Every time I see this expression, I can't help thinking it's grammatically wrong. Is it grammatically acceptable? Why is it used extensively in this form?
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The phrase is quite old: it was part of the Book of Common Prayer from 1662 (see http://www.eskimo.com/~lhowell/bcp1662/occasion/marriage.html). (For all I know, it could be older even than that.) But fixing it as the official language of a ceremony cemented the phrase in that form, even as the language changed around it. It's probably best viewed as idiomatic; you wouldn't want to say something else using the same form without a very good reason, but that particular phrase is a widely recognized feature of the language.
(Note, by the way, that the form in the BCP really was with "till" rather than "until"; this isn't surprising, since "till" is actually the older of the two words.)
It's the present subjunctive. In older forms of English, most conjunctions took the subjunctive; thus we would see, "till the Son of God appear", "before I be put to death", "If it be the last thing I shall ever do", and so on.
All of the answers omit a key point, or at best imply it. While "death" here is the subject, most people take "death" to be a temporal indication. This is why they expect the pronoun to be "we": I promise to stay with you till (the time of) death. Of course, it really means "until death separates us."
Both (1) till death do us part and (2) till death us do part are found if you ngram-view them, but not (3) till death do part us, which is surprising since it would be the normal word order:
Structures parallel to these would be:
(1) as long as | you | do | me | love (?!)
(2) as long as | you | me | do love (?!)
(3) as long as | you | do love | me
I think the original was "Till death us depart", alluding to the future coming of Christ's triumph over death for all of man? So the later 'us do/do us part' appears to focus on a different separation from death for husband and wife.
Language use changes over time, so it is quite normal to observe variations in sentence grammatical structure. Seen out of their time context, many 'styles' appear odd or erroneous. Take 'Father forgive them, for they know not what they do' (Luke 23:24 KJV) in contrast to "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (NIV). If we constructed sentences as in the KJV we would probably be mistaken as either odd or foreign (a German native speaker?).
protected by Mitch Feb 24 at 15:29
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