The Simple Sentence

§ 535. In the course of history the structure of the simple sentence in many respects became more orderly and more uniform. Yet, at the same time it grew complicated as the sentence came to include more extended and complex parts: longer attributive groups, diverse subjects and predicates and numerous predicative constructions (syntactic com­plexes).

§ 536. In OE the ties between the words in the sentence were shown mainly by means of government and agreement, with the help of numer­ous inflections. In ME and Early NE, with most of the inflectional endings levelled or dropped, the relationships between the parts of the sentence were shown by their relative position, environment, seman­tic ties, prepositions, and by a more rigid syntactic structure.

Every place in the sentence came to be associated with a certain syntactic function: in the new structure of the sentence syntactic func­tions were determined by position, and no position could remain va­cant. This is evidenced by the obligatory use of the subject. For instance, in OE the formal subject, expressed by the pronoun hit, was used only in some types of impersonal sentences, namely those indicating weath­er phenomena. In ME the subject it occurs in all types of impersonal sentences, e. g.

For it reynyd almoste euery othir day. (Brut)

(‘For it rained almost every other day.’)

Of his falshede it dulleth me to ryme. (Chaucer)

(‘Of his falsehood it annoys me to speak.’)

The use of the verb-substitute do, as well as the use of auxiliary and modal verbs without the notional verb proves that the position of the predicate could not be vacant either. This is evident in short answers and other statements with the notional verb left out, e. g.:

Helpeth me now, as I dyde yow whileer. (Chaucer)

(‘Help me now as I did (help) you formerly.’)

Standi So I do, against my will... Is Guilliams with the packet gone? He is, my lord, an hour ago. (Shakespeare)

§ 537. As compared with OE the subject of the sentence became more varied in meaning, as well as in the forms of expression. We have al­ready mentioned the increased use of the formal subject it, Due to the growth of new verb forms the subject could now denote not only the agent or a thing characterised by a certain property, but also the re­cipient of an action or the “passive” subject of a state and feeling.



The predicate had likewise become more varied in form and mean­ing. The simple predicate could be expressed by compound forms which indicated multiple new meanings and subtle semantic distinctions, lack­ing in OE verb forms or expressed formerly by contextual means.

Though some types of compound predicates had turned into simple — as the verb phrases developed into analytical forms — the compound predicate could express a variety of meanings with the help of numerous new link-verbs and more extended and complex predicatives. ME wit­nessed a remarkable growth of link-verbs: about 80 verbs occur as copulas in texts between the 15th and 18th c. In a way the new link- verbs made up for the loss of some OE prefixes and compound verbs which denoted the growth of a quality or the transition into a state, e. g.:

And tho it drewe nere Cristenesse. (Brut)

(‘And though it drew near Christmas’, ‘Christmas was coming’)

Cecilie cam, whan it was woxen night...

(‘Cecily came when it was night...’)

as me best thinketh (Chaucer)

(‘as it seems best to me’)

It fallep profyte to summe men to be bounde to a stake. (Wyklif)

(‘It appears good for some men to be bound to a stake.’)

A murd'rous guilt shows not itself more soon

Than love that would seem hid...

The rose looks fair ... (Shakespeare).

The structure of the predicative became more complex: it could include various prepositional phrases and diverse attributes, e. g.:

Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse. (Chaucer)

(‘He was twenty years old, I guess.’)

That’s a deep story of a deeper love;

For he was more than over shoes in love. (Shakespeare)

The compound verbal predicate in ME was characterised by a wider use of modal phrases and verbs of aspective meaning, e. g.:

No, though I seye, I nam nat lief to gabbe. (Chaucer)

(‘No, though I say I am not inclined to gabble.’)

Most frequent in Chaucer’s works was a verb phrase of aspective meaning gan plus Inf. (NE begin):

He stired the coles til relente gan the wex.

(‘He stirred the coals till the wax began to melt.’)

§ 538. One of the peculiar features of the OE sentence was multi­ple negation. The use of several negative particles and forms continued throughout the ME period, e. g.:

Ne bryng nat every man into thyn hous. (Chaucer)

(‘Don’t bring every man into your house.’)

(-ne- is a negative particle used with verbs, nat — another negative particle, for its origin see §219.)

No berd hadde he, ne nevere sholde have. (Chaucer)

(‘He had no beard, and never would have one.’)

See also the example: No, though I seye, I nam nat lief to gabbe above where nam is made up of the negative particle ne and am. In Shake­speare’s time the use of negations is variable: the sentence could contain one or more means of expressing negation. Cf.:

So is it not with me as with that Muse ...

Good madam, hear me speak,

And let no quarrel, nor no brawl to come,

Taint the condition of this present hour... (Shakespeare)

Gradually double negation went out of use. In the age of Correctness — the normalising 18th c. — when the scholars tried to improve and perfect the language, multiple negation was banned as illogical: it was believed that one negation eliminated the other like two minuses in math­ematics and the resulting meaning would be affirmative. These logi­cal restrictions on the use of negations became a strict rule of English grammar.


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