Syntax changing of the verb phrase from Shakespearian English to the present

Term Paper, 2008

20 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Syntax Changing of the Verb Phrase from Shakespearian English to the Present
2.1 The Verb Phrase
2.2 Transitive and Intransitive Verbs
2.3 Impersonal Verbs
2.4. Reflexive Verbs
2.5. Mediopassive (The Sentence Type “The book sells well”)
2.6 Passive, Inchoative or Reflexive Meaning of Transitive Verbs

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

5. Abbreviations:

1. Introduction

Blake states that Shakespeare is like food and that we take both very much for granted. It is only when we come across a passage of particular intensity in a play that we question how the language has been employed to achieve that result, just as it is only for exotic dishes that we enquire about the ingredients (1983:1).

It is definitely astonishing how the English Language has been influenced by this incredible playwright and poet. However, it is noticeable that the English Language has changed significantly since the Renaissance. Baugh and Cable (1993:235) argue that “the English grammar in the 16th and early 17th century is marked more by the survival of certain forms, constructions and usages that have since [then] disappeared than by any fundamental developments”.

Therefore, I want to show that the syntax of the verb phrase has changed since Elizabethan times. To achieve this, I will compare verb phrases in this term paper which occur in some of Shakespeare’s plays with Modern English verb phrases. First of all, I will define the term “verb phrase”. After that we will focus on transitive and intransitive verbs. Transitivity and intransitivity will be examined – and we will analyze how its usage has changed since Shakespearian times. Thirdly, I will talk about impersonal verbs and afterwards we will study reflexive verbs and the mediopassive. Finally, the passive, inchoative and reflexive meaning of transitive verbs will be discussed. The focus will be on the change or the disappearance of these constructions which occurred between the 16th century and today.

I will use some Shakespearian plays which will provide a basis in order to illustrate and to underline my arguments.

2. Syntax Changing of the Verb Phrase from Shakespearian English to the Present

2.1 The Verb Phrase

First of all, we have to define the features of a verb phrase. Barber asserts that “in the predicate of a sentence, the irreducible minimum part is a verb phrase [and that] the essential minimum part of a verb phrase, its head, is a lexical verb or an auxiliary” (1997:187). In other words, in a full sentence, there must be a predicate, and the essential part of this is a verb phrase. The predicate can also contain noun phrases, e.g. as object or complement; but the verb phrase is its irreducible minimum part. The kernel of the verb phrase is formed from verbs (lexical words) and auxiliaries (grammatical words). “A verb phrase can consist of a single verb or a single auxiliary, or of a combination of one ore more of each. To the kernel can be added adjuncts, which again can be either lexical or grammatical words; traditionally, the name 'adverb' has been given to both types” (Barber, 1976:235).

One can say that linguistically, a verb phrase is a syntactic structure. It is composed of the predicating elements of a sentence and functions in providing information about the subject of the sentence. Generally, a sentence consists of one or more clauses, which again consist of one or more phrases (e.g. noun phrase, verb phrase, adverb phrase, prepositional phrase) (Greenbaum et al., 2000:42). Greenbaum et al. state that “the verb phrase may […] be ‘finite’ (showing tense, mood, aspect and voice) or ‘non-finite’ (not showing tense or mood but still capable of indicating aspect and voice) (Greenbaum et al., 1972: 43). Greenbaum and Quirk mention that whether finite or non-finite, the verb phrase can consist of one word […], or of more than one word, in which case the phrase consists of a ‘head verb’ preceded by one or more ‘auxiliary verbs’” (Greenbaum and Quirk, 1973:17).

As a final remark, it can be said that the verb phrase is a syntactic unit that corresponds to what is commonly called the predicate.

2.2 Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

As already said, the aim of this paper is to show that there are differences between Shakespeare’s language and Present Day English regarding the verb phrase, especially when it comes to transitive, intransitive, impersonal and reflexive verbs, as well as the mediopassive. Shakespeare uses certain verbs intransitively (i.e. verbs without a direct object) which are used transitively (i.e. verbs accompanied by a direct object) in Present Day English.

So what is the difference between transitivity and intransitivity? Blake states that “a transitive verb differs from an intransitive verb in that the former has an object and the latter does not” (2002:143). An example of a sentence with a transitive verb is ‘Tom sees Jenny.’ Thus, ‘Jenny’ is the direct object of ‘sees’. By contrast, verbs that do not require an object are called intransitive. An example thereof is ‘He nods.’ According to Blake, a transitive verb differs from a reflexive verb in that the latter has as its object the reflexive pronoun co-referential with the subject; transitive verbs may be divided into dynamic and stative, the former usually expressing an action and the latter a state. He argues that instead of an object stative verbs [...] have a complement referring to some aspect of the subject, as in ‘He is happy’ where happy is a quality of He. Stative verbs do not usually have reflexive pronouns as their complement (2002:143).

I will now give some examples where Shakespeare turned intransitive verbs into transitive ones by adding an object, whereas in PdE such verbs would in these cases be followed by a prepositional phrase (Blake, 2002:143). The boundaries in Elizabethan English between transitive and intransitive verbs were more flexible than in Present Day English. One must add that this phenomenon happens relatively infrequently.

Here are some examples hereof:

1. Your prattling nurse into a rapture lets her baby cry while she chats him (Cor 2.1.205)
2. He ran this way and leapt this Orchard wall (RJ 2.1.5)
3. Dispaire thy charme (Mac 5.10.13)
4. And dare not stay the field (VA 894)

In this category, verbs indicating ‘ to listen ’ are frequent where in Present Day English they would be followed by the preposition ‘ to ’. Blake gives us the following example: “To listen our purpose” (MA 3.1.12). Today, we would say “To listen to our purpose”.

The word ‘to commute’ underwent an interesting change concerning transitivity. Strang asserts that the earliest English senses (both recorded in 1633) were, according to the OED (1970:43):

1. trans. To give (one thing) in exchange for another...

2. ... to change an obligation, etc. into something lighter or more agreeable

A few years later (1642) a closely related sense is found, namely:

3. To change (a punishment, or a sentence) for (to, into) another of less severity, or a fine...

And in 1653:

4. intr. To make up, compensate, compound for.

This family of senses paved the way for the next major development, recorded for English in 1795:

5. To change (one kind of payment) into or for another; esp. to substitute a single payment for a number of payments...

This shows us that there was a change from a transitive usage in 1633 to an intransitive usage which has firstly been recorded in 1795.

Further on, there are transitive verbs which are used intransitively in Present Day English. Figure 2 gives us some examples.


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Syntax changing of the verb phrase from Shakespearian English to the present
University of Freiburg
The Syntax and Semantics of the English Verb Phrase
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Syntax, Shakespearian, English, Syntax, Semantics, English, Verb, Phrase
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Dominik Lorenz (Author), 2008, Syntax changing of the verb phrase from Shakespearian English to the present, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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