How would one parse the sentence 'Woe betide anyone wearing the wrong colour'!

'Betide' is clearly the main verb, meaning 'happen'; as in 'they waited wondering what might betide'.

But clearly 'betide' is not conjugated like other verbs, otherwise it would be 'woe betides'. But in this usage of 'woe betide...' it doesn't even seem to me to be acting like an indicative verb. It is most frequently delivered as an imperative warning, a bit like 'look out!'.

Should the full form be 'Woe will betide anyone....'

  • 5
    It's subjunctive. Since this is the only place that we use betide anymore, we never see betide conjugated properly. – Peter Shor Aug 7 '14 at 11:12
  • 3
    Betide doesn't mean happen. It means "fall upon", or "happen to" and it must take an object. – Andrew Leach Aug 7 '14 at 12:04
  • What @Peter said. I think it's General Reference that the "fixed expression" woe betide is in the subjunctive, so there's really nothing much left to say. Except that some other usages of betide (all of which I'd call obsolete, archaic, or dated) are (or were) intransitive, so it doesn't always need to take an object. – FumbleFingers Aug 7 '14 at 12:31
  • 4
    Nothing in the subjunctive is "general reference". Since there is no subjunctive in English, but rather a disorganized bunch of idioms and fixed phrases, general reference contains no useful information about it. The phrase woe betide X is short for May woe betide X; betide is an infinitive, just like any verb following a modal. And it's a fixed phrase, which means it's irregular. That part is common knowledge, anyway. – John Lawler Aug 7 '14 at 13:13
  • 2
    @JohnLawler, I'm confused about there not being a subjunctive in English. If there were no subjunctive, how could I say "I recommended that he look it up in the dictionary?" (Or if that isn't a subjunctive, what is it?) Not trying to be argumentative; just not clear on why you're saying there's no subjunctive. – Katherine Lockwood Nov 14 '16 at 23:56

In the phrase, "woe betide", the verb "betide" is in the subjunctive mood. This is one of the left-over uses of the present subjunctive in fixed phrases. It means "may woe betide", like "long live the king" means "may the king live long".

According to the OED, betide meant happen or happen to. It was a regular verb conjugated like other verbs. However, nowadays the only place we see it used is in the expression woe betide.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    John Lawler's comment above is of interest too. I am also conscious that there are two senses in which woe betide is used. 1. May woe betide him if he harms anyone i.e. as a threat. and 2. Woe betide you if you cross the old sod i.e be careful. – WS2 Oct 9 '14 at 14:51

As far as I can tell, the conjugation (as per my ancient school days) of the sentence "Woe betide you" is as follows: "Woe" is the noun, "betide" is the verb, and "you" is the object of the verb.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    The most important thing is lacking, that the verb form betide (without -s) is present subjunctive. And, of course, the meaning of the old words should be explained. – rogermue Oct 9 '14 at 7:26

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.