16 March 2013

Thee, Thou, Thy, Thine: A Guide for Writers

I am a writer and reader and watcher of speculative fiction. At one time I was a fancypants academic with training in the literature of the English Renaissance. Mostly these two things go together very harmoniously but every once in a while they clash horribly, as when I am reading or watching a speculative story in which the writer has failed to grasp correct usage of old timey words. The most abused words are "thee" and "thou." These two words are not interchangeable if used correctly, but rather serve two distinct purposes when used in a sentence. Likewise "thy" and "thine," although these two are less likely to be abused and a little more flexible, at least with regard to each other.

Mary Tudor does not approve of your old timey language usage. (Via.)

You might think this doesn't matter, but if your reader happens to be someone who has read a lot of Shakespeare or those other guys from the Renaissance, she might have absorbed correct thee/thou/thy/thine usage on a subconscious level. In this case, your clumsy attempt to sound old-timey will rocket her right out of your story as surely as a comma splice, using the word "exhort" when you mean "exert," or any other grammatical shoddiness. 

So, here's how to use "thy," "thine," "thee," and "thou" correctly, with examples from Shakespeare.

"Thy"
"Thy" means "your." Here's a quote from Cymbeline Act 4 Scene 1. The speaker is Cloten:

Posthumus, thy head, which is now growing upon thy shoulders, shall within this hour be off.

"Thine"
"Thine" is a little bit tricky. It can mean "your" or "yours." 

Polonius's famous speech to Laertes, from Hamlet Act 1 Scene 3 includes this line:

This above all, to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Here, Polonius is using "thine" to stand in for "your." Note that "thine" is sometimes (but not always) preferred if the word following begins with a vowel sound. So we have "thine own," but in Cloten's speech above, "thy head." The "n" sound in "thine" closes the word off so you don't end up with vowel sound soup. 

"Thine" means "yours" in other contexts. In Sonnet 40, Shakespeare writes, 

Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all;
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.

You can't go wrong with "thy" and "thine" if you use "thy" to mean "your" and "thine" to mean "yours." You can also use "thine" to mean "your" if you want.  So long as you never try to use "thy" to mean "you" or "thine" to mean "you," you will be fine. 

"Thou" vs. "Thee"
In our modern English usage of today, we have one word, "you," that serves many purposes. It is the second person pronoun, used to refer to any number of people whom one is addressing, no matter where "you" sits in a sentence. This is inconvenient and leads to all kinds of imprecision, but so it is. (When you shout, "Hey you," you might find yourself clarifying whether you mean one "you" or a bunch of "yous." It's sad, really.)

Old timey English users had a way to differentiate between a "you" who is the subject of a sentence, and "you" who is the object. This is where "thou" and "thee" come in.

If the "you" starring in the sentence is the one doing the action, i.e. is the subject of the sentence, the word you use is "thou."

Here are some examples: 

Wilt thou ever be a foul-mouthed and calumnious knave? (All's Well That Ends Well, Act 1 Scene 3)
Thou losest thy old smell. (As You Like It, Act 1 Scene 2)
Hast thou slain Tybalt? wilt thou slay thyself? (Romeo and Juliet, Act 3 Scene 3)

 "Thee" is what you use when the "you" is the object of the sentence, the one unto whom something is being done. "Thou" is the action person; "thee" is on the receiving end. Examples:

I would not be thy executioner; 
I fly thee, for I would not injure thee. (As You Like It, Act 3 Scene 5)

But he that temper'd thee bade thee stand up,
Gave thee no instance why thou shouldst do treason,
Unless to dub thee with the name of traitor. (Henry V, Act 2 Scene 2)

There are exceptions to this that you will find on occasion, where a writer will use "thee" instead of "thou." It is more rare to see "thou" used as a substitute for "thee." However, it's important if you're using old timey English to know that "thou" and "thee" were not interchangeable. If you indiscriminately use "thee" all over the place, as seems to be the favourite choice of modern writers, you will be sending up a burning flag that says "I don't really know what I'm doing." That is something thou shouldst not do, no matter how much it tempts thee.

8 comments:

Andrew Leon said...

Now, I want to know what you were reading.

I think we should just give in and make "y'all" the plural you form. It's the direction we're heading, and it would simplify matters greatly.

Elizabeth Twist said...

The earliest thing I remember that committed a thee / thou foul was all of T'Pau's dialogue in the original Trek episode "Amok Time." She's all, "Thee thee thee," but with an amazing accent.

More recently I read an otherwise great story in a very prominent and longstanding spec fic magazine for which I have great respect but which did, I admit, inspire this post.

Totally agreed on "y'all." My Latin teacher was Southern, and he made us translate the second person plural pronoun as "y'all." Worked for me.

Andrew Leon said...

Ha ha! That's awesome.
When I was teenager, "y'all" was still just a southern thing, but my understanding is that it's been pretty steadily spreading in usage. I know that when I first moved to CA, everyone thought it was funny that I said "y'all" (because I have no other discernible southern accent), but they all use it, now, too.

Eileen Wiedbrauk said...

This was one of those things that I'm fairly certain I learned at one point ... then forgot from disuse. :/ Oddly enough I learned it fairly well from reading (and rereading and rereading) a novel set during the American Revolution that had Quaker characters that all spoke without using "you."

Eileen Wiedbrauk said...

Oh! and forgot to say that I liked thy provided brush up on thee/thou situation!

Boog. said...

*huge sigh of relief*
Thankelston so much. I owe thee much thanks! Muchly indeeds!
Ye, y'all : the same?

Abraxas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Abraxas said...

Hey, would like you to tell me what can I read to understand thy, thou, etc. Besides of Shakespeare of course. (Sorry if I have a bad English, I'm a spanish speaker).

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