The History of English Syntax

The development of Word Order. Types of syntactical relations words in the phrase, their development. The development of the composite sentence. The syntactic structure of English. New scope of syntactic distinctions and of new means of expressing them.

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1. General remark

2. The development of Word Order

3. Types of syntactical relations btw words in the phrase. Their further development.

4. The development of the composite sentence

4a. The compound sentence

4b. The complex sentence

1. General remark

From the angle of diachronic approach many problems of English syntax have not been solved yet. They await further careful investigation.

In dealing with the historical development of English syntax we set out from the fact that OE was a synthetic type of language and its syntax was based on inflections. But in the course of time analytical tendencies have actually reshaped the syntactic structure of English both by generating a new scope of syntactic distinctions and of new means of expressing them.

2. The WO. Its development

phrase syntactic english

OE texts reveal a variety of types of sentences: simple, compound and complex. According to the aims of communication they may be declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamatory. In other words, all the basic types of sentences that occur in Modern English have their counterparts in the OE period. But the syntax of the OE sentence is characterized by a number of peculiarities which distinguish it from the Modern English sentence.

1. OE can build sentences that do not include any formal subject: e.g. me ?uhte (it seemed to me). The subject may also be omitted if the subject of the action can be guessed from the context: e.g. sy??an ?rest wear? feasceaft funden, he ??s frofre gebad (after he was found helpless, he found consolation in this).

It is evident from the context of this complex sentence that the subject of the action in the subordinate clause is the person denoted by the subject of the principal clause.

2. There may be more than one negation referring to the same predicate group which is impossible in Modern English: e.g. Ne mette he ?r nan gebun land (he didn't meet any inhabited land before).

3. The word order can be relatively free. Since syntactic relationships were fairly well shown by inflections, WO was of less importance for this purpose. It plays a grammatical role only in interrogative sentences in which the subject normally occupies the position after the predicate: e.g. Hw?t sceal ic sin3an? (what shall I sing?) or hu mihtest ?u hit swa hr?dlice findan? (how could you find this so soon?).

In narrative (affirmative) sentences the common order of words is: subject - predicate: e.g. st?rt w?s stanfah, sti3 wisode 3umum ?t3?dere (the street was paved with stones of various colours, the path directed the men together), though inversion is frequent in this type of sentence: e.g. Ne sea hic el?eodi3e ?us mani3e men modi3licran (I didn't see so many brave warriors from strange lands).

Inversion is especially frequent if the sentence begins with a secondary part: either with an object or an adverbial modifier. The inverted word-order is used when something new or unexpected is introduced: e.g. Fela spella him s?don ?a Beormas (many stories told him those Beormas).

In this sentence the first position is occupied by the direct object. Then follow: the indirect object, the predicate and in the final position the subject occurs.

Such a WO-pattern, however, cannot be considered similar for all sentences of this kind. Sometimes a whole group of adverbial modifiers opens a sentence, and the subject comes before the predicate: e. g. ??ered cyning ond ?lfred his bro?ur ??r micle fired to Readin3um 3el?ddon (4 nights after king ?thered and his brother ?lfred a big force to Reding brought).

One more WO-pattern is found in subordinate clauses. Here there is a tendency to place the predicate-verb at the end of the clause: e. g. Ohthere s?de his hlaforde ?lfrede cynin3e, ??t he ealra Nor?manna nor?mest bude (Othere told his lord King AElfred that he north of all Normans lived (had)). In English this pattern has become extinct while in German it has come to be a standard.

In OE the attribute normally comes before the noun which it modifies: e. g. in 3elimpice tide (at a convenient time), hron?s ban (whale bone). But some attributes come after the noun they modify:

a) when the attribute is qualitative: e. g. his suna twe3en (his two sons);

b) when it is used in direct address: e.g. Sunu min, 3an3 hidr and cysse me (my son, come here and kiss me).

With the development of analytic tendencies in the language a rather fixed and rigid WO structure of English was largely determined by the gradual disappearance of case forms. In OE it was the inflection that showed what part of the sentence the meaningful word was. In Middle English the syntactical functions of the lost inflections had to be expressed by some other means. So, the position of the word in the sentence came to be the main factor determining its syntactical function, WO was becoming grammatical by taking over some of the functions of lost inflections.

For some period in passing from OE to ME the WO was not absolutely fixed even after the loss of inflections and the function of the word in the sentence could be identified only if a more or less broad context was taken into consideration, but in the 14th and 15th centuries the WO-type: subject-predicate-object was becoming more and more regular. If, however, the sentence opened with an adverbial modifier or direct object inversion was frequently used: e.g. wel coude he sitte on hors and faire ryde (well could he sit on horse and ride well).

The attribute in Middle English is usually placed before the noun it modifies. Only some adjectives of French origin follow their head-nouns according to the french pattern: attribute-noun: e. g. court martial, cousin german.

At the beginning of the NE period the WO subject-predicative-object was firmly established in most declarative sentences. In Modern English the WO-pattern can be deviated from declarative sentences beginning with the words: there is, there came, there stood and with adverbial modifiers: e.g. On the terrace stood a knot of distinguished visitors.

Other cases of inversion in declarative sentences may be accounted for from the viewpoint of the functional sentence perspective: the predicate is often placed before the subjects if some member of the sentence is put in a prominent position go as to be made the rheme of the sentence: e. g. Only then did he realize the danger

3. Types of syntactical relations between words in the phrase. Their further development

OE had 3 major types of syntactical bond: coordination, subordination and predication. Respectively there existed: coordinate phrases, subordinate phrases and predicative phrases.

In a coordinate phrase the components are not dependent on one another: e. g. in the sentence ?a Finnas, him ?uhte, and ?a Beormas spr?con neah an 3e?eode the Finns, he thought, and Beormas spoke nearly the same language the words "Finnas" and "Beormas" are joined in a phrase by means of coordination.

The component members of a predicative phrase predetermine each other: e.g. cw?? he (said he). This phrase is capable of producing a sentence.

In a subordinate phrase one word (adjunct) is subordinated to the other (head) word. The relations between the head and the adjunct fall under 2 main types: agreement and government.

1. By agreement we mean such a syntactical relationship in which the inflection of the head-word is the same in the adjunct. The OE agreement occurred in gender, number and case:

a) between noun (head) and adjective (adjunct): e. g. hie comon mid langum scipum they arrived in long ships (Dat. case., plural, neuter); micle meras fersee big lakes with fresh water (Nom. case. plural, masculine).

b) between demonstrative and other attributive pronouns (adjuncts) and noun (head): e.g. he bude on ??m lande he lived on that land (Dat. case., singular, neuter); mine dagas my days (Nom. case, plural, masculine); ond ic for-?on of ?eossum 3ebeorscipe ut eode and I therefore from that feast went away (Dat. case, singular, masculine).

2. The components are connected by means of government if the adjunct takes a grammatical form required by the head. Government doesn't imply any coincidence in form of the governing word and its adjunct. In OE a verb governed:

a) The Accus. Case of the object, expressed by a noun or a pronoun. The latter is then termed "directed": e. g. ?a Deniscan ?one cyninh ofslo3on "The Danes that king killed".

b) The Dative case of the object (indirect): e. g. Ohthere s?de his hlaforde Ohthere told his lord; swa-swa we foryfa? urum 3ltendum as we forgive offenders.

c) The Genitive case of the object (partitive complement): e. g. he ??r sceolde bidan westanwindes he was obliged to wait for me the western wind there.

2a) An adjective may govern the Gen. or the Dat. case of the object: e. g. mor?res scyldi3 guilty of killing; w?s 3ehw??er o?rum la? "was everyone hateful to the other".

2b). The notion of government also applies to a noun which may govern the Gen. case of another noun: e. g. hwales ban whale bone and to some pronouns and numerals: e.g. do3ra 3ehwilc each of the days; ?ara an one of them.

2c). Prepositional government can also be found in OE. Thus, the preposition to governs the Dat. case: e .g. he eode to his huse he went to his house; the preposition ymb governs The Accus. case: e. g. hu 3iorne hie w?ronymb liornun3a how aelous they were concerning learning; the preposition from can sometimes govern the Dat. case: e. g. ?a aras he from ??m sl?pe then arose he from that sleep.

3. There are 2 other ways of expressing syntactical relations between the components of a phrase in OE: adjoinment and enclosure

a) Adjoinment implies such subordination of the adjunct to its head which is achieved by their position and their meanings, but not by agreement or government or by any other special forms. The most typical OE example of adjoinment is between an adverb and a verb: e. g. ?lfric munuc gret ??elw?rd ealdorman eadmodlice monk ?lfric greets alderman ?thelward humbly (The adverb eadmodlice is subordinated to the verb gretan).

In the phrase: ham eode went home the word ham is adjoined to the verb han.

b) Enclosure as a means of expressing syntactical relations is of minor importance in OE. By enclosure we understand the setting of a component of a phrase between 2 constituent elements of another component. In OE an attribute may be put between a preposition or an article.

Middle English

The gradual weakening and loss of many inflections and, as a result of it, great changes in the morphological system of the language in ME brought about modification in the means of expressing syntactical relations.

Agreement is reduced to a small number of cases. An adjective or a pronoun is no longer able to agree with its head in gender and case. Only occasionally agreement in number between a noun and adjective/pronoun is found in ME texts: e. g. in alle the gramere scoles of England in all grammar schools of England; fresshe floures fresh flowers.

Agreement in number is also preserved between the demonstrative pronoun and the noun.

Government is retained in ME. A verb may govern the Objective case of a pronoun or the Common case of a noun: e. g. some gentlymen which late blamed me some gentlemen who blamed me not long ago.

A noun may govern the Genitive case of another noun: e. g. In his hertes botme in the bottom of his heart.

Adjoinment gains ground in ME since not only adverbs are subordinated to verbs by means of it, but also some adjectives and pronouns (used attributively) are adjoined to their heads: e.g. she understode him wel she understood him well.

The role of enclosure also increases. It becomes more important in the identification of the attributive function of the word which happens to be enclosed between an article/or a preposition and a head-word.

Early NE

With the decay of the adjective declension, agreement has totally lost except between the demonstrative pronoun and a noun: this book/these books which agree in number.

Government also decreased greatly. It applies only to the Objective case forms of personal pronouns (me, him, her, us, them) and the form whom which are required by a verb or a preposition.

Adjoinment, unlike government or agreement, is on the increase in ENE. As no agreement is possible between an adjective and a noun, adjoinment becomes the only means of syntactical bond between them.

Enclosure becomes as significant in ModE as adjoinment. Not only adjectives and nouns, but also other parts of speech and even phrases can be found enclosed between a preposition/or an article and the noun which they refer to: e. g. the then government; He went on in a more-matter-of-fact tone.

4. The development of the composite sentence

It is traditionally viewed that historically subordination (hypotaxis) as a kind of syntactical bond between clauses appears later on the basis of coordination. For OE it is not always easy to draw the line between the two phenomena. We often run into difficulties as we try to find out whether the clauses of a composite sentence are joined by means of coordination or subordination.

If we take, for e. g., such a composite sentence as: Ic wat t ?u eart wlitih "I know that you are wonderful" and try to identify the function of the word "??t" , we at once face an alternative.

a) It may be a part of the 1 clause where it is a demonstrative pronoun and the sentence is a compound one.

b) It may be a conjunction introducing a subordinate object clause. The sentence then is complex.

Nevertheless already in OE there existed a rather distinct system of both compound and complex sentences which fall under classification and description.

4a. The compound sentence

The clauses of a compound sentence in OE are linked together by means of coordinative conjunctions, the most frequent of which are: and, ac (but), o??e (or).

It is necessary to mention that very often the structure of the composite sentence on the whole is dependent on the requirements of style. Thus, in OE frequent repetition of the connective "and" is characteristic of the narrative style of chronicles.

The clauses of a compound sentence may be joined without any special conjunctions or conjunction words. Here the relations are expressed by intonation and by the lexical meaning of the words they consist of.

In ME and later in ENE with the appearance of new conjunctions and the use of the old ones for expressing new relations between clauses it became possible to specify these relations and to clarify the sentence structure.

The coordinative conjunctions: and, not only but, neither nor, or, either or, otherwise, else, but, yet, still, for, therefore etc. are employed in ModE to express copulative, adversative, disjunctive and other types of relations between the clauses in a compound sentence.

On the other hand lexical meaning of the words is still an important factor in expressing semantic relations between the clauses.

4b. The complex sentence

There were different types of complex sentences in OE. Subordinative conjunctions were of major importance in making a variety of syntactical relations between the principle and the subordinate clauses possible.

As an additional means signalizing interdependence of the clauses there should be mentioned the use of the subjunctive mood in indirect discourse in order to form different types og subordinate object clauses, and also resultative, conditional and other clauses.

The subordinate subject clause is introduced by the conjunctions t, hif, hw?er e.g. a ws fter monehum dahum, ?t ?e cyninh com to ?am ealode "it was after many days, that the king came to that island".

The subordinate object clause is found in OE texts most often. It usually depends upon such verbs as sechan (say), cwean (speak), ?yncan (think), witan (know) etc. Subordinate object clauses are introduced by such conjunctions as: t, hif, hw?er, also by conjunctive pronouns and adverbs: hwa, hwt, hwilc, hu, hw?r, hwider etc.

Subordinate attributive clauses are introduced in OE by the relative particle ?e, also by a combination of ?e + a demonstrative pronoun: se, se?e, ?t?e, seo?e.

Attributive clauses introduced by the particle ?e are mostly of a limiting character, by the demonstrative pronoun "se" - of descriptive character.

Among subordinate adverbial clauses those of time, place, cause, result, purpose, condition, concession are most common in OE.


The OE complex sentence reveals traits which attest to a lack of accuracy in the means of subordination. Correlation must also be mentioned as a traditional construction from parataxis to hypotaxis. It is a wide-spread phenomenon in complex sentences with subordinate adverbial and object clauses. In adverbial clauses of time, for example, subordinate conjunctions ?a, ?onne, hwanne, si??an etc. often correlate with the adverbs ?a or ?onne in the main clause.

The conjunction "t" introducing a subordinate object clause may be correlated with the demonstrative pronoun "t" or personal pronoun "hit" functioning as objects in the main clause: e.g. Ne wicwee ic ?am nanwiht t ?u swa do "I am not at all against that that you should do so".

Asyndetic subordination is not frequent in OE, (example p.117) and it is treated in the same way as correlation, pleonastic use of pronouns, shifting from indirect to direct discourse, whish testify to immaturity of formal expression in the sphere of subordination.

Middle English

Although the ME complex sentence preserved many features inherited from OE which illustrated incomplete subordination, at the same time it aquired new properties attesting to the gradual elaboration of subordinate clauses. The development of hypotaxis was largely predetermined by the emergence of the national language and the rise of the written standard.

Correlation in ME still occurs, but comparing with OE, it diminished, because it's nature appears to be different from what it used to be. The correlated elements in the main and the subordinate clauses often do not coincide in form: e.g. Auh forgif hit me nu, ?et ich hit habbe itold te "forgive me it that I have told you about it".

Scholars presume that such a correlation was a step made towards its total abandonment as a means reinforcing the subordinative conjunction. In ModE correlation would appear redundant at all, except for its stylistic value: e.g. he wondered more whether she could see his eagerness to get back to that which she had brought him away from. He the emphasis is achieved by putting "that" in the main clause.

The system of connectives in ME and later on underwent a number of changes too. Some of OE conjunctions fell into disuse: e.g. o? ?a ( ), mid ?am ( , ). Some connectives became specialized as indicators of new relationships. For example, OE temporal conjunction "sith" ( ) began to express causal relationships as well. And, finally, a great number of new connectives came into being: e.g. save, except, in case, because, till, before etc.

The appearance of relative pronouns from interrogatives who, what, whos, whom (14th century) and the differentiation of "that, who, which" in their functions by the 18th century made it possible to indicate various kinds structural and semantic relationships in the complex sentence with subordinate attributive clauses.


The means of expressing subordination are growing more stabilized. In certain types of subordinate clause, first of all in object and adverbial clauses of purpose, the tense form becomes dependent on the tense of the predicate-verb in the main clause. This phenomenon, termed "sequence of tense" is considered now one of the means of expressing subordination.

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