierusalem to Hiericho...

[StG5-6] Gregorius a beheold ra cnapena wlite. and befran of hwilcere eode hi gebrohte wron; had been


The inflected subjunctive occurs more often in OE. (PA 9)

[GS10] Hwylc ra rora ync t s [may be; the indicative would be is] s mg e on sceaan befoll?"


OE has to use the genitive inflection where PDE might be able to use an of-phrase. (PA 5)

[GS10] Hwylc ra rora which of the three

[StG9] swa fgeres hiwes menn men of such fair hue


Notice how PDE prepositions (of, here) often correspond to OE inflections. OE had prepositions, but PDE has more.

Next week, well see how the dative inflection in OE often corresponds to PDE prepositional phrases with to or for.


OE nouns, adjectives, and pronouns were more highly inflected than PDE forms, and observed concord of number, gender, and case. (PA 1, 2) More next week!


If you want to see a few more syntax rules with a few more examples, click here!