Old English grammar

The grammar of Old English is quite different from that of Modern English, predominantly by being much more inflected. As an old Germanic language, Old English has a morphological system that is similar to that of the hypothetical Proto-Germanic reconstruction, retaining many of the inflections thought to have been common in Proto-Indo-European and also including characteristically Germanic constructions such as the umlaut.

Among living languages, Old English morphology most closely resembles that of modern Icelandic, which is among the most conservative of the Germanic languages. To a lesser extent, it resembles modern German.

Nouns, pronouns, adjectives and determiners were fully inflected with five grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental), two grammatical numbers (singular and plural) and three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter). First- and second-person personal pronouns also had dual forms for referring to groups of two people, in addition to the usual singular and plural forms.[1] The instrumental case was somewhat rare and occurred only in the masculine and neuter singular. It was often replaced by the dative. Adjectives, pronouns and (sometimes) participles agreed with their antecedent nouns in case, number and gender. Finite verbs agreed with their subject in person and number.

Nouns came in numerous declensions (with many parallels in Latin, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit). Verbs came in nine main conjugations (seven strong and two weak), all with numerous subtypes, as well as a few additional smaller conjugations and a handful of irregular verbs. The main difference from other ancient Indo-European languages, such as Latin, is that verbs could be conjugated in only two tenses (vs. the six "tenses," really tense/aspect combinations, of Latin), and they have no synthetic passive voice although it still existed in Gothic.

The grammatical gender of a given noun does not necessarily correspond to its natural gender, even for nouns referring to people. For example, sēo sunne (the sun) was feminine, se mōna (the moon) was masculine, and þæt wīf (the woman) was neuter. (Compare modern German die Sonne, der Mond, das Weib.) Pronominal usage usually reflected natural gender rather than grammatical gender when the two conflicted.



Verbs in Old English are divided into strong and weak verbs. Strong verbs form the past tense by changing a vowel, while weak verbs add an ending.

Strong verbs

Strong verbs use the Germanic form of conjugation known as ablaut. In this form of conjugation, the stem of the word changes to indicate the tense. Verbs like this persist in modern English; for example sing, sang, sung is a strong verb, as are swim, swam, swum and choose, chose, chosen. The root portion of the word changes rather than its ending. In Old English, there were seven major classes of strong verb; each class has its own pattern of stem changes. Learning these is often a challenge for students of the language, though English speakers may see connections between the old verb classes and their modern forms.

The classes had the following distinguishing features to their infinitive stems:

  1. ī + one consonant.
  2. ēo or ū + one consonant.
  3. Originally e + two consonants. By the time of written Old English, many had changed. If C is used to represent any consonant, verbs in this class usually had short e + lC; short eo + rC; short i + nC/mC; or (g̣ +) short ie + lC.
  4. e + one consonant (usually l or r, plus the verb brecan 'to break').
  5. e + one consonant (usually a stop or a fricative).
  6. a + one consonant.
  7. Other than the above. Always a heavy root syllable (either a long vowel or short + two consonants), almost always a non-umlauted vowel – e.g., ō, ā, ēa, a (+ nC), ea (+ lC/rC), occ. ǣ (the latter with past in ē instead of normal ēo). Infinitive is distinguishable from class 1 weak verbs by non-umlauted root vowel; from class 2 weak verbs by lack of suffix -ian. First and second preterite have identical stems, usually in ēo (occ. ē), and the infinitive and the past participle also have the same stem.
Stem changes in strong verbs
Class Root weight Infinitive First preterite Second preterite Past participle
I heavyīāi
II ēo or ūēauo
III see table below
IV lighte(+r/l)æǣo
V e(+other)e
VI aōa
VII heavyō, ā, ēa, a (+nC), ea (+rC/lC), occ. ǣē or ēosame as infinitive

The first preterite stem is used in the preterite, for the first- and third-person singular. The second preterite stem is used for second-person singular, and all persons in the plural (as well as the preterite subjunctive). Strong verbs also exhibit i-mutation of the stem in the second- and third-person singular in the present tense.

The third class went through so many sound changes that it was barely recognisable as a single class. The first was a process called 'breaking'. Before h, and r + another consonant, æ turned into ea, and e to eo. Also, before l + another consonant, the same happened to æ, but e remained unchanged (except before combination lh).

The second sound change to affect it was the influence of palatal sounds g, c, and sc. These turned preceding e and æ to ie and ea, respectively.

The third sound change turned e to i, æ to a, and o to u before nasals.

Altogether, this split the third class into five sub-classes:

  1. e + two consonants (apart from clusters beginning with l).
  2. eo + r or h + another consonant.
  3. e + l + another consonant.
  4. g, c, or sc + ie + two consonants.
  5. i + nasal + another consonant.
Stem changes in Class III
Sub-class Infinitive First preterite Second preterite Past participle
a eæuo
b eoea
c e
d ie
e iau

Regular strong verbs were all conjugated roughly the same, with the main differences being in the stem vowel. Thus stelan "to steal" represents the strong verb conjugation paradigm.

Tense/mood Pronoun 'steal'
Infinitives stelan
tō stelanne
Present indicative
Past indicative iċ/hē/hit/hēostæl
Present subjunctive Singularstele
Past subjunctive Singularstǣle
Imperative Singularstel
Present participle stelende
Past participle (ġe)stolen

Weak verbs

Weak verbs are formed by adding alveolar (t or d) endings to the stem for the past and past-participle tenses. Examples include love, loved and look, looked.

Originally, the weak ending was used to form the preterite of informal, noun-derived verbs such as often emerge in conversation and which have no established system of stem-change. By nature, these verbs were almost always transitive, and even today, most weak verbs are transitive verbs formed in the same way. However, as English came into contact with non-Germanic languages, it invariably borrowed useful verbs which lacked established stem-change patterns. Rather than inventing and standardizing new classes or learning foreign conjugations, English speakers simply applied the weak ending to the foreign bases.

The linguistic trends of borrowing foreign verbs and verbalizing nouns have greatly increased the number of weak verbs over the last 1,200 years. Some verbs that were originally strong (for example help, holp, holpen) have become weak by analogy; most foreign verbs are adopted as weak verbs; and when verbs are made from nouns (for example "to scroll" or "to water") the resulting verb is weak. Additionally, conjugation of weak verbs is easier to teach, since there are fewer classes of variation. In combination, these factors have drastically increased the number of weak verbs, so that in modern English weak verbs are the most numerous and productive form, although occasionally a weak verb may turn into a strong verb through the process of analogy, such as sneak (originally only a noun), where snuck is an analogical formation rather than a survival from Old English.

There are three major classes of weak verbs in Old English. The first class displays i-mutation in the root, and the second class none. There is also a third class explained below.

Class-one verbs with short roots exhibit gemination of the final stem consonant in certain forms. With verbs in r, this appears as ri or rg, where i and g are pronounced [j]. Geminated f appears as bb, and that of g appears as cg. Class-one verbs may receive an epenthetic vowel before endings beginning in a consonant.

Where class-one verbs have gemination, class-two verbs have i or ig, which is a separate syllable pronounced [i]. All class-two verbs have an epenthetic vowel, which appears as a or o.

In the following table, three verbs are conjugated. Swebban "to put to sleep" is a class-one verb exhibiting gemination and an epenthetic vowel. Hǣlan "to heal" is a class-one verb exhibiting neither gemination nor an epenthetic vowel. Sīðian "to travel" is a class-two verb.

Tense/mood Pronoun 'put to sleep' 'heal' 'travel'
Infinitives swebbanhǣlansīðian
tō swebbannetō hǣlannetō sīðienne
Present indicative swebbehǣlesīðie
Past indicative iċ/hē/hit/hēoswefedehǣldesīðode
Present subjunctive Singularswebbehǣlesīðiġe
Past subjunctive Singularswefedehǣldesīðode
Imperative Singularswefehǣlsīða
Present participle swefendehǣlendesīðiende
Past participle (ġe)swefed(ġe)hǣled(ġe)sīðod

During the Old English period, the third class was significantly reduced; only four verbs belonged to this group: habban 'have', libban 'live', seċġan 'say', and hyċġan 'think'. Each of these verbs is distinctly irregular, though they share some commonalities.

Tense/mood Pronoun 'have' 'live' 'say' 'think'
Infinitives habbanlibbanseċġanhyċġan
tō hæbbennetō libbennetō seċġennetō hyċġenne
Present indicative
Past indicative iċ/hē/hit/hēo hæfdelifdesæġdehogde
þū hæfdest lifdest sæġdest hogdest
Plural hæfdon lifdon sæġdon hogdon
Present subjunctive Singular hæbbelibbeseċġehyċġe
Plural hæbben libben seċġen hyċġen
Past subjunctive Singular hæfdelifdesæġdehogde
Plural hæfden lifde sæġden hogden
Imperative Singularhafaleofasæġehyġe
Present participle hæbbendelibbendeseċġendehyċġende
Past participle (ġe)hæfd(ġe)lifd(ġe)sæġd(ġe)hogd

Preterite-present verbs

The preterite-present verbs are a class of verbs which have a present tense in the form of a strong preterite and a past tense like the past of a weak verb. These verbs derive from the subjunctive or optative use of preterite forms to refer to present or future time. For example, witan, "to know" comes from a verb which originally meant "to have seen" (cf. OE wise "manner, mode, appearance"; Latin videre "to see" from the same root). The present singular is formed from the original singular preterite stem and the present plural from the original plural preterite stem. As a result of this history, the first-person singular and third-person singular are the same in the present.

Few preterite-present verbs appear in the Old English corpus. Note that not all of the inflections listed below are attested: some have been reconstructed by comparison with cognates in other languages and with similar verbs in Old English.

In spite of heavy irregularities, there are four groups of similarly-conjugated verbs:

  1. Āgan, durran, mōtan, and witan
  2. Cunnan, ġemunan (outside the past tense), and unnan
  3. Dugan, magan, and ġenugan
  4. Sċulan and þurfan

Note that the Old English meanings of many of the verbs are significantly different from that of the modern descendants; in fact, the verbs "can, may, must", and to a lesser extent "thurf, durr" appear to have chain shifted in meaning.

Conjugation Pronoun 'know, know how to' 'be able to, can' 'should, must' 'know' 'own' 'avail' 'dare' 'remember' 'need' 'be allowed to, may' 'grant' 'have use of, enjoy'
Infinitives cunnanmagansċulanwitanāgandugandurranġemunanþurfanmōtanunnanġenugan
tō cunnennetō magennetō sculennetō witennetō āgennetō dugennetō durrennetō ġemunennetō þurfennetō mōtennetō unnennetō ġenugenne
Present indicative iċ/hē/hit/hēocannmæġsċealwātāhdeahdearrġemanþearfmōtannġeneah
Past indicative cūðemeahtesċoldewisteāhtedohtedorsteġemundeþorftemōsteūðeġenohte
hē/hit/hēo meahte
Present subjunctive Singularcunnemæġesċylewiteāgedugedyrreġemuneþyrfemōteunneġenuge
Past subjunctive Singularcūðemihtesċoldewisteāhtedohtedyrsteġemundeþyrftemōsteūðeġenohte
Imperative Singular cunne mæġe sċyle wite āge duge dyrre ġemune þyrfe mōte unne ġenuge
Plural cunnaþ magaþ sċulaþ witaþ āgaþ dugaþ durraþ ġemunaþ þurfaþ mōtaþ unnaþ ġenugaþ
Present participle cunnende mæġende sċulende witende āgende dugende durrende ġemunende þurfende mōtende unnende ġenugende
Past participle (ġe)cunnen/(ġe)cūþ (ġe)mægen (ġe)sċulen (ġe)witen (ġe)āgen (ġe)dugen (ġe)dorren ġemunen (ġe)þurfen (ġe)mōten (ġe)unnen ġenugen

Anomalous verbs

Additionally, there is a further group of four verbs which are anomalous: "want", "do", "go" and "be". These four have their own conjugation schemes which differ significantly from all the other classes of verb. This is not especially unusual: "want", "do", "go", and "be" are the most commonly used verbs in the language, and are very important to the meaning of the sentences in which they are used. Idiosyncratic patterns of inflection are much more common with important items of vocabulary than with rarely used ones.

Dōn 'to do' and gān 'to go' are conjugated alike; willan 'to want' is similar outside of the present tense.

Tense/mood Pronoun 'do' 'go' 'want'
Infinitives dōngānwillan
tō dōnnetō gānnetō willenne
Present indicative wille
Past indicative iċ/hē/hit/hēodydeēodewolde
Present subjunctive Singular wille
Plural dōn gān willen
Past subjunctive Singular dydeēodewolde
Plural dyde ēode wolde
Imperative Singular wille
Plural dōþ gāþ willaþ
Present participle dōndegangendewillende
Past participle (ġe)dōn(ġe)gān*(ġe)willen

The verb 'to be' is actually composed of three different stems: one beginning with w-, one beginning with b-, and one beginning with s-. These are traditionally thought of as forming two separate words: wesan, comprising the forms beginning with w- and s-, and bēon, comprising the forms beginning with b-.

Tense/mood Pronoun 'be'
Infinitives wesan, bēon
tō bēonne
Present indicative eom, bēo
þūeart, bist
hē/hit/hēois, biþ
Pluralsind, bēoþ
Past indicative iċ/hē/hit/hēowæs
Present subjunctive Singularsīe, bēo
Pluralsīen, bēon
Past subjunctive Singularwǣre
Imperative Singularwes, bēo
Pluralwesaþ, bēoþ
Present participle wesende, bēonde
Past participle (ġe)bēon

In the present tense, wesan and bēon carried a difference in meaning. Wesan was used in most circumstances, whereas bēon was used for the future and for certain kinds of general statements.


Old English is an inflected language, and as such its nouns, pronouns, adjectives and determiners must be declined in order to serve a grammatical function. A set of declined forms of the same word pattern is called a declension. As in several other ancient Germanic languages, there are five major cases: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive and instrumental.

  • The nominative case indicated the subject of the sentence. For example: se cyning means 'the king'. It was also used for direct address. Adjectives in the predicate (qualifying a noun on the other side of 'to be') were also in the nominative.
  • The accusative case indicated the direct object of the sentence, for example: Æðelbald lufode þone cyning means "Æðelbald loved the king", where Æðelbald is the subject and the king is the object. Already the accusative had begun to merge with the nominative; it was never distinguished in the plural, or in a neuter noun.
  • The genitive case indicated possession, for example: the þæs cyninges sċip is "the king's ship". It also indicated partitive nouns.
  • The dative case indicated the indirect object. For example: hringas þǣm cyninge means "rings for the king" or "rings to the king". Here, the word cyning is in its dative form: cyninge. There were also several verbs that took direct objects in the dative.
  • The instrumental case indicated an instrument used to achieve something, for example: lifde sweorde, "he lived by the sword", where sweorde is the instrumental form of sweord. During the Old English period, the instrumental was falling out of use, having largely merged with the dative. Only pronouns and strong adjectives retained separate forms for the instrumental.

The small body of evidence available for Runic texts suggests that there may also have been a separate locative case in early or Northumbrian forms of the language (e.g., ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁ on rodi "on the Cross").[2]

In addition to inflection for case, nouns take different endings depending on whether the noun was in the singular (for example, hring "one ring"') or plural (for example, hringas "many rings"). Also, some nouns pluralize by way of Umlaut, and some undergo no pluralizing change in certain cases.

Nouns are also categorized by grammatical gender – masculine, feminine, or neuter. In general, masculine and neuter words share most of their endings, while feminine words have their own subset of endings.

Furthermore, Old English nouns are divided as either strong or weak. Weak nouns have their own endings. In general, weak nouns are less complex than strong nouns, since they had begun to lose their system of declension. However, the various noun classes are not totally distinct from one another, and there is a great deal of overlap between them.

Descriptions of Old English language grammars often follow the NOM-ACC-GEN-DAT-INST case order.

Strong nouns

Here are the strong declensional endings and examples for each gender:

Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative -as-u/–-u/–-a
Accusative -e-a/-e
Genitive -es-a-es-a-a
Dative -e-um-e-um-um

For the '-u/–' forms above, the '-u' is used with a root consisting of a single short syllable or ending in a long syllable followed by a short syllable, while roots ending in a long syllable or two short syllables are not inflected. (A long syllable contains a long vowel or is followed by two consonants. Note also that there are some exceptions; for example, feminine nouns ending in -þu such as strengþu 'strength'.)

Example of the strong noun declension for each gender
Case Masculine
engel 'angel'
scip 'ship'
sorg 'sorrow'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative enġelenglassċipsċipusorgsorga
Accusative sorgesorga/sorge
Genitive englesenglasċipessċipasorga
Dative engleenglumsċipesċipumsorgum

Note the syncope of the second e in enġel when an ending follows. This syncope of the vowel in the second syllable occurs with two-syllable strong nouns, which have a long vowel in the first syllable and a second syllable consisting of a short vowel and single consonant (for example, enġel, wuldor 'glory', and hēafod 'head'). However, this syncope is not always present, so forms such as engelas may be seen.

Weak nouns

Here are the weak declensional endings and examples for each gender:

Case Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -a -e -an
Accusative -an -e
Genitive -an -ena
Dative -an -um
Example of the weak noun declension for each gender
Case Masculine
nama 'name'
ēage 'eye'
tunge 'tongue'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative nama naman ēage ēagan tunge tungan
Accusative naman tungan
Genitive naman namena ēagan ēagena tungan tungena
Dative namumēagumtungum

Irregular strong nouns

In addition, masculine and neuter nouns whose main vowel is short æ and end with a single consonant change the vowel to a in the plural (a result of the phonological phenomenon known as Anglo-Frisian brightening):

Example: dæg 'day' (masculine)
Case Singular Plural
Nominative dægdagas
Genitive dægesdaga
Dative dægedagum

Some masculine and neuter nouns end in -e in their base form. These drop the -e and add normal endings. Note that neuter nouns in -e always have -u in the plural, even with a long vowel:

Example of the strong noun declensions ending in -e
Case Masculine
ende 'end'
stīele 'steel'
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative endeendasstīelestīelu
Genitive endesendastīelesstīela
Dative endeendumstīelestīelum

Nouns ending in -h lose this when an ending is added, and lengthen the vowel in compensation (this can result in compression of the ending as well):

Example of the strong noun declensions ending in -h
Case Masculine
mearh 'horse'
feorh 'life'
sċōh 'shoe'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative mearhmēarasfeorhsċōhsċōs
Genitive mēaresmēarafēoresfēorasċōssċōna
Dative mēaremēarumfēorefēorumsċōsċōm

Nouns whose stem ends in -w change this to -u or drop it in the nominative singular. (Note that this '-u/–' distinction depends on syllable weight, as for strong nouns, above.)

Example of the strong noun declensions ending in -w
Case Neuter
smeoru 'grease'
sinu 'sinew'
lǣs 'pasture'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative smeorusinusinwalǣslǣswa
Accusative sinwesinwa, -elǣswelǣswa, -e
Genitive smeorwessmeorwasinwalǣswa
Dative smeorwesmeorwumsinwumlǣswum

A few nouns follow the -u declension, with an entirely different set of endings. The following examples are both masculine, although feminines also exist, with the same endings (for example duru 'door' and hand 'hand'). Note that the '-u/–' distinction in the singular depends on syllable weight, as for strong nouns, above.

Example of the -u declension
Case Masculine
sunu 'son'
feld 'field'
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative sunusunafeldfelda
Genitive sunafelda
Dative sunasunumfeldafeldum

Mutating strong nouns

There are also some nouns of the consonant declension, which show i-umlaut in some forms.

Example of the strong noun declensions with i-shift
Case Masculine
fōt 'foot'
hnutu 'nut'
bōc 'book'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative fōtfēthnutuhnytebōcbēċ
Genitive fōtesfōtahnyte, hnutehnutabēċ, bōcebōca
Dative fēt, fōtefōtumhnutumbēċ, bōcbōcum

Other such nouns include (with singular and plural nominative forms given):

Masculine: tōþ, tēþ 'tooth'; mann, menn 'person'; frēond, frīend 'friend'; fēond, fīend 'enemy' (cf. 'fiend')

Feminine: studu, styde 'post' (cf. 'stud'); hnitu, hnite 'nit'; āc, ǣċ 'oak'; gāt, gǣt 'goat'; brōc, brēċ 'leg covering' (cf. 'breeches'); gōs, gēs 'goose'; burg, byrġ 'city'; dung, dynġ 'prison'; turf, tyrf 'turf'; grūt, grȳt 'meal' (cf. 'grout'); lūs, lȳs 'louse'; mūs, mȳs 'mouse' Feminine with loss of -h in some forms: furh, fyrh 'furrow' or 'fir'; sulh, sylh 'plough'; þrūh, þrȳh 'trough'; wlōh, wlēh 'fringe'. Feminine with compression of endings: , 'cow' (cf. dialectal plural 'kine')

Neuter: In addition, sċrūd 'clothing, garment' has the umlauted dative-singular form sċrȳd.

Nouns of relationship

Nouns of relationship
Case Masculine
fæder 'father'
brōðor 'brother'
mōdor 'mother'
sweostor 'sister'
dohtor 'daughter'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative-Accusative fæderfæderasbrōðor(ġe)brōðor, -ra, -rumōdormōdra, -rusweostor(ġe)sweostor, -tra, -trudohtordohtor, -ra, -ru
Genitive fædera(ġe)brōðramōdra(ġe)sweostradohtordohtra
Dative fæderumbrēðer(ġe)brōðrummēdermōdrum(ġe)sweostrumdehterdohtrum

Neuter nouns with -r- in the plural

Example: lamb 'lamb' (neuter)
Case Singular Plural
Nominative-Accusative lamblambru
Genitive lambeslambra
Dative lambelambrum

The other nouns of this type are ǣġ, ǣġru 'egg'; ċealf, ċealfru 'calf'; and ċild 'child', which has either the a-stem plural ċild or the inherited plural ċildru (cf. 'children', with -en from the weak nouns).


Adjectives in Old English are declined using the same categories as nouns: five cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental), three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), and two numbers (singular, plural). In addition, they can be declined either strong or weak. The weak forms are used in the presence of a definite or possessive determiner, while the strong ones are used in other situations. The weak forms are identical to those for nouns, while the strong forms use a combination of noun and pronoun endings:

The strong adjective declension
Case Singular Plural
Feminine Masculine Neuter Feminine Masculine
Nominative -u/– -u/–-e, -a-e
Accusative -e -ne
Genitive -re -es -ra
Dative -um
Instrumental -e -um

For the '-u/–' forms above, the distinction is the same as for strong nouns.

Example of the strong adjective declension: gōd 'good'

Case Singular Plural
Feminine Masculine Neuter Feminine Masculine
Nominative gōdgōde, -agōde
Accusative gōde gōdne gōd
Genitive gōdre gōdes gōdra
Dative gōdum
Instrumental gōde gōdum
Example of the weak adjective declension: gōd 'good'
Case Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative gōdagōdegōdan
Accusative gōdan gōde
Genitive gōdangōdena
Dative gōdum

Note that the same variants described above for nouns also exist for adjectives. The following example shows both the æ/a variation and the -u forms in the feminine singular and neuter plural:

Example of the strong adjective declension: glæd 'glad'
Case Singular Plural
Feminine Neuter Masculine Feminine Neuter Masculine
Nominative gladuglædglædglade, -agladuglade
Accusative glade glædne
Genitive glædregladesglædra
Dative gladum
Instrumental gladegladum

The following shows an example of an adjective ending with -h:

Example of the strong adjective declension: hēah 'high'
Case Singular Plural
Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative hēah hēa
Accusative hēane hēah
Genitive hēas hēare hēara
Dative hēam hēam
Instrumental hēa

The following shows an example of an adjective ending with -w:

Example of the strong adjective declension: ġearu 'ready'
Case Singular Plural
Feminine Masculine Neuter Masculine-Feminine
Nominative ġearu ġearwe
Accusative ġearwe ġearone ġearu
Genitive ġearore ġearwes ġearora
Dative ġearwum
Instrumental ġearwe ġearwum

Definite articles and demonstratives

Old English had two main determiners: se, which could function as both 'the' or 'that', and þes for 'this'.

Case Masculine Neuter Feminine Plural
Nominative seþætsēoþā
Accusative þoneþā
Genitive þæsþǣreþāra
Dative þǣmþǣm
Instrumental þȳ, þonþǣreþǣm

Modern English 'that' descends from the neuter nominative/accusative form,[3] and 'the' from the masculine nominative form, with 's' replaced analogously by the 'th' of the other forms.[4] The feminine nominative form was possibly the source of Modern English 'she'.[5]

Case Masculine Neuter Feminine Plural
Nominative þesþisþēosþās
Accusative þisneþās
Genitive þissesþisseþissa
Dative þissumþissum
Instrumental þȳsþisseþissum


Most pronouns are declined by number, case and gender; in the plural form most pronouns have only one form for all genders. Additionally, Old English pronouns preserve the dual form, which was specifically used for groups of two things, as in "we both" and "you two"). These were common, but could optionally be substituted with the ordinary plural forms.

First person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative wit
Accusative ūsunc
Genitive mīnūreuncer
Dative ūsunc
Second person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative þūġēġit
Accusative þēēowinc
Genitive þīnēowerincer
Dative þēēowinc
Third person
Case Singular Plural
Masculine Neuter Feminine Masculine Feminine
Nominative hithēohīe
Accusative hinehīe
Genitive hishierehieraheora
Dative himhim

Many of the forms above bear strong resemblances to their contemporary English language equivalents: for instance in the genitive case ēower became "your", ūre became "our", mīn became "mine". However, the h- in plural forms such as hīe was eventually replaced with þ- under Norse influence, yielding "they," "them," and "their."


Prepositions (like Modern English words by, for, and with) sometimes follow the word which they govern, in which case they are called postpositions.

The following is a list of prepositions in the Old English language. Prepositions may govern the accusative, genitive, dative or instrumental cases.

Old EnglishDefinitionNotes
æfterafterRelated to Frisian efter, Dutch achter ("behind"), Icelandic eftir. Ancestor of modern after.
ǣrbeforeRelated to German eher and Icelandic áður. Ancestor of modern ere.
ætatRelated to Icelandic ("to, towards"). Ancestor of modern at.
andlangalongRelated to German entlang. Ancestor of modern along. Governs the genitive.
bæftanbehindAncestor of modern (nautical) abaft.
be, bīby, aboutRelated to West Frisian by, Low German bi, Dutch bij, German bei. Ancestor of modern by.
beforanbeforeRelated to German bevor. Ancestor of modern before.
beġeondanbeyondAncestor of modern beyond
behindanbehindAncestor of modern behind. Related to German hinter.
binnanin, withinRelated to German and Dutch binnen
benēoðanbeneathAncestor of modern beneath.
betwēonumbetweenAncestor of modern between
bufanaboveAncestor of modern above through compound form onbufan
būtanwithout, exceptRelated to Dutch buiten. Ancestor of modern but.
eācalsoRelated to Frisian ek, Low German ook, Dutch ook, and German auch. Ancestor of modern (archaic) eke
forfor, because of, instead ofAncestor of modern for, related to modern German für
framfrom, byAncestor of modern from
ġeondthroughAncestor of modern yonder through comparative form ġeondra. Related to Dutch ginds and (archaic) ginder
ininAncestor of modern in, related to German and Latin in
innanwithinRelated to modern German innen
intōintoAncestor of modern into
midwithRelated to modern German mit
nēahnearAncestor of modern nigh. German nah
offrom, out ofAncestor of modern of and off
oferoverAncestor of modern over
onon, inAncestor of modern on
onbūtanaroundAncestor of modern about
onġēanopposite, against; towards; in reply toAncestor of modern again. Related to German entgegen
samodtogetherRelated to German samt
toAncestor of modern to, related to German zu
tōeācanin addition to, besides
tōforanbeforeRelated to Dutch tevoren, German zuvor
tōgeagnestowards, againstRelated to Dutch tegen
tōweardtowardAncestor of modern toward
þurhthroughAncestor of modern through. Related to German durch.
underunderAncestor of modern under, related to German unter
undernēoðanunderneathAncestor of modern underneath
upponupon, onNot the ancestor of modern upon, which came from "up on".
ūtanwithout, outside ofRelated to modern Swedish utan, German außen. The adverbial form ūt is the ancestor of modern out.
wiþagainstAncestor of modern with
wiþinnanwithinAncestor of modern within
wiþūtanoutside ofAncestor of modern without
ymbaroundRelated to modern German um and Latin ambi


Old English syntax was similar in many ways to that of Modern English. However, there were some important differences. Some were simply consequences of the greater level of nominal and verbal inflection, and word order was generally freer. There are also differences in the default word order and in the construction of negation, questions, relative clauses and subordinate clauses.

  • The default word order was verb-second and more like German than Modern English.
  • There was no do-support in questions and negatives.
  • Multiple negatives could stack up in a sentence and intensified each other (negative concord).
  • Sentences with subordinate clauses of the type "When X, Y" did not use a wh-type word for the conjunction but used a th-type correlative conjunction (e.g., þā X, þā Y instead of "When X, Y").

Word order

There was some flexibility in word order of Old English since the heavily inflected nature of nouns, adjectives, and verbs often indicated the relationships between clause arguments. Scrambling of constituents was common. Even sometimes scrambling within a constituent occurred, as in Beowulf line 708 wrāþum on andan:

hostile (Dative Singular)on/withmalice (Dative Singular)
"with hostile malice"

Something similar occurs in line 713 in sele þām hēan "in the high hall" (lit. "in hall the high").

Extraposition of constituents out of larger constituents is common even in prose, as in the well-known tale of Cynewulf and Cyneheard, which begins

Hēr Cynewulf benam Sigebryht his rīces ond westseaxna wiotan for unryhtum dǣdum, būton Hamtūnscīre; ...
(Literally) "Here Cynewulf deprived Sigebryht of his kingdom and West Saxons' counselors for unright deeds, except Hampshire"
(translated) "Here Cynewulf and the West Saxon counselors deprived Sigebryht of his kingdom, other than Hampshire, for unjust actions"

Note how the words ond westseaxna wiotan "and the West Saxon counselors" (lit. "and (the) counselors of (the) West Saxons") have been extraposed from (moved out of) the compound subject they belong in, in a way that would be impossible in modern English. In Old English, case inflection preserves the meaning: the verb beniman "to deprive" (appearing in this sentence in the form benam, "[he] deprived") needs a word in the genitive case to show what someone or something is deprived of, which in this sentence is rīces "of kingdom" (nominative rīce, "kingdom"), whereas wiotan "counselors" is in the nominative case and therefore serves a different role entirely (the genitive of it would be wiotana, "of counselors"); for this reason the interpretation that Cynewulf deprived Sigebryht of the West Saxon counselors was not possible for speakers of Old English. Note that the Old English sentence still isn't in theory perfectly unambiguous, as it contains one more word in the genitive: westseaxna ("of West Saxons", nominative westseaxan "West Saxons"), and the form wiotan "counselors" may also represent the accusative case in addition to the nominative, thus for example creating the grammatical possibility of the interpretation that Cynewulf also took the West Saxons away from the counselors, but this would have been difficult to conceive.

Main clauses in Old English tend to have a verb-second (V2) order, where the finite verb is the second constituent in a sentence, regardless of what comes first. There are echoes of this in modern English: "Hardly did he arrive when ...", "Never can it be said that ...", "Over went the boat", "Ever onward marched the weary soldiers ...", "Then came a loud sound from the sky above". In Old English, however, it was much more extensive, like the word order in modern Germanic languages other than modern English. If the subject appears first, there is an SVO order, but it can also yield orders such as OVS and others. In questions VSO was common, see below.

In subordinate clauses, however, the word order is markedly different, with verb-final constructions the norm, again as in Dutch and German. Furthermore, in poetry, all the rules were frequently broken. In Beowulf, for example, main clauses frequently have verb-initial or verb-final order, and subordinate clauses often have verb-second order. (However, in clauses introduced by þā, which can mean either "when" or "then", and where word order is crucial for telling the difference, the normal word order is nearly always followed.)

Those linguists who work within the Chomskyan transformational grammar paradigm often believe that it is more accurate to describe Old English (and other Germanic languages with the same word-order patterns like modern German) as having underlying subject-object-verb (SOV) ordering. According to this theory, all sentences are initially generated using this order, but in main clauses, the verb is moved back to the V2 position (technically, the verb undergoes V-to-T raising). That is said to explain the fact that Old English allows inversion of subject and verb as a general strategy for forming questions, while modern English uses this strategy almost only with auxiliary verbs and the main verb "to be", requiring do-support in other cases.


Most of the time the word order of Old English changed when asking a question, from SVO to VSO. While many purport that Old English had free word order, this is not quite true, as there were conventions for the positioning of subject, object and verb in clause.

"I am..." becomes "Am I..."
"Ic eom..." becomes "Eom ic..."

Relative and subordinate clauses

Old English did not use forms equivalent to "who, when, where" in relative clauses (as in "The man whom I saw") or subordinate clauses ("When I got home, I went to sleep").

Instead, relative clauses used one of the following:

  1. An invariable complementizer þe
  2. The demonstrative pronoun se, sēo, þæt
  3. The combination of the two, as in se þe

Subordinate clauses tended to use correlative conjunctions, e.g.

Þā ic hām ēode, þā slēp ic.
(word-for-word) "Then I home went, then slept I."
(translated) "When I went home, I slept."

The word order usually distinguished the subordinate clause (with verb-final order) from the main clause (with verb-second word order).

The equivalents of "who, when, where" were used only as interrogative pronouns and indefinite pronouns, as in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit.

Besides þā ... þā ..., other correlative conjunctions occurred, often in pairs of identical words, e.g.:

  • þǣr X, þǣr Y: "Where X, Y"
  • þanon X, þanon Y: "Whence (from where/wherefrom) X, Y"
  • þider X, þider Y: "Whither (to where/whereto) X, Y"
  • þēah (þe) X, þēah Y: "Although X, Y"
  • þenden X, þenden Y: "While X, Y"
  • þonne X, þonne Y: "Whenever X, Y"
  • þæs X, þæs Y: "As/after/since X, Y"
  • þȳ X, þȳ Y: "The more X, the more Y"


The phonology of Old English is necessarily somewhat speculative, since it is preserved purely as a written language. Nevertheless, there is a very large corpus of Old English, and the written language apparently indicates phonological alternations quite faithfully, so it is not difficult to draw certain conclusions about the nature of Old English phonology.

See also


  1. Peter S. Baker (2003). "Pronouns". The Electronic Introduction to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell. Archived from the original on September 11, 2015.
  2. Page, An Introduction to English Runes, Boydell 1999, p. 230
  3. "That". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 28 June 2010.
  4. "The". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 28 June 2010.
  5. "She". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 28 June 2010.


Further reading

  • Brunner, Karl (1965). Altenglische Grammatik (nach der angelsächsischen Grammatik von Eduard Sievers neubearbeitet) (3rd ed.). Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.
  • Campbell, A. (1959). Old English Grammar. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Mitchell, Bruce & Robinson, Fred (2001) A Guide to Old English; 6th ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing ISBN 0-631-22636-2
  • Quirk, Randolph; & Wrenn, C. L. (1957). An Old English Grammar (2nd ed.) London: Methuen.
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