Mind your Thees and Thous

Here’s a little etymology I learned while digressing from my morning Bible reading:

In English, pronouns come in three cases: Nominative (for the subject of a sentence), Objective (for direct and indirect objects, and the objects of prepositions), and Possessive (to indicate, you know, possession).  Originally, for the second personal pronoun, those forms looked like this:

case singular plural
Nom. thou ye
Obj. thee you
Poss. thy/thine your(s)/yourn

In other words, the word you was objective plural, and that was it.  If you’re having a hard time remembering how ye and you used to go, a little King James Bible might help. Matthew 5:21-22 – “Ye (Nom. pl.) have heard it said…. but I say unto you (obj. pl.)”

Then, one day “You” got tired of being king of all it could survey in its own little pond, and started calling for more a taller throne.  In other words, for some reason people started using “you” as the singular form of the word, but only in formal circumstances.  So at home with the wife and kids, it was thee and thou, but at public ceremonies and in court it was you and you.  If that sounds bizarre and backwards to you, there’s a reason.  Wait for it.

Religious folks, of course, objected to this.  We have our Bibles; words are important to us.  Quakers, for instance, were famous for using their thees and thous far into the 19th century.  But when we finally did start to cave on the formal use of you singular, we wanted to retain the sense of intimacy from the informal use of thou.  And what could be more intimate than a Man’s relationship with God?  So when Martin Buber wrote his famous book, Ich und Du, the English translation was “I and Thou,” not “I and You.”  In the American Standard series of Bible translations, the formal you is used for human conversation and the more intimate thee and thou are used for prayer.

And that’s where pietism broke the evolution of the English language, because prayer in the Bible isn’t intimate and personal.  Nearly every recorded prayer in scripture is from a public or instructional event.  How could it be otherwise?  That’s the way prayer works.  Even your most private, pious prayers eventually find expression in public, if you ever pray in public.

But the American Standard and the King James versions taught us that thee and thou belonged in prayer, even if they didn’t belong in our day-to-day speech.  And since public prayer is the formal, not informal,  we began to think of thee and thou as very formal and officious, and began to think poorly of people who push God away by praying in officious sounding, stiff grammatical forms.

And, of course, putting thees and thous only in public prayers served to shove them further out of our normal conversation.

Incidentally, I also learned that the old letter for “th” – Þ (lowercase, þ) is called “thorn.” (One imagines that calling it “þe” would have been confusing.) I haven’t yet figured out how to put it in the song…

May common sense triumph!

Ugh. Watching Super Why continue its assault on Western Children’s literature, I discover that they have also been taken over by the grammar hypercorrection Nazis.

Wyatt gets in trouble for something, and he walks out, saying, “oh, I feel so badly!” This is wrong. It’s a hypercorrection of the phrase “to feel bad,” under the misconception that “bad,”as an adjective, must be modifying something. Since the only thing around to modify is the verb “feel,” the adjective is corrected to an adverb.

“I feel bad” is the correct phrase, and it’s perfectly fine. “Bad” in this case is a substantive adjective, an adjective functioning as a noun. You feel something and the feeling that you feel is “bad,” a generic term covering a wide array of negative physical and emotional sensations – pain, guilt, sorrow, sadness, etc.

“I feel badly” means something quite different from “I feel bad.” “Badly” means that the verb being performed is done ineffectively, or incorrectly. So a person who feels badly either has leprosy, making them unable to feel physical sensations, an emotional disorder that gives them inappropriate feelings, such as the desire to laugh at funerals, or perhaps some form of synesthesia or a phantom limb.


I just read this sentence in The Hobbit:

The feast that they now saw was more magnificent then before

and I am leaning on the verge, the very cusp of losing all faith in J.R.R. Tolkien. I am shocked to the bones at the inappropriate use of the word “then.”

Search your libraries! Tell me, is this a one-off publisher error, or is this a typo that has sat unnoticed for 50 years?

Emasculate the course

Andrei Toom:

To survive against competition every university and every college has to pretend that it gives something modern, advanced and immediately marketable. But is it possible to give advanced courses to students who are ignorant in elementary mathematics? Of course not. What to do? Very simple! Emasculate the course by excluding everything non-trivial, reduce the students’ task to applying ready-made recipes without understanding—and you will survive and succeed. Your pretensions that you teach something advanced will allow the students to pretend that they are educated, and this will allow the firms and departments that hire them to pretend that they hire educated people. But at some point this chain of pretensions will have to break.

Toom is talking here about his frustrations in teaching “Business Calculus” to college students, but the curious thing is that his remarks could just as easily be said about teaching grammar to middle school students.

Other articles by Andrei Toom can be found here.