Episode 126: A New Turn of Phrase

During the Middle English period, English grammar and syntax underwent significant changes. Old inflectional endings continued to erode, and new phrases were introduced in their place. The writings of Geoffrey Chaucer reflect these changes, so we examine Chaucer’s House of Fame and Troilus and Criseyde for evidence of the newly emerging grammar and syntax.


37 thoughts on “Episode 126: A New Turn of Phrase

  1. Hello, and Kevin, thanks for another episode.
    Allow me to state my disagreement with the way you chose to describe the progressive tense here, the “horse was jumping” part. You said that its function was to convey the fact that the horse jumped over and over.

    People sometimes explain it this way, especially since the tense is called “progressive” or “continuous”.
    But the matter of fact is, It is not about continuation! at least not in “persisting” sense. For that, we have another phrase now, “She kept jumping.”
    What progressive tense is sort of like that 360 degrees camera loop (or slo motion scene ) in the movies. (don’t stop reading , it will make sense 🙂 It is a stop in the progression of the story to take a look at the scene in a given split moment.
    So in a story told in the past tense, for example, the sentence “She was jumping.” Cannot be an independent part.
    It is always “She was jumping”… and then what happened?, the “what happened?” part inquiring about the actual step in the overall story.
    It was raining, John was driving his truck, wearing his usual overalls,singing to the radio and thinking about what he would have for dinner, when a bird hit his windshield.
    In the sentence above, only one thing actually happened, the bird hit the glass.
    All the ing verbs are just there to set the stage for that bird accident.

    • Thanks for the feedback. Your comments make a lot of sense. One of the challenges of the podcast is trying to keep the narrative relatively simple. It’s one of the reasons I have historically avoided topics related to grammar. There’s no easy way to explain many of these concepts in a brief and simple way without sacrificing accuracy. That’s part of the reason for having this section for comments, questions and other feedback. Thanks again.

    • “In the sentence above, only one thing actually happened, the bird hit the glass.”

      That’s not quite right. The raining, driving, wearing, singing, thinking, etc. all actually happened. They just didn’t begin and end in a single instant like the bird hitting the glass. They were all in the process of happening, i.e. in progress, at the time the bird hit the glass.

      The progressive tense describes actions that, at the time referenced by the sentence, are ongoing, or “in progress” (hence “progressive”). The action began sometime before the time of the sentence, and continued on until sometime after the sentence.

      So: It began raining early in morning, long before John left work, and continued to rain all day. His work day over, John ran through the rain, hopped in his truck, turned on the radio, and began his drive home. It was raining, John was driving his truck, wearing his usual overalls,singing to the radio and thinking about what he would have for dinner, when a bird hit his windshield. … and then at some point, it stopped raining, John stopped driving, stopped singing, changed out of his overalls, had dinner and so stopped thinking about it, etc.

  2. Hi, as usual I really enjoyed the podcast.
    Among other things, you presented the various new uses of “do”, such as the meaningless do, the interrogative do, and the negation do, and you presented them as if there is no real connection between all these uses, and it’s not know why it happens. But I have a theory:
    I think the “meaningless do” was the basis for the all. My theory is that it happened because English was trying to lose its remaining inflectional endings. Just as we lost the future-tense inflections and replaced them by will (e.g., “I will play”, with an inflected verb form “play”), English speakers find it convenient to do the same also for present and past tenses: Instead of “He plays”, we get “He does play”, and instead of “He played” we get “He did play” – in both of these, the verb no longer needs to be inflected.
    Now that we have “he does play”, we can convert it into a question it in the classic way – reversing the noun and the verb, getting a question “does he play?”, explaining this interrogative do. We can also negate it the classic way – negating the verb does in “he does play” gets us “he does not play” – explaining the negation do.
    Eventually, we did keep the inflections for present and past tenses, so the “meaningless do” became unused and could get a changed meaning (the “emphatic do” you mention), but the question and negative forms remained – I agree with you that it’s very likely that speakers liked it because of the word-order issue. To this day, I find it unnatural to construct questions in French or German because I need (at least, by official grammar rules) to change the word order.

    • That’s an interesting theory. It seems to put all the pieces together. Most of the sources I used in my research hint at various theories for these developments, but I don’t think there is a universally accepted explanation at this time.

  3. As I listened, it seemed like the use of the progressive and perfect were being ascribed to a novel development in English at the time. But the fact that other modern languages, like German and Swedish, use exactly the same syntax, suggests to me that this was something in the background of Old English that, for some resason, came to prominence in Chaucer’s time. This seems to me to be the same sort of thing that you referenced in regard to French grammar.

    • In my research, it seemed that some linguists and scholars were more inclined to look to such outside developments when analyzing the changes in English grammar. There is no doubt that some of the developments within English parallel changes that were taking place (or had already taken place) in other European languages.

      • I’m not suggesting that Middle English was influenced in this regard from the outside. Rather, the fact that the same grammatical forms appear in Middle English, German, and Swedish suggest that they all could be derived from a common origin.

    • German has the syntax of the perfect form, but not the semantics. Whereas in English the perfect form has a link to the present, the German one doesn’t, and is semantically equivalent to the simple past.

  4. Hi Kevin – another great episode! I have a question for you about the progressive tense (i.e. I am walking). In the episode, you mentioned that the progressive tense manifested itself in the Middle English period. I recently read by book by John McWhorter entitled “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” in the which he argues that the progressive tense (and the meaningless do) entered English in the Old English period, since that is when the Germanic warriors/migrants and Celtic Britons merged and that since the Celtic language family is the only Indo-European language group that uses those constructions, English picked them up from Celtic and didn’t invent them of its own accord later on. He argues that we shouldn’t necessarily assume that the written text is how people actually spoke. In other words, scribes in Wessex may not have considered those constructions to be “proper Old English” so they never wrote with them. I know you’ve been careful to avoid getting into controversial topics in your podcast, but what are your thoughts relative to the timing of the progression tense entering spoken English?

    • I have mentioned McWhorter’s theories regarding the potential Celtic influence on English grammar in earlier episodes. It does appear to be the case that Welsh had a very similar grammatical construction, and it is certainly possible that Welsh played a role in the process. However, regardless of the ultimate source, the Old English construction was not exactly like the Middle English progressive. It used the verb as a gerund as part of what was essentially a prepositional phrase. So a person would say the equivalent of “I am on singing.” In early Middle English, it evolved to “I am a-singing” – which we can still hear in some rural English dialects. Then we see the emergence of the modern verb phrase “I am singing.” So it appears that the gerund evolved into the final part of the verb phrase during the 1300s. McWhorter acknowledges this history, but he simply argues that the original gerund construction was ultimately derived from Welsh.

  5. Of: the style guides that I have used typically suggest that you should generally use apostrophe s to avoid wordiness especially if the possessive is a person. “James’s book,” “Beethoven’s music,” or “Sarah’s bottle.” Other inanimate objects can take “of” like “a bottle of wine” not “wine’s bottle.” It’s a style guide and not a hard and fast rule but I find that is also the general trend when speaking.

    English verbs: I think that what’s most significant is that English’s present indicative tense has largely eroded away. That isn’t to say that we don’t have or use it but it’s not as common, especially in the first person. For example in Spanish we could say “Yo como la manzana.” Word for word it’s “I eat the apple.” But you would typically say “I am eating the apple” in English which is actually in the progressive. In Spanish they use the progressive as distinct from the present indicative. So to say that I’m eating the apple (at this moment in time) it would be “Yo estoy comiendo la manzana.” You also form the other varieties of the progressive by conjugating estar and combining it with the gerund form of the verb. I haven’t studied French s o don’t know if they make this distinction or not.

    Do: You don’t have to use the interrogative do to form an English question. For example “do you want to go to the park today?” and “you want to go to the park today?” both convey the exact same meaning. Using “do” does make it a bit more explicit that it’s a question but just by changing the intonation at the end of the sentence you have created a question. Contrast it to Spanish where hacer is never used like this. “¿Quieres ir al parque?” is the only way to ask that. When the question is spoken you change the intonation to suggest a question. If you don’t than it is a declarative statement.

    • We do have a distinction in French between the present tense and a progressive form. The latter is formed by “être [to be] en train de + infinitive”. To make a long story short, the last stages of the phrase meaning went from “to be about to do something” to “to be doing something”. Italian has the same progressive form as Spanish, stare + gerund / estar + gerund. The Occitan equivalent is “èsser a + infinive”. Verbal Periphrases in Romance: Aspect, Actionality, and Grammaticalization by Mario Squartini if anyone is interested.

    • While I agree that if someone told me “you want to go to the park?” I would understand him, I don’t think this can be considered “standard” English, and I doubt you’d ever see this form written down by native speakers. Similarly in the past tense: Instead of asking “Did you go?”, someone might just ask “You went?” with the proper intonation, and would be perfectly understood, but it won’t sound (at least not to me) as “correct” English.

      • Change “You want to go to the park?” to “Wanna go to the park?” and that’s every day English in most of America. The “Do” and the “you” has dropped off in a lot of places.

        Further, “Did you go?” and “You went?”, for me, have different connotations. “Did you go?” is a literal question–did you go to that place? Yes or no? “You went?” is perhaps a question where you want a negative response knowing you’ll get an affirmative response.

        “You went [to her party after all of that drama]?”
        “I did. It seemed fine after all.”

  6. Kevin,

    Fascinating episode, but the repeated pronunciation of “Criseyde” with the long “I” of modern English was very distracting. I cannot find this pronunciation in any dictionary. What was your thinking here?

    • Much like the name ‘Gawain,’ the name ‘Criseyde’ has many different pronunciations in Modern English. I considered all of the different options, but I wanted to go with a proper Middle English pronunciation. Unfortunately, that isn’t entirely clear either.

      Most of my sources on Middle English pronunciation report that scribes used the ‘ey’ letter combination to represent the ‘ai’ sound (as in ‘high’ or ‘buy’). There are some sources that suggest that scribes sometimes used the same letter combination to represent the ‘ay’ sound (as in ‘tape’ or ‘bait’). In one of my books on Chaucerian pronunciation entitled “A Guide to Chaucer’s Pronunciation” by Helge Kokeritz, it is suggested that the spelling represented a sound somewhere between those two options. So that’s the general range of pronunciation, but most of my sources go with ‘ai.’

      As I was debating the pronunciation I was going to use, I listened to the audiobook version of the poem as read by the English narrator Charlton Griffin. He used ‘Cre-side’ (with the ‘ai’ pronunciation) just as most of my Middle English pronunciation guides suggested. That reading convinced me to use that pronunciation.

      • When I read this in school, my instructor pronounced it “CRE-sid-uh” so I was originally confused as well. Thanks for that explanation Kevin!

    • Hi Kevin,

      I’m loving your podcast. I only found it a little while ago, and I’m just now finally caught up.

      I do have one comment regarding your use of the phrase “collective noun” to refer to phrases like the “king of England”. It has always been my understanding that collective noun refers to a word or word phrase that includes a number of people or things. For example, children, family, and crew are collective nouns. Word phrases such as flock of seagulls or herd of cows would also be considered collective nouns. King of England refers to only one person, so it seems to me it does not fit the definition of collective noun. Your thoughts?

      • I think you are technically correct. That just happened to be my ‘turn of phrase’ in the episode. It would have probably been more accurate to describe it as a noun phrase.

  7. On the subject of “do” there are two phrases used in heraldry – “do on” and “do off” meaning to add or remove a device from a coat of arms. These phrases were used generally in
    Middle English according to the OED and have contracted in Modern English to “don” – put on a garment, and “doff” – remove, usually a hat.

    Another great episode. Thanks.

  8. I’m a little confused why you think there’s a difference between the meaningless “do” and the emphatic “do”. I think you highlighted in your podcast; the lack of context between the two in the written text makes it hard to know the different. I wonder if there was technically ever a meaningless “do”.

    • With meaningless ‘do,’ there is no emphasis on the word ‘do’ or ‘did.’ It is simply a grammatical marker. This usage was extremely common and routine in early Modern English, and it seems clear from the context that no emphasis was intended in most of those passages. In the episode, I gave the Longfellow quote “The flowers she most did love.” That quote doesn’t really make sense if the word ‘did’ was merely being used for emphasis. That’s why linguists make this basic distinction. (As I always point out, I am not a professional linguist, so I am reporting the generally accepted view among modern scholars.)

  9. Hi Kevin. I enjoy your podcasts and look forward to them every month. I was wondering why you do did not draw a distinction between aspect and tense. Assuming I can keep my students from dozing off, I speak of the simple, the progressive, the perfect, and the perfect progressive aspects of verbs and how each can be in the past, the present and the future tense. Also, isn’t the perfect formed with the past participle of a verb rather than the past tense or was that not the rule in Middle English?

    • I’m not entirely sure about Middle English construction, but you’re quite right that in modern English we convey the perfective aspect with the past (sometimes called passive or perfect) participle; of course, this participle often looks exactly like the simple past tense form of verb, which is likely the source of confusion. Since tense is distinct from aspect, I agree that we should not say the perfective aspect is constructed with the past tense, and honestly we should probably just call it the “perfect participle.”

    • Hi Steven,

      The simple answer to your question is that I am trying to keep the narrative as simple as possible. Since this is a podcast aimed at a very general audience, I am trying to convey the information in basic terms. I would hope that those who find the subject matter compelling would check out more detailed resources where the specific distinctions you are making are discussed. That’s also why I said that the perfect is formed with the ‘past tense’ instead of the ‘past participle.’ I suspect that most listeners have not idea what a ‘past participle’ is. I realize that most English students and teachers are probably disappointed that I am not making these distinctions, but I am trying to keep my audience in mind, and I usually avoid technical terms as much as I can – even if that means sacrificing some of the specificity and detail.

  10. another fantastic episode! I just wanted to drop a comment that where I live in a town in North East Somerset, the people still commonly use the ‘meaningless do’ except they tend to drop the ‘o’ so they would say “I d’ use that route” “I d’ like that dress”. It seems to be quite peculiar to this small area and isn’t used a few miles away in other towns.

    • I’ll need to remember that if I ever visit. In my read I assumed that you were using a contraction of “would.” As in I [woul]d’ use that route” “I [woul]d’ like that dress”.

    • Yes, it appears that the western parts of England have some distinct uses of the verb ‘do’ which may have been influenced by the Celtic equivalent of ‘do’ in Welsh. There is ongoing debate among English scholars as to whether those same Celtic influences shaped the way we use ‘do’ in modern standard English.

    • That “do” is used in colloquial English in Wales still – as in “She do go to the shops.” for “She goes to the shops.”

  11. Hello Kevin,

    I really enjoyed this episode so much so that I listened to it three times. I wanted to make a comment about the “meaningless do”. You said that it has fallen out of use but have do. you have any familiarity with Caribbean (West Indian) English? I am originally from Trinidad and Tobago and your examples of the usage of the meaningless do sounded so familiar to me. In Trinidad and Tobago people say things like “She does go down the road”. It is most often used in present tense third person (does) and it is typically used to indicate when the speaker wants to indicate something that is typically done by someone else, so “she does go down the road” means that she usually goes down that road.

  12. It seems to me that in the case of verbs where we now use the progressive tense for the present, the “basic” present tense (present indicative?) is used for other aspects of time, instead. For example, if I am running now, I would say “I am running”, not “I run”. “I run” would instead indicate either habitual action (“I run in the park every Saturday”) or future action (“Next week, I run the Marathon”).

    Less active verbs, such as “exist” and “love”, don’t seem to have a present progressive: one says (I think) “I love you”, and “I exist”, not “I am loving you”, or “I am existing”. Of course, a while back, McDonalds used “I’m loving it” in some of its commercials …

    • The verbs that aren’t used in the progressive tense are known as stative verbs. Indeed, they don’t any actions as you can’t be busy with sitting and liking things (i.e. do the liking action), with seeing (on the contrary to actively looking and watching) or with believing in something (I.e. having an opinion). Those words name states of your senses, feelings, thoughts and relations–thus stative verbs 🙂
      There are also some funny distinctions. “He’s tasting the cake”–so he’s busy with slicing it, taking a spoonful to his mouth, evaluating sensation]; “The cake tastes funny”–the cake has a property of a funny taste but it isn’t actively emanating the funny taste.

  13. We still use the inverted question form fairly regularly. We’ve just abbreviated it. So we can ask, “do you see the dog?” Or we can say, “see the dog?” The two forms have shades of meaning. The first sounds like a serious question as in there might be doubt whether you see the dog. The second is simply pointing out the dog to the viewer.

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