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This phrase appears in a song of the dwarves in Tolkien's The Hobbit:

Far over the Misty Mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To find our long forgotten gold.

Tolkien was an outstanding linguist, and I guess this line is one of the antique structures he often used in such poems. To my knowledge, the line means “We must go away before dawn”, but omits the main verb completely. What is this structure exactly? Does it appear in contemporary English in any way?

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  • Have you looked up any problematic words in a dictionary? What did it say, and in what way were you left puzzled? May 25, 2016 at 12:54
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    Poetry and songs often use language that would sound unusual in normal speech. "Ere" is the only word in the highlighted line that is archaic in contemporary English, but the syntax of that line would be somewhat stilted in normal conversation. Likewise, "Mountains cold" and "caverns old" is non-standard usage, but acceptable in a song or poem. May 25, 2016 at 13:03
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    The missing verb in the line is also unusual in contemporary English. In Early Modern English, must go was often abbreviated to just must. (And must in sentences with no verb usually meant must go.) For example, Hamlet says I must to England. So it means we must go away ere break of day, or more idiomatically we have to depart before dawn. May 25, 2016 at 13:07
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    @PeterShor Excellent point! I guess in that line, away is actually acting as a verb, which is nonstandard usage. The only line that really works in modern, spoken English is the last one. Modern usage, at least in 1965, would be we gotta get out of this place. ;-) May 25, 2016 at 13:16
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    My answer on an unrelated question, shows that omitting the main verb was common with away. And here is an Ngram showing how frequent ‘lets away’ was.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 23, 2016 at 18:46

1 Answer 1

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In this example, away means go away. The verb go is suppressed. It is an archaism, the sort of thing that Tolkien was fond of. It is rare in modern texts, but has been around for hundreds of years.

Here are some examples from the New English Dictionary:

1375 Otherwais mych thai noch avay.
1393 Whither awaie with my hens, foxe?
1594 I will away to Barnet presently.
1623 We must away euery man to his lodging.
1872 Meantime we must away.

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    'Away with you !' and 'Out !' are comparable and still in use,
    – Hugh
    May 25, 2016 at 14:19
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    @Hugh Agreed. The OP's construction contains a suppressed infinitive "go". The construction you are comparing contains a suppressed imperative "go". These are very similar, and sometimes hard to sort, such as Superman's "Up, up, and away!"
    – MetaEd
    May 25, 2016 at 17:44
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    To quote another dictionary, the OED has for away (adverb) "III. In elliptical uses, with main verb implied. ... 10. a. Used after auxiliary verbs, as may, shall, will, etc. To go away, get away, depart. Now chiefly with must. archaic."
    – Stuart F
    May 6, 2021 at 14:24

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