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Why is “xxxx doth not a yyyy make” considered valid English?

I occasionally come across a sentence formulated in a manner similar to the following:

Reading a book does not an expert make.

I realize the grammar is quite irregular (I'm no grammar expert, so I'll just call it Yoda-speak), but I've heard this structure used a number of times in the colloquial. My questions are:

  1. Is anyone else familiar with this sentence structure?
  2. What's the origin?
  3. How should I use it properly?
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"One swallow does not a summer make" appears to be the source idiom, and that itself is a translation of a comment made my Aristotle. So we're looking for when that translation was made, and why it became the standard. –  slim Dec 22 '11 at 14:33
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"Damn it, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a grammarian!" :) –  Affable Geek Dec 22 '11 at 14:37
    
related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/27420/… –  z7sg Ѫ Dec 22 '11 at 14:53
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marked as duplicate by z7sg Ѫ, aedia λ, RegDwigнt Dec 22 '11 at 23:31

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1 Answer

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The archetypal phrase is "One swallow does not summer make".

This is a quote from Aristotle's Ethics, however I am having trouble finding the relevant translation.

The translation by W. D. Ross at classics.mit.edu goes:

For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.

At Project Gutenberg, the translation by J A Smith et al, goes:

for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.

... and I am unable to find a translation online (and we must be looking for one that's old enough to be in the public domain) that has the exact familiar English wording.

My guess is that the phrase was simplified in the retelling, long enough ago that modern word orders were not fixed in stone. The sentence would not look out of place in the King James Bible, for example, so we could expect that kind of age.

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So in sum: 1) yes, it's a well accepted poetical pattern (not standard syntax, but accepted like sometimes putting adjectives after a word), not terribly common. 2) this particular instantiation started with a translation of Aristotle, the general pattern given in your title is probably well established and older. 3) The pattern in your title is a pretty good distillation of its proper use (but, warning, it really stands out so don't use it too much, you'll sound pretty pretentious.) –  Mitch Dec 22 '11 at 14:56
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Thanks slim and @mitch. I agree that it does sound pretentious, but I've only ever heard it used in context as an overt attempt at sounding pretentious, making it more facetious than pompous. –  eykanal Dec 22 '11 at 15:01
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@eykanal: I don't think it's particularly pretentious to say "One swallow does not a summer make" in contexts where there's an obvious metaphoric parallel being made. But it would frequently be seen as pretentious to explicitly extend that construct using different nouns - anyone who knew the original would probably be smart enough to understand an allusion without being spoon-fed the meaning. They might well take amiss a speaker's crude attempt to seem erudite, whilst implying that the hearer was too ignorant to perform the extrapolation themselves. –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '11 at 17:16
    
@FumbleFingers I think the unpretentious route is to use the modern word order "one swallow does not make summer" - as a Google Books search reveals many have done for a long while. –  slim Dec 22 '11 at 17:18
    
@slim: I suppose everyone must make their own decision on whether to change the established word order of a "set phrase" that's no longer conformant. But as this NGram shows, the reality is that attempts to "modernise" the words are increasingly falling off. Would you change Shakespeare's words, for example? –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '11 at 17:50
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