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More in sorrow than in snarking

There it glared from the front page, a boldface headline over a photo caption. Icemen cometh.

Not the front page of The Sun, but the cover of a paper I respect, among whose copy editors I number many admired colleagues. And yet someone missed that the –eth suffix in English is applied only to third-person singular verbs. He, she or it cometh. No one or no thing else.

This particular blunder is common among writers striving for an ill-advised archaic effect. Never mind that affecting the tone of the Authorized Version of the Bible (That’s what it says on the title page, not King James Version) is usually ineffective unless you are the Monty Python troupe. Never mind that alluding to Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, a play known more widely for its title than for its content, is a cliche, and probably a damnable one. If you must attempt this, at least get the grammar right.

While I am carping about false archaisms, let me mention ye, which turns up in signs for faux-Colonial enterprises, viz., Ye Olde Booke Shoppe, and which people tend to pronounce as yee.

There was a runic character in Middle English called the thorn, which stood for the th sound. Manuscripts often represented the thorn as a letter resembling y, and early printers, who lacked a thorn character in their fonts, also used a y in abbreviated forms of the, that, they and them. It was almost certainly meant to be pronounced as th.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, from which this information has been extracted, suggests that “few things could be less important than a disquisition on the pronunciation of antiquarian ye, but a fair number of commentators have troubled themselves to remark on the subject, and they have disagreed.”

What it is safe to say is that the facetious use of ye for the is, like the –eth suffix, a stale gimmick best avoided.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:46 AM | | Comments (2)
        

Comments

Yanks for ye truy about ye yorn.

I just heard (for the umpteenth time) someone saying "They doth protesteth too much": a two-fer!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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