I came across the maxim, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” in the following sentence of Jeffery Archer’s fiction, “The Fourth Estate” (P.54), and found that the maxim came from Lord Polonius’ speech in Shakespeare's Hamlet:

Page 72 (of How to beat the bookies) suggested that the sum required was £10, but as Keith’s father was still abroad, and his mother’s favorite maxim was “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” he had no immediate way of proving that Lucky Joe (the author of the book) was right.

Lord Polonius’ speech goes:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

I suppose “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” is an imperative form that usually requires the verb (be, do) up front. Why “be” is placed at the end of sentense?

  • I think it's a hangover from English's German roots. In German subordinate clauses, the main verb is usually at the end. Google Translate gives these: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" = "Weder ein Kreditnehmer noch ein Kreditgeber sein" & "Don't be a borrower or a lender" = "Nicht ein Kreditnehmer oder ein Kreditgeber sein". Which is what I'd expect, because "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" is arguably a subordinate (complementized) clause in a longer sentence beginning with "I think that you should be neither a borrower nor a lender". I'm not a native speaker of German. – user21497 Apr 24 '13 at 3:05
  • @BillFranke: In contemporary German, imperatives also start with the verb. "Weder ein Kreditnehmer noch ein Kreditgeber sein" means "To be neither a borrower nor a lender" (infinitive, not imperative). On the other hand, the correct translation of the imperative "Don't be a borrower or a lender" would be "Sei weder ein Kreditnehmer noch ein Kreditgeber". – Heinzi Apr 24 '13 at 6:29
  • @Heinzi: Thank you for that information. How about 17th-century German or earlier, something that Shakespeare would have been familiar with? I checked some German grammars & saw that now they do start with the verb, but how about in a subordinate clause like "It is good advice that you be neither a borrower nor a lender"? Then "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" isn't an imperative or an infinitive clause but an elided clause. Is such word order possible in German? – user21497 Apr 24 '13 at 7:46

Briefly, Polonius inverts the order because it's Elizabethan blank verse and he can. He is to all appearances* a pompous blowhard who loves to hear himself speak. In fact, at one point he gets so caught up in his legal rhetoric and endless qualifications and syntactic inversions—in short, in the sound of his own voice—that he completely loses track of what he's saying:

POL:  Wherefore should you do this?
REY:                Ay, my lord,
    I would know that.
POL:           Marry, sir, here's my drift;
    And I believe it is a fetch of wit:
    You laying these slight sullies on my son,
    As ‘twere a thing a little soil’d i’ the working,
    Mark you,
    Your party in converse, him you would sound,
    Having ever seen in the prenominate crimes
    The youth you breathe of guilty, be assured
    He closes with you in this consequence;
    ‘Good sir,’ or so, or ‘friend,’ or ‘gentleman,’
    According to the phrase or the addition
    Of man and country.
REY:         Very good, my lord.
POL:  And then, sir, does a’ this—a’ does
    —What was I about to say? By the mass, I was about
     to say something: where did I leave?
REY:  At ‘closes in the consequence,’ at ‘friend or so,’ and ‘gentleman.’
POL:  At ‘closes in the consequence,’ ay, marry;
    He closes thus: ‘I know the gentleman;
    I saw him yesterday, or t’other day,
    Or then, or then; with such, or such; and, as you say,
    There was a’ gaming; there o’ertook in’s rouse;
    There falling out at tennis:' or perchance,
    ‘I saw him enter such a house of sale,’
    Videlicet, a brothel, or so forth.
    See you now:
    Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth:
    And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
    With windlasses and with assays of bias,
    By indirections find directions out:
    So by my former lecture and advice,
    Shall you my son.

* I happen to believe that Polonius is a devious knave pretending to be a fool; but that’s LitCrit.

  • Especially ironic that people today quote Polonius like he was the bible - when the point of the character is to be a fool – mgb Apr 25 '13 at 1:28

This is an example of inverse copular construction, a kind of subject-verb inversion that blurs the difference between subject and predicate. It's somewhat unusual because the imperative mood removes the subject you from the sentence, but it still has the same basic form and the same function: changing the emphasis, tone, or register of the sentence.

In this case, the inversion indicates a proverbial register: Polonius giving sage advice to his departing son. In the original source, Polonius is a gasbag, so the "sage" advice is ironic, but many people repeat it at face value, as a true proverb.

  • +1 Thanks for the info. I wasn't aware of the term inverse copular construction; it seems more specific than my answer. – p.s.w.g Apr 24 '13 at 1:21

It's an example of object-subject-verb sentence construction. Though it's uncommon in modern English, it's perfectly valid (think of Yoda).

This sentence is even more unusual because the verb be is the imperative form and the subject of the sentence (an understood you) is omitted. So if converted to modern English, it would read:

[you] be neither a borrower nor a lender.

  • Ninja'd! At least my answer isn't totally redundant. :) – Bradd Szonye Apr 24 '13 at 1:01

Frankly, I'm at a loss to tell you definitively what the difference(s) is(are) between the these two sentences:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be.

Be neither a borrower nor a lender.

Perhaps: 1) there is an aesthetic factor to consider, and sentence #1 trips off the tongue more pleasingly; 2) the first version is somehow more poetic; 3) in Shakespeare's day, the syntax of sentence #1 may have been perfectly "normal"; 4) sentence #2 is a bit more imperative-sounding than #1, so the former is worded a bit more "politely"; 5) sentence #1 features a rhetorical figure (with which I am unfamiliar) that goes hand in hand with antithesis (borrower/lender); 6) #1 sounds just different enough to make it easier to remember, as maxims should be; 7) that's just the way Polonius speaks; 8) there is a combination of all these factors at work in sentence #1.

Which sentence sounds better to you? Which trips off your tongue in a more pleasing way? I'm sure Shakespeare had his reasons for preferring one over the other. Perhaps a Shakespearean scholar and member of this website will be able to give you a definitive answer. I can't, but I enjoyed concatenating some possible answers! Oh, be sure to see StonyB's answer above. More than likely, he's on the right track.

  • Yes, aesthetic reason: iambic pentameter. – MetaEd Apr 24 '13 at 11:23

"It is good advice that you be neither a borrower nor a lender" is clearly subjunctive just for clarification. I also feel that the trailing be in the OP question may also be a form of the subjunctive using a sentence fragment and subject-verb inversion Bradd referenced.

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