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Reading doth not a writer make.

This sounds all wrong so why it is acceptable to use?
The word order looks to be all out sequence (Object-Subject-Verb).
It should be "reading does not make you a writer" (Object-Verb-Subject).

And if this is Shakespearian, when and how did the word order in English change?

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One swallow does not a summer make. –  Peter Shor May 27 '11 at 15:46
    
related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/25508/… –  gbutters May 27 '11 at 16:06
    
You've got your subjects and your objects backwards. "Reading" is the subject. Reading [subject] doesn't make [verb] a writer [object]. –  senderle May 27 '11 at 16:37
    
The word order is natural for model verb constructions in modern German: Subject modal object verb. Modals are a lifesaver for bad students of German because you inflect the modal and not the primary verb. –  dmckee May 27 '11 at 23:33
    
As Peter Shor implied in his reply, the expression would have been more successful if it said: "Reading one book doth not a writer make." It would then be more clearly in the pattern of the original saying, "One swallow doth [does] not a summer make") — a well-known Aristotelian proverb. In any event, for that reason, that structure of sentence is acceptable. –  user72275 Apr 16 at 18:46
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3 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Let me offer an interpretation of this sentence.

The verb of the sentence is "doth not make", the subject is the gerund "reading" and the object is "a writer". So the order is in fact subject-verb-object except that part of the verb ('make') is pushed to the end. This is a figure of speech called hyperbaton, and its purpose is to place the emphasis on that part of the verb rather than on the object of the verb. There is additionally the use of the archaic "doth" for "does", but that is a minor matter.

So the emphasis is "Reading does not make you a writer."

In this particular case it is also an idiom, that is to say, a peculiar arrangement of words that follow special phrasing, different than normal grammatical rules might demand, but commonly used and so commonly accepted.

And, just to add to the mix, there is also an ellipsis in there that is not really obvious. Here the verb "make" is actually trivalent, the subject is "reading" but it has two objects, "you" and "a writer". The first of these is omitted by ellipsis, which de-emphasizes its importance, pushing the emphasis back onto make, which is already emphasized by the hyperbaton.

So this little short phrase has a lot going on. Three figures of speech, idiom, hyperbaton and ellipsis, and an archaic verb particle. Not bad for a six word sentence.

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A great answer. However, I contend the ellipsis. Should not the full sentence simply be 'reading does not make a writer'. Bear in mind, this is constructed around the phrase 'one swallow does not a summer make'. The 'you' in your answer is not necessary. As an idiom, it applies as a generalisation, not a comment on an individual. Edit or prove me wrong and I have an upvote waiting. –  Karl May 27 '11 at 16:17
    
I think it is a close call Karl, but I stand by my original. If you invert the negation, and assume that reading does make you a writer, I think it is a little clearer. A writer is made when his mom and dad get together. A person becomes a writer when he practices the art. Reading makes you into a writer, reading does not make a writer (again assuming the opposite of what the sentence claims.) Similarly, the arrival of a whole bunch of swallows does not make the summer appear, this expression also has an ellipsis "one swallow does not make it summer." –  Fraser Orr May 27 '11 at 16:28
    
Continued... I will accept that perhaps the first object should be "one" rather than "you". But in my opinion the verb is trivalent with an ellipsis. –  Fraser Orr May 27 '11 at 16:28
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I agree with Karl on this one. This word is an older Germanic construction, where the presence of an auxiliary verb in addition to the main verb pushes the main verb to the end of the sentence. This syntax is still maintained in present-day German. The argument that there is ellipsis in this sentence is like arguing the same for "reading doesn't make a writer". I don't think there is any need to posit ellipsis in this situation; these alternate constructions involving one and it are simply similar alternative constructions. But "make a writer" is perfectly valid. –  Kosmonaut May 27 '11 at 22:39
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I don't think it's quite right to say this particular case is an idiom, given that according to Google the only references to those words are right here on ELU. The sentence structure is a fairly recent "mock-archaic" one - the swallow/summer version only popped up in the 60s. It's probably pointless analysing the grammar, because it's intended to sound archaic and "strange". –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '11 at 23:56
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This is just an example of hyperbaton, an inversion of normal word order.

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It may be useful to consider that Shakespeare (whoever he was) was well-versed (literally) in Latin sonnets, and so was his erudite audience, and they were quite used to the non-positional grammar therein. It may sound a bit weird to our modern ears but it's technically correct grammar.

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