Top of chapter Contents Bibliography 12.1. Quick Start 12.2. Subject-Verb 12.3. Verb-Subject 12.4. Subject . . . Verb 12.5. Correlation 12.6. Periphrastic verbs

12. Word-order

12.1. Quick Start

You may read in some sources, especially older ones, that Old English word-order is “free” compared to that of Modern English, and you may conclude that writers of Old English could mix up their words in any order at all. But though word-order was freer then than now, there are just a few common word-orders in Old English clauses. Learn these and the job of learning the language will become much easier. The main Old English word-orders are these:

Subject-Verb.
This, of course, is how most Modern English sentences are arranged.
Verb-Subject.
This word-order still occurs in Modern English sentences like “There are plenty of fish in the sea,” and often in questions, such as “Are you sleeping?”
Subject . . . Verb.
The finite verb is delayed until the end of the clause.

Each of these can occur in several different environments, but, as you will see, each is also typical of particular kinds of clause.

12.2. Subject-Verb

Since this is the standard word-order of the Modern English clause, you’ll be glad to know that it is very common in Old English. It is typical of independent clauses, though it also occurs frequently in subordinate clauses. Sometimes you’ll be able to translate a sentence that uses this word-order almost word-for-word:

Ēac swylċe ðā nȳtenu of eallum cynne and eallum fugolcynne cōmon tō Noe, intō ðām arce, swā swā God bebēad.
[Also the beasts of each species and (of) each species of bird came to Noah, into the ark, as God commanded.]

The direct object, when it is a noun or noun phrase, will generally follow the verb:

God bletsode ðā Noe and his suna and cwæð him tō: “Weaxað and bēoð ġemenifylde and āfyllað ðā eorðan.”
[God then blessed Noah and his sons and said to them: “Increase and be multiplied and fill the earth.”]

Old English has a tendency to place pronoun objects—direct and indirect—early in the clause. A pronoun object will usually come between the subject and the verb:

And iċ hine ġesēo and bēo ġemyndiġ ðæs ēċean weddes ðe ġeset is betwux Gode and eallum libbendum flǣsce.
[And I will see it and be mindful of the eternal covenant that is established between God and all living flesh.]

If the clause has both a direct and an indirect object, and one of them is a pronoun, the pronoun will come first:

Hēr ġē magon ġehȳran þæt hē ġyfð ūs anweald, ġif wē on hine ġelȳfað, Godes bearn tō bēonne.
[Here you may hear that he gives us the power, if we believe in him, to be God’s children.]

If the indirect object had been a noun and the direct object a pronoun, the direct object would have come first.

Though you will most frequently find a noun object after the verb and a pronoun before, there is no hard-and-fast rule for the placement of objects. Sometimes you will find a pronoun object after the verb, and sometimes the object will come before the subject:

and iċ fordō hī mid ðǣre eorðan samod.
[I will destroy them together with the earth.]
Ðone cyning hī brōhton cucene tō Iosue.
[They brought the king alive to Joshua.]

Since the location of the direct object in Modern English is fixed after the verb, its mobility in Old English may occasionally cause problems. Keep an eye on the inflections and, when they don’t help you, let the context guide you to the correct reading.

Adverbial elements, including prepositional phrases and adverb clauses, occur in various places in the sentence. Though such elements are also mobile in Modern English, you will often find them where we cannot now put them, as in God bletsode ðā Noe, quoted above, which we can translate “God then blessed Noah,” “then God blessed Noah,” or “God blessed Noah then,” but not “God blessed then Noah.” Similarly, ġif wē on hine ġelȳfað, also quoted above, must be translated “if we believe in him,” not “if we in him believe.”

12.3. Verb-Subject

This word-order is common in independent clauses introduced by the adverbs þā ‘then’, þonne ‘then’, þǣr ‘there’, þanon ‘thence’, þider ‘thither’, the negative adverb ne, and the conjunctions and/ond and ac ‘but’.

Since Old English narrative often advances in a series of þā-clauses, you’ll find the Verb-Subject word-order quite frequent in narrative:

Ðā cwæð Drihten tō Caine: “Hwǣr is Abel ðīn brōðor?”
Ðā andswarode hē and cwæð: “Iċ nāt; seġst ðū, sceolde iċ mīnne brōðor healdan?”
Ðā cwæð Drihten tō Caine: “Hwæt dydest ðū? Þīnes brōðor blōd clypað tō mē of eorðan.”
[Then the Lord said to Cain: “Where is Abel, your brother?”
Then he answered and said: “I don’t know: do you say I must look after my brother?”
Then the Lord said to Cain: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries to me from the earth.”]

This word-order also occurs in independent clauses not introduced by an adverb or adverbial element:

Wǣron hī ēac swȳþe druncene, for ðām þǣr wæs brōht wīn sūðan.
[They were also very drunk, for wine had been brought from the south.]

When the clause contains a direct object, it will usually follow the subject, but it may also come first in the clause.

The Verb-Subject word-order is also characteristic of questions, whether or not introduced by an interrogative word:

Him cwæð Nicodemus tō: “Hū mæġ se ealda mann eft bēon ācenned? Mæġ hē, lā, inn faran tō his mōdor innoðe eft, and swā bēon ġeedcenned?”
[Nicodemus said to him, “How can the old man be born again? May he, indeed, go into his mother’s womb again, and thus be reborn?”]

In Modern English this word-order is used mostly in questions, but, as you have seen, in Old English it is also used in declarative sentences. You must therefore be careful not to make assumptions about the kind of clause you are reading based on this word-order. When Unferth makes fun of a youthful exploit that Beowulf undertook with Breca, he begins his speech thus:

Eart þū se Bēowulf,   se þe wið Brecan wunne

(Beowulf, l. 506)

The Verb-Subject word-order has suggested to most editors that the line is a question, to be translated “Are you the Beowulf who contended with Breca?” But it has been plausibly suggested that it is instead a statement, to be translated “You’re that Beowulf, the one who contended with Breca!”

Commands also generally have the Verb-Subject word-order unless the subject is omitted, as happens more often than not when the command is positive:

Ne wyrċ ðū ðē āgrafene godas.
[Do not make graven gods for yourself.]
Ārwurða fæder and mōdor.
[Honor (your) father and mother.]

12.4. Subject . . . Verb

The Subject . . . Verb word-order is commonly found in subordinate clauses and clauses introduced by and/ond or ac ‘but’, though it does sometimes occur in independent clauses. The subject comes at the beginning of the clause and the finite verb is delayed until the end (though it may be followed by an adverbial element such as a prepositional phrase).

Gode ofðūhte ðā ðæt mann ġeworhte ofer eorðan.
[Then it was a matter of regret to God that he had made man upon the earth.]

In the noun clause (ðæt . . . eorðan), the direct object of ġeworhte comes between the subject and the verb. You may also find indirect objects, complements, adverbial elements and various combinations of these in the same position:

Adverbial element:
Se Iouis wæs swā swīðe gāl þæt on hys swustor ġewīfode.
[This Jove was so very lustful that he married his sister.]
and þā bēċ ne magon bēon āwǣġede, þe þā ealdan hǣðenan be him āwriton þuss.
[and the books that the old heathens wrote thus about them may not be nullified.]
Complement:
Nū secgað þā Deniscan þæt se Iouis wǣre, þe Þōr hātað, Mercuries sunu.
[Now the Danes say that this Jove, whom they call Thor, was Mercury’s son.]
Indirect object and object:
and Adam him eallum naman ġesceōp
[and Adam made names for them all]

If you find you are having difficulty locating the end of a clause and the word-order appears to be Subject . . . Verb, consider the possibility that the finite verb marks the end of the clause.

12.5. Correlation

When a subordinate clause and an independent clause are correlated, and are introduced by an ambiguous conjunction/adverb pair (especially þā ‘when, then’, þonne ‘when, then’ and þǣr ‘where, there’), you can usually tell the subordinate clause from the independent clause by looking at the word-order. In this situation, the tendency of the independent clause introduced by an adverb to have the word-order Verb-Subject and that of the subordinate clause to have the order Subject-Verb or Subject . . . Verb will usually tell you which clause is which.

Simply put, the rule is this: when two clauses are correlated, the subordinate clause will have the subject before the verb, while the independent clause will have the verb before the subject.

Ðonne sēo sunne ūp ārīst, þonne wyrċð hēo dæġ.
[When the sun rises, then it brings about day.]
Ðǣr ēower goldhord is, ðǣr bið ēower heorte.
[Wherever your treasure is, there is your heart.]
Þā hē þā se cyning þās word ġehȳrde, þā hēt hē hī bīdan on þǣm ēalonde þe hī ūp cōmon.
[When the king heard these words, then he commanded them to wait on the island where they had come ashore.]

In each of these examples, the subordinate clause has the word-order Subject-Verb while the independent clause has Verb-Subject.

Unfortunately, this rule does not work in poetry. In prose it will work most of the time, but you cannot count on it absolutely.

12.6. Anticipation

When a noun clause functions as a subject or object it must follow the verb; but often a pronoun (usually þæt, but sometimes hit) appears before the verb, anticipating the coming clause. This pronoun occurs in the position that a pronoun subject or object would normally take (see §12.2). In the first sentence below, the pronoun and clause are the subject of ġelimpe, and in the second they are the object of the paired verbs onġeat and ġeseah.

Ġeheald þū mīn word, and þū hī nǣnigum ōþrum men ne secge, ġīf þæt ġelimpe þæt þū wið hine ġesprece.
[Hold fast my words, and do not tell them to any other man, if it should happen that you speak to him.]
Hē Drihten þæt onġeat and ġeseah þæt se dēofol þone Iudas lǣrde þæt hē hine belǣwde.
[He, the Lord, perceived and saw that the devil was persuading Judas that he should betray him.]

The translation of the first sentence shows that Modern English does something similar with certain verbs when a clause is the subject. If the verb takes an object in a case other than accusative, the anticipatory pronoun will be in that case, but the conjunction that begins the noun clause (þæt, or some other) will remain the same. For example, the verb wēnan ‘expect, believe’ takes a genitive object:

þæs wēnde þæt his wamb wǣre his Drihten God.
[He believed that his belly was his Lord God.]

This construction usually cannot be translated word for word: you will normally have to omit the anticipatory pronoun, as in the second and third translations above.

12.7. Periphrastic verbs

In Modern English auxiliary and verbal may be separated by an adverbial element, but usually we keep them together. In Old English, on the other hand, they may come together or be widely separated. Here are some typical patterns:

Subject-Verb:
ond ēac se miċla here wæs þā þǣrtō cumen
[and also the great (Viking) army had then come to that place]
Þǣr man meahte þā ġesēon ermðe þǣr man oft ǣr ġeseah blisse[1]
[There one might then see misery where before one had often seen bliss]
This sentence illustrates the point made above that you cannot always count on word-order to tell you which clause is independent and which subordinate.
Verb-Subject:
Hæfde se cyning his fierd on tū tōnumen
[The king had divided his army in two]
Ðǣr mihton ġesēon Winċeasterlēode rancne here and uneargne
[There the people of Winchester could see the bold and uncowardly (Viking) army]
Subject . . . Verb:
Ac sōna swā hīe tō Bēamflēote cōmon, ond þæt ġeweorc ġeworht wæs
[But as soon as they came to Benfleet, and the fortification had been constructed]

The splitting of periphrastic verb forms and the placement of verbals and finite verbs at the ends of clauses can give Old English a “foreign” look. But there are sources of comfort here: when finite verb and verbal are separated, the last one will usually mark the end of a clause, helping you with the problem of finding clause boundaries. When they are not separated, your Modern English sense of how clauses are constructed will generally serve you well.