Top of chapter Contents Bibliography 11.1. Quick Start 11.2. Subject and verb 11.3. Pronoun and antecedent 11.4. Noun and modifiers 11.5. Bad grammar?

11. Concord

11.1. Quick Start

Concord is agreement in gender, case, number or person between different words that share a reference. For example, if a sentence contains a proper noun “Paul” and somewhat later a pronoun “he,” and they refer to the same person, we say that they agree in number (for both are singular) and gender (for both are masculine).

As speakers or writers of a language we experience concord as a set of rules to learn and follow (and sometimes complain about). As listeners or readers we recognize that concord helps us decode sentences. In this passage

Elizabeth Bennet had been obliged, by the scarcity of gentlemen, to sit down for two dances; and during part of that time, Mr Darcy had been standing near enough for her to overhear a conversation between him and Mr Bingley, who came from the dance for a few minutes, to press his friend to join it.

two grammatical rules help us to determine the reference of the pronouns “her,” “him” and “his.” The first of these is that a pronoun must agree with its antecedent in gender and number; this rule associates “her” with Elizabeth Bennet (rather than Darcy, who would otherwise be a possible antecedent) and prevents our associating “him” or “his” with Elizabeth Bennet. The second is that a pronoun must be associated with the most recent possible antecedent; by this rule we understand “his friend” to mean “Bingley’s friend” rather than “Darcy’s friend.”

We work out the reference of the pronouns in a passage like the one above without conscious effort. Indeed the Modern English rules of concord are few and relatively simple:

The first two Modern English rules of concord are largely the same as in Old English. The third Modern English rule is a remnant of an Old English rule that a noun and all its modifiers (adjectives and pronouns used adjectivally) must agree in gender, case and number. All three of these rules are a little more complex in Old English than in Modern English, so you will have to pay careful attention to the rules of concord—at first, anyway.

11.2. Subject and verb

The Old English verb must agree with its subject in person and number. The Old English finite verb always distinguished number and often distinguished person, and this relatively great degree of expressiveness can help you locate hard-to-find subjects, as here:

Þæt wæs yldum cūþ,
þæt hīe ne mōste,   þā Metod nolde,
se scynscaþa   under sceadu breġdan.
[It was known to men
that the demonic foe could not, if God did not wish it,
drag them under the shadows.]
(Beowulf, ll. 705-7.)

In the noun clause that begins in the second line of this passage, the nominative/accusative third-person plural pronoun hīe comes before the verb mōste ‘could’, where Modern English grammar leads us to expect the subject. But the verb is plainly singular, so plural hīe cannot be the subject. Looking further, we find the nominative singular noun phrase se scynscaþa ‘the demonic foe’; this is the subject.

A verb’s personal ending is actually a statement or restatement of the subject, conveying much of the information that a personal pronoun can convey. In fact, in situations where Modern English uses a pronoun subject, the Old English finite verb can sometimes express the subject all by itself:

Hēt þā bord beran,   beornas gangan
[(He) then commanded the men to bear their shields (and) to go]
(The Battle of Maldon, l. 62)
Ġewiton him þā fēran
[Then (they) departed traveling]
(Beowulf, l. 301)
Nū sculon heriġean   heofonrīċes Weard
[Now (we) must praise the Guardian of the kingdom of heaven]
(Cædmon’s Hymn, l. 1)

In these fragments, the subjects of the verbs hēt ‘commanded’, ġewiton ‘departed’ and sculon ‘must’ are unexpressed, but context and the form of the verb together give us enough information to figure them out for ourselves.

Compound subjects may be split in Old English, one part divided from the others by the verb or some other sentence element. When this happens, the verb will typically agree with the first part of the subject. Consider these sentences:

Hēr Henġest ond Horsa fuhton wiþ Wyrtgeorne þām cyninge
[Here Hengest and Horsa fought with King Vortigern]
Hēr cuōm Ælle on Bretenlond ond his þrīe suna, Cymen ond Wlenċing ond Ċissa
[Here Ælle and his three sons, Cymen and Wlencing and Cissa, came to Britain]

In the first, the compound subject is arranged as in Modern English and the verb (fuhton) is plural. In the second, however, the first part of the compound subject, Ælle, is divided from the other parts by a prepositional phrase (on Bretenlond ‘to Britain’), and the verb (cuōm, an archaic form of cōm ‘came’) is singular. A spectacular example of this sort of construction is at the beginning of Riddle 46:

Wer sæt æt wīne   mid his wīfum twām
ond his twēġen suno   ond his twā dohtor,
swāse ġesweostor,   ond hyra suno twēġen,
frēolicu frumbearn.

To the Modern English eye it looks as if Wer ‘A man’ is the sole subject of the singular verb sæt ‘sat’, and that everything following mid ‘with’ is part of a long prepositional phrase (“with his two wives and his two sons . . .”). But in fact the whole of the prepositional phrase is mid his wīfum twām; everything that follows is nominative and therefore part of a compound subject. The correct translation (rearranging the sentence so that the parts of the subject come together) is as follows: “A man, his two sons, his two daughters (beloved sisters), and their two sons (noble first-borns) sat at wine with his two wives.”

11.3. Pronoun and antecedent

A pronoun typically restates a noun, called its antecedent; it must agree with this antecedent in gender and number.[1] Modern English pronouns obey the same rule, but the Old English rule behaves a little differently because of the way the language handles gender. Consider this passage:

When a pronoun is used as an adjective, it obeys the rule for modifiers rather than the rule for pronouns.
Sēo sunne gǣð betwux heofenan and eorðan. On ðā healfe ðe hēo scīnð þǣr bið dæġ, and on ðā healfe ðe hēo ne scīnð þǣr bið niht.
[The sun goes between heaven and earth. On the side where it shines there is day, and on the side where it does not shine there is night.]

Students sometimes ask whether the use of the feminine pronoun hēo to refer to the sun means that it is being personified. It doesn’t mean that at all; rather, the pronoun is simply agreeing with the feminine noun sunne ‘sun’ and must be translated ‘it’, not ‘she’.

On the other hand, when the pronoun refers to a human being, it will very likely take on the “natural gender” of its antecedent rather than its grammatical gender:

Abrames wīf wæs ðā ġȳt wuniġende būtan ċildum, and hēo hæfde āne þīnene, ðā Eġyptiscan Agar.
[Abraham’s wife continued still to be without children, and she had a maid-servant, the Egyptian Agar.]

The grammatical gender of wīf is neuter, but the pronoun hēo, which refers to it, is feminine.

When a pronoun anticipates the noun it refers to, it may appear as neuter singular, regardless of the gender and number of the noun. We do something like this in Modern English:

Who’s there? It’s Bob.

A famous Old English example comes near the beginning of Beowulf (l. 11):

þæt wæs gōd cyning!
[that was a good king!]

where we get neuter singular þæt instead of masculine singular se. A stranger example is in a passage quoted below, Þæt synt fēower sweras ‘They are four columns’, where the same pronoun refers to a masculine plural noun.

11.4. Noun and modifiers

A noun and all its modifiers must agree in gender, case and number. Though this rule has all but disappeared in Modern English, it is very important in Old English. Every time a demonstrative pronoun is used as an “article,” for example, it agrees with its noun:

Þā þæs on merġen se mæsseprēost ābēad þæs mǣdenes word þām mǣran bisceope . . .
[When, the morning after, the priest reported the virgin’s words to the famous bishop . . .]

Here the demonstrative is used three times to modify a noun:

se mæsseprēost: masculine nominative singular
þæs mǣdenes: neuter genitive singular
þām mǣran bisceope: masculine dative singular

and each time, it matches its noun exactly in gender, case and number. What is true of pronouns is equally true of adjectives:

Ðā ārison sōna of þām sweartan flocce twēġen eġesliċe dēoflu mid īsenum tōlum.
[Then from that dark company two terrifying devils instantly arose with iron tools.]

Here the adjectives agree with their nouns as follows:

þām sweartan flocce: masculine dative singular
twēġen eġesliċe dēoflu: masculine[2] nominative plural
īsenum tōlum: neuter dative plural
In a rare anomaly, the plural of dēofol ‘devil’ is neuter in form, but may agree with either masculine or neuter pronouns and adjectives.

The adjective is frequently separated from its noun, especially in poetry. When this happens, the rules of concord will help you to match up the adjective with its noun:

Slōh ðā wundenlocc
þone fēondsceaðan   fāgum mēċe,
heteþoncolne,   þæt hēo healfne forċearf
þone swūran him.
[Then the wavy-haired one struck
the hostile-minded enemy with a decorated sword,
so that she cut through half
of his neck.]   (Judith, ll. 103–06)

In the main clause of this sentence, þone fēondsceaðan ‘the enemy’ is the direct object of the verb slōh ‘struck’. We can tell by its ending that the adjective heteþoncolne ‘hostile-minded’, in the next line, agrees with accusative fēondsceaðan; since an adjective normally comes before its noun in Modern English, we must move it in our translation, making a noun phrase “the hostile-minded enemy.” In the clause of result that follows (þæt hēo . . . swūran him), the adjective healfne ‘half’ agrees with þone swūran ‘the neck’, though it is separated from it by the verb forċearf ‘cut through’. Once again we must gather the fragments of a noun phrase in our translation: “half of his neck.”

Past and present participles are often inflected as adjectives, even when they form periphrastic verb forms:

ēowre ġefēran þe mid þām cyninge ofslæġene wǣrun
[your companions who were slain with the king]
Dryhten, hwænne ġesāwe wē þē hingriġendne oððe þyrstendne?
[Lord, when did we see you hungering or thirsting?]

Here the participles ofslæġene, hingriġendne and þyrstendne all have adjective endings.

11.5. Bad grammar?

It is probably fair to say that the schools of Anglo-Saxon England offered little or no instruction in Old English grammar and that vernacular texts generally did not pass through the hands of copy editors on their way to “publication.” Old English was an unpoliced language for which “correct” grammar was governed by usage rather than by the authority of experts. Under these circumstances we should expect to find what look to the rigorously trained modern grammarian rather like errors. Consider this passage, for example, by a learned author:

Þæt synt fēower sweras, þā synd þus ġeċīġed on Lȳden: iustitia, þæt ys rihtwīsnys; and ōðer hātte prudentia, þæt ys snoternys; þridde ys temperantia, þæt ys ġemetgung; fēorðe ys fortitudo, þæt ys strengð.
[They (the cardinal virtues) are four columns, which are called thus in Latin: iustitia, or righteousness; and the second is called prudentia, or prudence; the third is temperantia, or temperance; the fourth is called fortitudo, or strength.]

Notice the sequence of ordinal numbers here: ōðer, þridde, fēorðe. The first of these could be any gender, but þridde and fēorðe have the neuter/feminine weak nominative singular ending -e. They do not agree in gender with masculine sweras, their grammatical antecedent, but rather with feminine nouns such as rihtwīsnys and snoternys. Editors of an earlier age tended to “fix” such “errors”; modern editors, on the other hand, are more likely to conclude that what looks like “bad grammar” to us did not necessarily look so to the Anglo-Saxons. If the text is readable, there is little reason to emend.

Another example of what we are talking about comes at Beowulf, ll. 67-70, where Hrothgar decides to build his great hall Heorot:

Him on mōd bearn
þæt healreċed   hātan wolde,
medoærn miċel   men ġewyrċean
þone yldo bearn   ǣfre ġefrūnon
[It came into his mind
that he would command men to build
a hall—a great mead-hall
which the children of men would always hear about]

Here the problem is with þone in the last line, which looks as if it should be a masculine relative pronoun ‘which’, but does not agree in gender with the nearest antecedent, neuter medoærn ‘mead-hall’. Early editors emended þone to þon[n]e ‘than’, creating yet another problem by positing an “unexpressed comparative.” The better solution is to recognize that writers of Old English were less punctilious than we are about concord. Further, masculine nouns are more common in Old English than either feminines or neuters; when you find an otherwise unmotivated disagreement of gender, it is likely to involve a shift from feminine or neuter to masculine.

Do not get carried away with finding “errors” in the Old English texts you read. Violations of the rules of concord are relatively rare, and generally you will be able to see why they happened, as in the examples above.