Top of chapter Contents Bibliography 7.1. Quick Start
7.1.1. Strong and weak verbs 7.1.2. Preterite-present verbs 7.1.3. Bēon 'to be'
7.2. More about endings
7.2.1. Assimilation 7.2.2. Plurals ending in -e 7.2.3. Subjunctive plural endings
7.3. More about weak verbs
7.3.1. Classes 1 and 2 7.3.2. Weak verbs that change their vowels 7.3.3. Contracted verbs 7.3.4. Class 3 weak verbs
7.4. More about strong verbs
7.4.1. The strong verb classes 7.4.2. Verbs affected by grammatical alternation 7.4.3. Contracted verbs 7.4.4. Tips on strong verbs
7.5. Verbs with weak presents and strong pasts 7.6. More about preterite-present verbs 7.7. Dōn, gān, willan 7.8. Negation 7.9. The verbals
7.9.1. Infinitives 7.9.2. Participles
7.10. The subjunctive

7. Verbs

7.1. Quick Start

Old English verbs can be daunting, for a typical verb appears in more forms than a typical pronoun, noun or adjective. While no noun has more than six distinct forms, most verbs have fourteen. (Modern English verbs, by contrast, normally have four or five forms.) Further, while some nouns, like mann ‘man’, have two different vowels in the root syllable, some verbs have as many as five. (The Modern English maximum, leaving aside the verb to be, is three.)

This multiplicity of forms may cause you difficulty when looking up verbs in the dictionary or figuring out their grammatical characteristics. But you can see from the “Magic Sheet” that, despite its inevitable complications, the Old English verb system is really quite orderly. If you keep that orderliness in view as you work through the “Quick Start” section and the rest of this chapter, you will find the verbs to be much easier than they look.

7.1.1. Strong and weak verbs

Table 7.1 shows all the forms of two common verbs.

Table 7.1. Basic verb paradigms
  weak strong
infinitives   fremman ‘do’ helpan ‘help’
tō fremmanne tō helpanne
present indicative 1 sg. fremme helpe
2 fremest hilpst
3 fremeþ hilpþ
  pl. fremmaþ helpaþ
past indicative 1 sg. fremede healp
2 fremedest hulpe
3 fremede healp
  pl. fremedon hulpon
present subjunctive   sg. fremme helpe
pl. fremmen helpen
past subjunctive   sg. fremede hulpe
pl. fremeden hulpen
imperative   sg. freme help
pl. fremmaþ helpaþ
participles   fremmende helpende
fremed holpen

Fremman[1] ‘do’ belongs to the so-called “weak” class of Old English verbs, those that make the past tense by adding a dental consonant (-d- or -t-) as a suffix. The Old English weak verbs correspond roughly to the Modern English “regular” verbs. Helpan ‘help’ is a “strong” verb, one that does not add a dental suffix to make its past tense, but rather changes the vowel of its root syllable. The Old English strong verbs correspond to Modern English “irregular” verbs such as sing (past sang, past participle sung).

By convention, glossaries and dictionaries use the infinitive as the headword for verb entries, and when citing verbs we cite the infinitive.

Take note of these points about the paradigms for fremman and helpan (further details will come later in the chapter):

  1. There are just two tenses, past and present. Old English has various strategies for referring to future time: it uses auxiliary verbs (including willan), explicit references to time (e.g. tōmorgen ‘tomorrow’), and the simple present, relying on context to express futurity.
  2. Similarly, Old English has no settled way of expressing what Modern English expresses with the perfect and pluperfect—that is, that an action is now complete or was complete at some time in the past. It can use forms of the verb habban ‘to have’ with the past participle, as Modern English does (hæfð onfunden ‘has discovered’, hæfde onfunden ‘had discovered’), it can use the adverb ǣr ‘before’ with the simple past (ǣr onfand ‘had discovered’), or it can use the past tense alone, in which case you must infer the correct translation from the context.
  3. While the Modern English verb has only one personal ending (-s for the third-person singular), most Old English verb forms have such endings. These are mostly the same for both weak fremman and strong helpan, but notice that in the singular past indicative the endings are different. The personal endings are shown separately in table 7.2.
    Table 7.2. Personal endings
    present indicative singular plural
    first person -e -aþ
    second person -st
    third person
    past indicative weak strong  
    first person -e -on
    second person -st -e
    third person -e
    all subjunctives
    all persons -e -en
  4. Person is distinguished only in the indicative singular, never in the plural or subjunctive. For example, table 7.1 gives the present first-person plural indicative form wē fremmaþ, but the second person is ġē fremmaþ and the third person hīe fremmaþ, with the same verb forms. Further, only the second person is distinguished in the singular past indicative: the first- and third-person forms are the same.
  5. The root vowels of strong verbs undergo i-mutation in the present second- and third-person singular indicative: thus the second-person singular of helpan is hilpst, that of faran ‘travel’ is færst, and that of ċēosan ‘choose’ is ċīest. The same does not occur in the weak paradigms or in those of strong verbs whose vowels are not subject to i-mutation (e.g. wrītan ‘write’, second-person singular wrītst).
  6. While a Modern English verb descended from the strong verbs never has more than one vowel in the past tense, most Old English strong verbs have two past forms with different vowels, distributed as in table 7.1. The form used for the first- and third-person singular past indicative (e.g. healp) is called the “first past,” and the form used everywhere else in the past tense (e.g. hulpon) is called the “second past.”
  7. The present participle ending in -ende is used where Modern English uses the present participle in -ing: in constructions that express continuing action (for example, “was living”) and as adjectives (“the living God”.

7.1.2. Bēon ‘to be’

The verb bēon ‘to be’ in Old English is a mess, but so is ‘to be’ in Modern English. To the extent that the Old and Modern English verbs look alike, bēon will be easy to learn for students who are native speakers of English.

Table 7.3. bēon
infinitives bēon, wesan  
1 sg. eom bēo past
1 sg. wæs
2 eart bist 2 wǣre
3 is bið 3 wæs
  pl. sind, sindon bēoð   pl. wǣron
  sg. sīe bēo past
  sg. wǣre
pl. sīen bēon pl. wǣren
imperative   sg. bēo, wes  
pl. bēoð, wesað
participles bēonde, wesende

The forms in table 7.3 are an amalgam of three different verbs: one that accounts for the present forms in the first column, one that accounts for all the b- forms, and one that accounts for all the w- forms. Paradigms derived from these three verbs overlap, so that there are two complete sets of present forms,[2] two sets of imperatives, two infinitives and two present participles.

Present forms of the verb wesan (weseð, wesað) are also attested, but they are rare.

The b- forms are often used with reference to future time, as in this sentence on the Day of Judgment:

On þām dæġe ūs bið ætēowed se opena heofon and enġla þrym.
[On that day will be revealed to us the open heaven and the host of angels.]

But the b- forms sometimes are simple presents, as here:

Ðēos wyrt þe man betonican nemneð, hēo biþ cenned on mǣdum and on clǣnum dūnlandum.
[This herb that one calls betony is produced in meadows and in open hilly lands.]

You’ll have to look to the context to tell you whether to translate a b- form of bēon as a future.

7.1.3. Preterite-present verbs

Some of the Modern English auxiliary verbs (also called “helping verbs”) are descended from a class of Old English verbs called “preterite-presents.” They are so called because the present tense of these verbs looks like the past tense (what many grammar books call the “preterite”) of the strong verbs. Most of these Modern English preterite-presents come in pairs, one member of which was originally a present tense and the other originally past: can/could, may/might, and shall/should. The original past-tense forms could, might and should, have come to be used mainly as presents with specialized meanings, and two verbs of this class, must and ought, have lost their original present tenses altogether: their old pasts are now used as presents.

The conjugation of the Old English preterite present verbs will be laid out in §7.6. For now it is enough to know that many of the Old English preterite-presents look reassuringly like their Modern English descendants: hē mæġ ‘he may’, hēo sceal ‘she shall, she must’, iċ can ‘I can, I know’, ġē mihton ‘you might, you were able to’, wē scoldon ‘we should, we had to’.

7.2 More about endings

7.2.1. Assimilation

When the personal ending -st or or the -d- of the weak past immediately follows a consonant, the result may be a sequence of consonants that is difficult to pronounce. In such cases, one or both consonants are altered so that they are more similar to each other, an effect called assimilation:

  1. The ending -d- becomes -t- when it immediately follows an unvoiced consonant. The singular past of slǣpan ‘sleep’ is slǣpte, and that of mētan ‘meet’ is mētte. The same change occurs in Modern English, though it is not always reflected in the spelling (say reached aloud: what is the final consonant?).
  2. The ending becomes -t when it immediately follows d, s or t. For example, the third-person singular of rǣdan ‘read’ is rǣtt (see also item 3), of rǣsan ‘rush’ rǣst, and of grētan ‘greet’ grētt.
  3. When a d or g/ġ at the end of a root syllable comes in contact with the ending -st or , it is changed to t or h: for example, the second-person singular of fēdan ‘feed’ is fētst, and the third-person singular of bīeġan ‘bend’ is bīehð.
  4. Whenever one of these rules has produced a double consonant at the end of a word, or when the ending follows a root ending in ð, the double consonant may be simplified. For example, the third-person singular of ċīdan ‘chide’ can be ċītt or ċīt, and that of cȳðan ‘make known’ may be cȳðð or cȳð. A double consonant will always be simplified when preceded by another consonant: so the past singular of sendan ‘send’ is sende, not *sendde.

7.2.2. Plurals ending in -e

Before the pronouns ‘we’ and ġē ‘you’, any plural ending may appear as -e. For example:

bidde wē þē, lēof, þæt ðū ġebidde for hȳ, and hȳ eft āwende tō ðām þe hēo ǣr wæs.
[Now we ask you, sir, that you pray for her, and turn her back into what she was before.]

Here the verb in the main clause would be biddaþ if it did not immediately precede the pronoun .

7.2.3. Subjunctive plural endings

In Old English of the tenth century you will frequently see subjunctive plural -on (sometimes -an) as well as -en, and in Old English of the eleventh century subjunctives in -en are quite rare. Thus an early text will normally have present subjunctive plural bidden ‘ask’, but a later one will have biddon. In the past tense, where the indicative plural personal ending is already -on, the distinction between indicative and subjunctive plural is lost: for biddan ‘ask’, both forms are bǣdon in late Old English.

7.3 More about weak verbs

Germanic weak verbs fall into three classes: the first two of these are well represented in Old English and the third has almost disappeared (the few remaining class 3 verbs are discussed below). Of the four weak verbs in table 7.4, sceþþan, herian and hǣlan belong to class 1, and lufian belongs to class 2.

7.3.1. Classes 1 and 2

Table 7.4. Weak verbs
  Class 1 Class 2
‘injure’ ‘praise’ ‘heal’ ‘love’
infinitives   sceþþan herian hǣlan lufian
tō sceþþanne tō herianne tō hǣlanne tō lufianne
1 sg. sceþþe herie hǣle lufie
2 sceþest herest hǣlst lufast
3 sceþeþ hereþ hǣlþ lufað
  pl. sceþþaþ heriaþ hǣlaþ lufiað
1 sg. sceþede herede hǣlde lufode
2 sceþedest heredest hǣldest lufodest
3 sceþede herede hǣlde lufode
  pl. sceþedon heredon hǣldon lufodon
  sg. sceþþe herie hǣle hēo lufie
pl. sceþþen herien hǣlen lufien
  sg. sceþede herede hǣlde lufode
pl. sceþeden hereden hǣlden lufoden
imperative   sg. sceþe here hǣl lufa
pl. sceþþaþ heriaþ hǣlaþ lufiað
participles   sceþende heriende hǣlende lufiende
sceþed hered hǣled lufod

Class 1 is marked by i-mutation in the root syllable of the present tense, and usually of the past tense as well (see §7.3.2 for the exceptions). If the root syllable is short, gemination (the doubling of the consonant at the end of the root syllable) occurs in certain forms, including the infinitive; but if the consonant is r, you will find -ri- or -rġ- instead of -rr-. The -i- or -ġ- represents a consonant [j], so herian is a two-syllable word: [her-jɑn].

Class 2 lacks i-mutation. Wherever you find gemination in class 1 verbs with short root syllables, you will find an element spelled -i- or -iġ- after the root syllable of the class 2 verb.[3] This -i- is a syllable all by itself—weighty enough, in fact, to be capable of bearing metrical stress, as we see in this line:

This element did not cause i-mutation because it did not begin with i at the time that i-mutation took place. Rather, it was a long syllable [oːj], which later became the syllable spelled -i-.
H×im þ×ā s/ecg hr/×e    ġ×ew×āt s/īð\i×an
[The man then quickly departed journeying][4]
Genesis A, l. 2018. For the metrical notation, see Chapter 13.

where stress falls on both the first and second syllables of sīðian.

The present third-person singular of the class 2 weak verb looks like the present plural of the other major verb classes (for example, hē lufað ‘he loves’, wē sceþþað ‘we injure’). To avoid being confused by this resemblance, you should learn to recognize a class 2 weak verb when you see one. If your glossary doesn’t tell you the class of the verb, then look at the headword. If the root syllable ends with any consonant but r and is followed by -i-, chances are it is a class 2 weak verb, and the present third-person singular will end with -að.

In some verbs, a vowel is inserted before the endings that do not begin with vowels (-st, , -d-). In verbs like sceþþan and herian this vowel is -e-, in verbs like hǣlan the vowel is absent, and in all class 2 weak verbs it is -a- or -o-. Often the vowel is omitted in class 1 verbs with short root syllables, so you can expect to see (for example) fremst and fremþ as well as fremest and fremeþ. This is the rule rather than the exception when the root syllable ends with d or t: so the past tense of āhreddan ‘rescue’ is āhredde and that of hwettan ‘urge’ is hwette.

7.3.2. Class 1 weak verbs that change their vowels

Verbs like Modern English buy/bought, which both change their vowels in the past tense and add the dental consonant characteristic of the weak past, should not be confused with verbs like swim/swam, which are descended from the Old English strong verbs. Buy/bought belongs to a group of class 1 weak verbs in which the vowels of the present tense are subject to i-mutation while the vowels of the past tense are not. Table 7.5 illustrates with cwellan ‘kill’, sēċan ‘seek’ and þenċan ‘think’.

Table 7.5. Class 1 weak verbs that change their vowels
  ‘kill’ ‘seek’ ‘think’
infinitive   cwellan sēċan þenċan
present indicative 1 sg. cwelle sēċe þenċe
2 cwelest sēċst þenċst
3 cweleþ sēċþ þenċþ
  pl. cwellaþ sēċaþ þenċaþ
past indicative 3 sg. cwealde sōhte þōhte
present subjunctive   sg. cwelle sēċe þenċe
past subjunctive   sg. cwealde sōhte þōhte
imperative   sg. cwele sēċ þenċ
pl. cwellaþ sēċaþ þenċaþ
participles   cwellende sēċende þenċende
cweald sōht þōht

A ċ, cg or ġ at the end of the root syllable of one of these weak verbs is always changed to h before the past-tense ending -t-. Old English also has a rule that when n precedes h, it is dropped and the preceding vowel is lengthened. Thus the past tense of þenċan is þōhte and that of brenġan ‘bring’ is brōhte.

7.3.3. Contracted verbs

The rule that h is always dropped between vowels (already mentioned in connection with nouns) introduces some complications in the verb paradigm. Table 7.6 illustrates with the class 2 weak verb smēaġan ‘ponder’.

Table 7.6. Contracted weak verbs
  singular plural
infinitive   smēaġan
present indicative 1 smēaġe smēaġað
2 smēast
3 smēað
past indicative   smēade smēadon
present subjunctive   smēaġe smēaġen
past subjunctive   smēade smēaden
imperative   smēa smēaġað
participles   smēaġende

The underlying (and unattested) verb is *smēahian or *smēahiġan, but the h has been lost in all forms, since it always comes between vowels. Notice the -ġ- that comes before the ending in certain forms: it is a remnant of the syllable spelled -i- or -iġ- in normal class 2 weak verbs. Like smēaġan are þrēaġan ‘chastise’, twēoġan ‘doubt’ and frēoġan ‘set free’.

7.3.4. Class 3 weak verbs

Obeying the rule that the most common words are the last to leave a dying class, class 3 contains only habban ‘have’, libban ‘live’, secgan ‘say’ and hycgan ‘think’ (table 7.7), together with a few odd remnants. Each of these verbs has partly gone over to other classes, and the resulting confusion makes it impractical to describe the characteristics of the class. The best course is to study the paradigms and be prepared to encounter these anomalous verbs in your reading.

Table 7.7. Class 3 weak verbs
infinitive   habban libban, lifġan secgan hycgan
present indicative 1 sg. hæbbe libbe, lifġe secge hycge
2 hæfst, hafast lifast, leofast seġst, sagast hyġst, hogast
3 hæfð, hafað lifað, leofað seġð, sagað hyġ(e)ð, hogað
  pl habbaþ libbað secgaþ hycgað
past indicative   hæfde lifde, leofode sæġde hog(o)de, hyġde
present subjunctive   hæbbe libbe, lifġe secge hycge
past subjunctive   hæfde lifde, leofode sæġde hog(o)de, hyġde
imperative   sg. hafa leofa sæġe, saga hyġe, hoga
pl. habbaþ libbaþ, lifġaþ secgaþ hycgaþ
participles   hæbbende libbende, lifġende secgende hycgende
ġehæfd ġelifd ġesæġd ġehogod

7.4. More about strong verbs

Most strong verbs are inflected in pretty much the same way as helpan (table 7.1). You will be able to predict the present paradigm of almost any strong verb if you know how i-mutation affects the vowels of root syllables and how the endings -st and interact with consonants at the ends of root syllables. Once you have learned the gradation patterns for the strong verbs, you will easily master the past paradigms as well.

7.4.1. The strong verb classes

The Germanic languages have seven classes of strong verbs, each characterized by its own gradation pattern. Gradation is an Indo-European grammatical feature whereby the root vowels of words are altered to signal changes in grammatical function. For example, if the present tense of a Modern English verb contains “short” i followed by n or m, the past-tense form will usually have a and the past participle u: drink, drank, drunk; ring, rang, rung; swim, swam, swum.

Old English has some variations within the Germanic classes, as table 7.8 shows.

Table 7.8. Classes of strong verbs
  infinitive 3rd pers. sg. first past second past past participle
1 wrītan wrītt wrāt writon writen
2a ċēosan ċīesð ċēas curon coren
2b lūcan lȳcð lēac lucon locen
3a singan singð sang sungon sungen
3b helpan hilpð healp hulpon holpen
3c hweorfan hwierfð hwearf hwurfon hworfen
4 stelan stilð stæl stǣlon stolen
4b niman nimð nam nōmon numen
5 sprecan spricð spræc sprǣcon sprecen
6 bacan bæcð bōc bōcon bacen
7a hātan hǣtt hēt hēton hāten
7b flōwan flēwð flēow flēowon flōwen

This table includes the present third-person singular indicative so that you can see how i-mutation affects each class. You should understand, however, that the vowel of this form is not part of the gradation pattern inherited from Indo-European, but rather a relatively recent phenomenon. Eventually the English language would discard the i-mutation of the second- and third-person singular, but the ancient gradation patterns of the strong verbs are still with us.

Students often ask if they should memorize the strong verb classes. The answer is a qualified “yes.” The qualification is that you should take note of patterns within these classes and use them as mnemonic devices. Most of the vowels of classes 1–5, especially, are derived from a single gradation pattern, and though these vowels have been altered by the influence of surrounding sounds, they still resemble each other:

  1. The vowels of the present tense are mid or high vowels—that is, pronounced with the tongue at or near the roof of the mouth ([e,i])—or diphthongs that begin with these vowels;
  2. The vowels of the first past are low vowels—that is, pronounced with the tongue and jaw lowered ([ɑ,æ])—or diphthongs that begin with these vowels;
  3. The vowels of the second past, though their original resemblance to each other has been obscured, are mostly short; in classes 4–5 they are long and low;
  4. The vowels of the past participle are mostly variations on the short vowels of the second past, but in class 5 the vowel is the same as the present.

The gradation patterns of classes 6–7 differ from those of 1–5 and must be memorized separately.

7.4.2. Verbs affected by grammatical alternation

Grammatical alternation[5] is an alternation between one consonant and another to mark the grammar of a word. Only three pairs of consonants alternate in this way:

A translation of the German phrase “der grammatische Wechsel.” In grammars written in English you will usually see it referred to as “Verner’s Law” after the Danish linguist Karl Verner, who described its origin. Here we prefer the German term as more descriptive of its function in the recorded language.
þ : d     h : g/ġ     s : r

Grammatical alternation affects the paradigms of most strong verbs whose roots end with the consonants þ, h and s: three such verbs are shown in table 7.9.

Table 7.9. Grammatical alternation
  ‘seethe’ ‘accuse’ ‘choose’
infinitive   sēoðan tēon cēosan
present indicative 1 sg. sēoðe tēo ċēose
2 sīeðst tīehst ċīest
past indicative 1 sg. sēað tāh cēas
2 sude tige cure
  pl. sudon tigon curon
present subjunctive   sg. sēoðe tēo cēose
past subjunctive   sg. sude tige cure
past participle   soden tigen coren

At the end of the root syllable h is often dropped in verbs like tēon ‘accuse’ (see next section), but enough forms with h remain to show the alternation clearly.

7.4.3. Contracted verbs

As you have just seen, some strong verbs are subject to contraction as a result of the loss of h between voiced sounds—the same rule that produces contracted weak verbs. Table 7.10 illustrates with three very common verbs, sēon ‘see’, slēan ‘slay’ and fōn ‘take’.

Table 7.10. Contracted strong verbs
  ‘see’ ‘slay’ ‘take’
infinitive   sēon slēan fōn
present indicative 1 sg. sēo slēa
2 siehst sliehst fēhst
3 siehþ sliehþ fēhþ
  pl. sēoð slēað fōð
past indicative   sg. seah slōh fēng
  pl. sāwon slōgon fēngon
present subjunctive   sg. sēo slēa
past subjunctive   sg. sāwe slōge fēnge
imperative   sg. seoh sleah fōh
pl. sēoþ slēað fōð
participles   sēonde slēande fōnde
sewen, seġen slagen fangen

The contraction affects only some present-tense forms, the infinitives and the present participle; past-tense forms that might have been affected have g (by grammatical alternation) instead of h. Verbs of classes 1, 2 and 5 have ēo in contracted forms; those of class 6 have ēa; those of class 7 have ō.

7.4.4. Tips on strong verbs

This would be a good time to go over all the verb paradigms you have seen so far, noting basic similarities. Notice particularly that in the present tense the second- and third-person singular forms are usually different from all the others. These are the forms in which the personal ending does not begin with a vowel.

Present-tense strong verbs cause few difficulties, since the endings make them easy to identify; past plurals are easy as well, for the same reason. But past singulars, which either lack an ending or end only in -e, are easy to confuse with nouns and adjectives. As you gain experience with the language, this kind of confusion will become less likely. But in the meantime, here are some tips to help you get it right.

If you’re using the on-line texts in Old English Aerobics, you won’t have any difficulty distinguishing nouns and verbs because every word is clearly marked with its part of speech and a good bit of other grammatical information. Don’t let this feature make you complacent! Pay attention to the form of the words you’re looking up and ask yourself how the editor knew this word was a verb or that word plural. Remember that very few Old English texts are marked up the way the ones in Old English Aerobics are. The transition from on-line to printed texts will be very difficult if you have abused the convenience of Old English Aerobics.

7.5. Verbs with weak presents and strong pasts

A few verbs have the characteristics of the first weak class in the present tense and of strong class 5 or 6 in the past tense. For example, hebban ‘lift’ has a present tense like that of fremman ‘do’ or sceþþan ‘harm’ (tables 7.1, 7.5): iċ hebbe, hē hefeð, etc. But the past third-person singular indicative of this verb is hōf, the plural is hōfon, and the past participle is hafen (the vowel is the same as that of the present, but without i-mutation).

Some common verbs behave in this way, for example, biddan ‘ask’, licgan ‘lie’, scieppan ‘make, create’, sittan ‘sit’. The dual nature of these verbs (which most glossaries, including the one in this book, classify as strong) is a curiosity, but it will cause you little difficulty.

7.6 More about preterite-present verbs

Many forms of the preterite-present verbs (introduced in §7.1.3) look anomalous, but fortunately their resemblance to some of the most common Modern English auxiliary verbs makes them easy to understand. (However, not all Old English preterite-presents are auxiliaries.) By way of illustration, paradigms for four of the most common verbs in this group are presented in table 7.11. Here are some notes to help you make sense of these paradigms.

  1. The present tense is an old strong past-tense form that has come to be used as a present: compare these present-tense forms with the strong pasts in table 7.8. But the second-person singular of these verbs differs from that of the strong verbs in two respects: a.) it has the first past vowel in its root syllable rather than the second past vowel; and b.) it has an ending -st or -t rather than -e.
  2. The past tense is usually built on the second past root, with -d- or -t- added. In fact, it often looks like the past tense of the class 1 weak verbs described in §7.3.2, though sometimes the forms have been subjected to phonological changes that make them look anomalous.
  3. When the root syllable ends in g (as in āgan, dugan and magan), past -d- becomes -t-; g becomes h before this past ending and before the second-person singular present -t (compare §7.3, items 1 and 3).
Table 7.11. Preterite-present verbs
  ‘know how to’ ‘be able to’ ‘be obliged to’ ‘know’
infinitive   cunnan *magan sculan witan
present indicative 1 sg. cann mæġ sceal wāt
2 canst meaht scealt wāst
3 cann mæġ sceal wāt
  pl. cunnon magon sculon witon
past indicative 1 sg. cūðe meahte, mihte sceolde wisse, wiste
2 cūðest meahtest, mihtest sceoldest wistest
  pl. cūðon meahton, mihton sceoldon wisson, wiston
present subjunctive   sg. cunne mæġe scyle, scule wite
past subjunctive   sg. cūðe meahte, mihte sceolde wisse, wiste
participles   witende
-cunnen, cūð witen

Here is a list of the preterite-present verbs with their principal present and past forms. Infinitives preceded by asterisks are not attested, though speakers and writers presumably used them.

āgan. possess. āh, þū āhst, hīe āgon; past āhte.
cunnan. know (how to). can, hīe cunnon; past cūðe.
dugan. be good (for something). dēag, hīe dugon; subjunctive duge, dyġe; past dohte.
*durran. dare. dearr, hīe durron; subjunctive durre, dyrre; past dorste.
magan. may. mæġ, þū meaht, hīe magon; past meahte, mihte.
*mōtan. must, be allowed. mōt, þū mōst, hīe mōton; past mōste.
ġemunan. remember. ġeman, hīe ġemunon; subjunctive ġemune, ġemyne; past ġemunde.
*ġe-, *benugan. be enough. hit ġeneah, hīe ġenugon; past benohte.
sculan. must. sceal, þū scealt, hīe sculon; subjunctive scyle, scule; past sceolde.
þurfan. need. þearf, þū þearft, hīe þurfon; subjunctive þurfe, þyrfe; past þorfte.
unnan. grant, give, allow. ann, hīe unnon; past ūðe.
witan. know. wāt, þū wāst, hīe witon; past wisse, wiste.

7.7. Dōn, gān, willan

The verbs do, go and will (table 7.12) are still anomalous in Modern English, and in much the same way as in Old English: dōn ‘do’ has a past form that is paralleled in no other verb; gān ‘go’ lacks a past form of its own and has apparently borrowed the past of another verb, now disappeared; and willan ‘desire’ has distinctive inflections in the present tense.

Table 7.12. dōn, gān, willan
  ‘do’ ‘go’ ‘will’
infinitive   dōn gān willan
present indicative 1 sg. wille
2 dēst gǣst wilt
3 dēð gǣð wile
  pl. dōð gāð willað
past indicative 1   dyde ēode wolde
2 dydest ēodest woldest
  pl. dydon ēodon woldon
present subjunctive   sg. wille
past subjunctive   sg. dyde ēode wolde
participles   dōnde willende
ġedōn ġegān

The present forms of dōn and gān look like those of normal strong verbs. But the past tense of dōn is built on a syllable that looks somewhat like a weak past (though its origin is a mystery), and gān has a past tense that also looks weak and in any case does not belong to the same root that gives us the present forms. Willan looks a bit like a preterite-present verb, but it is not; and its first- and third-person singular present and plural present are quite different from the preterite-present forms.

7.8. Negation

Most verbs are negated very simply by placing the adverb ne ‘not’ directly in front of them. In independent clauses, the word-order that follows will normally be Verb—Subject:

Se þe mē ne lufað, ne hylt hē mīne sprǣċe.
[He who does not love me does not keep my sayings.]

Ne is contracted with certain verbs, for example, nis ‘is not’, næs ‘was not’ (from bēon), næfð ‘does not have’, næfde ‘did not have’ (habban), nyllað ‘will not’, noldon ‘would not’ (willan), nāh ‘does not have’, nāhte ‘did not have’ (āgan), nāt ‘does not know’ (witan). Notice that all of the verbs so contracted begin with a vowel, h or w. Not all verbs beginning with those sounds are contracted, but only the more common ones; and those common verbs need not be contracted. You will also see ne wæs, ne hæfð and so on.

The Modern English rule that two negatives make a positive does not apply in Old English; rather, the addition of more negative adverbs to a sentence adds emphasis to its negativity:

Ne bēo ġē nāteshwōn dēade, ðēah ðe ġē of ðām trēowe eton.
[You will certainly not be dead, though you eat from the tree.]

Here the additional negative adverb nāteshwōn makes the sentence more emphatic than it would be with ne alone; since we cannot use double negatives the same way in Modern English, we must resort to a different strategy to represent this emphasis in our translations. Common negative adverbs are , nales, nāteshwōn and nātōþæshwōn.

7.9. The verbals

Old English forms periphrastic verbs much as Modern English does, with auxiliary verbs and verbals (infinitives or participles):

auxiliary + infinitive (will find, may find, etc.)
auxiliary + past participle (has found, had found, was found)
to be + present participle (is finding)

This section lists a few ways in which the infinitives and particples of Old English differ from those of Modern English.

7.9.1. Infinitives

Verbs of knowing, seeing, hearing and commanding may be followed by an accusative object and an infinitive expressing what that object is doing or should do. The construction remains in sentences like “I saw him dance,” but in Old English it is more frequent and it comes where we no longer use it. Examples:

Ġewīt fram mē, forþon þe iċ ġesēo þē on forhæfdnesse þurhwunian.
[Depart from me, for I see you are persevering in abstinence.]
Hǣlend fērde þǣr forþ and þā ġehȳrde þone blindan cleopian.
[The Savior went forth there and then heard the blind man call out.]
Drihten, ġyf þū hyt eart, hāt mē cuman tō þē ofer þās wæteru.
[Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you over these waters.]

The object is often unexpressed, especially after verbs of commanding:

And se cyng þā hēt niman Sīferðes lāfe and ġebringan hī binnan Mealdelmesbyriġ.
[And then the king commanded [someone] to take Siferth’s widow and bring her into Malmesbury.]

It is sometimes appropriate to translate such sentences with a passive construction (“commanded her to be brought”) even though the Old English construction is not passive.

The inflected infinitive is often used with bēon to express obligation, necessity or propriety. It can usually be translated with should or must and an infinitive:

hyt ys ġȳt ġeornlīċe tō āsmēaġeanne
[it should further be diligently investigated]

7.9.2. Participles

The Old English present participle (§3.1.3) is often used as a noun denoting the performer of an action, e.g. rodora Rǣdend ‘Ruler of the heavens’ (Rǣdend being the present participle of rǣdan ‘rule’). You will often find such forms listed separately as nouns in glossaries and dictionaries.

A construction consisting of a noun or pronoun and participle, both in the dative case, is occasionally used where one would expect an adverb clause or another construction expressing time or cause. This noun phrase may sometimes be introduced by a preposition.

And Offa ġefēng Myrċena rīċe, ġeflȳmdum Beornrede.
[And Offa seized the kingdom of the Mercians after Beornred had been driven out.]
Æfter Agustini fyliġde in biscophāde Laurentius, þone hē forðon bi him lifiġendum ġehālgode, þȳ lǣs him forðfērendum se steall ǣniġe hwīle būton heorde taltriġan ongunne.
[After Augustine, Lawrence followed in the bishopric, whom he consecrated while he was still alive for this reason: lest by his passing away the position should for any time, being without a guide, begin to be unstable.]

7.10. The subjunctive

Because speakers of Modern English seldom use the subjunctive mood, the Old English subjunctive is difficult for us to get used to. We do still use it when stating conditions contrary to fact, as in

If I were a carpenter,
and you were a lady,
would you marry me anyway?

Here the subjunctive were (the indicative would be was) suggests that the speaker is not in fact a carpenter. We also use the subjunctive in noun clauses following verbs of desiring and commanding. For example:

The king desired that the knight go on a quest.
The king commanded that the knight go on a quest.
I suggest that you be a little quieter.
I move that the bypass be routed east of town.
I wish that I were wiser.

Here the subjunctives tell us that the condition described in the noun clause is not a present reality or a future certainty, but a possibility mediated by someone’s desire. Some of these usages are disappearing: the first two examples above sound a little archaic, and it would now be more idiomatic to say “The king wanted the knight to go on a quest” and “The king commanded the knight to go on a quest,” using infinitive constructions rather than subjunctives.

Aside from these common uses, the subjunctive now appears mainly in fixed or formulaic expressions, for example, “come what may,” “thanks be to God.”

The subjunctive is far more common in Old English than in Modern English, and you must get used to seeing it in environments where you do not expect it. As in Modern English, the subjunctive is used for conditions contrary to fact. A made-up example:

Ġif iċ wǣre trēowwyrhta . . .
[If I were a carpenter . . .]

It is also used in noun clauses following verbs of desiring and commanding:

Iċ wȳsce þæt iċ wīsra wǣre.
[I wish that I were wiser.]

But the subjunctive is also used in noun clauses where we would not now use it:

Hīe cwǣdon þæt hē wǣre wīs.

Here the subjunctive in the noun clause following Hīe cwǣdon ‘They said’ does not signal a condition contrary to fact, and cwǣdon ‘said’ is hardly a verb of desiring or commanding. In fact, the fairest translation of this sentence would be

They said that he was wise.

making no attempt at all to reproduce the subjunctive. What then does the subjunctive express?

Think of it as implying a point of view towards the action of the verb. In clauses following verbs of desire, the point of view is obvious. In Hīe cwǣdon þæt hē wǣre wīs, it is merely that the speaker is reporting an opinion. He is not necessarily taking a position on the rightness or wrongness of that opinion. It may indeed be obvious that he is in complete agreement:

Þæt folc ðā ðe þis tācen ġeseah cwæð þæt Crist wǣre sōð wītega.
[Then the people who saw this sign said that Christ was a true prophet.]

The following sentence is similar, but it uses the indicative:

Be him āwrāt se wītega Isaias þæt hē is stefn clipiendes on wēstene.
[Concerning him (John the Baptist) the prophet Isaiah wrote that he is the voice of one crying in the wilderness.]

The choice between subjunctive and indicative may often be a matter of individual preference or rhetorical emphasis.

Another common environment in which the subjunctive does not necessarily indicate doubt or unreality is the concessive clause introduced by þēah or þēah þe ‘though’, which generally takes the subjunctive whether or not the statement it contains is known to be true. For example:

Ne sceal nān man swā þēah, þēah hē synful sīe, ġeortrūwian.
[Nevertheless, no man must despair, though he be sinful.]

Here þēah has a sense something like ‘even if’, implying that the man may or may not be sinful; the subjunctive is appropriate (if a little archaic) even in Modern English. But compare:

God is mildheort, þēah ðe ūre yfelnes him oft ābelge.
[God is merciful, though our wickedness often angers him.]

Here the writer can have no doubt that we do often anger God, but the verb ābelge is still in the subjunctive mood.

In general, you can expect relative clauses, clauses of place, and “when” and “while” clauses to take the indicative. Concessive clauses and “before” and “until” clauses more often take the subjunctive. But the mood in many kinds of clause varies as it does in noun clauses, and linguists argue ceaselessly about the meaning of the subjunctive and the indicative in several common constructions.

Beginners (and scholars too!) sometimes feel that they must always translate the Old English subjunctive with a Modern English subjunctive or with a subjunctive-like construction such as the conditional (“would anger”). But it is often best, as the discussion above shows, to translate the subjunctive with a plain indicative. You must determine as nearly as you can what the subjunctive is doing in each instance and decide what Modern English construction best renders that sense.

The Old English subjunctive is often used to make a first- or third-person imperative, and then the best translation usually converts the subject of the verb into an object of “let.” In plural constructions, the -n of the ending is generally dropped.

Sīe hē āmānsumod.
[Let him be excommunicated.]
Ete hīe hrædlīce.
[Let them eat quickly.]
Lufie wē ūre nēxtan.
[Let us love our neighbors.]

This usage survives in some formulaic phrases such as “God be thanked.”