In the below sentence, which term identifies "ashamed"?

"Upwards of two years ago, this labouring man had a child sent home to him by the mother, which his relations seem to be so much ashamed that in order to conceal it from their neighbours, they kept it in a meal-barrel"

I thought it might be a complement as it follows the verb "to be", but then though it to be a participle of some sort - it looks like a past participle, but as the clause is in the present ("seem to be") I really am not sure. Could it just be a simple adjective?

So, what term identifies "ashamed"?

  • What is the source of this quote? Because the use of ashamed, indeed all of: which his relations seem to be so much ashamed that... sounds ungrammatical in standard English. It seems ashamed of works better. May 30, 2018 at 5:54
  • Yes, "ashamed" is an adjective. It is head of the AdjP "so much ashamed ..." which functions as predicative complement of "be".
    – BillJ
    May 30, 2018 at 6:02
  • It's nonsense to claim that it could be a verb since it can be modified by "very", which verbs can't. And since it is not a verb, it cannot be a passive clause.
    – BillJ
    May 30, 2018 at 14:28
  • I like the fact that it actually was a verb when put in historical context. :) May 30, 2018 at 18:25
  • The historical context is irrelevant. The OP is not interested in the etymology of the word, but simply wants to know what part of speech it is in today's English. The answer to his question is 'adjective'.
    – BillJ
    May 31, 2018 at 7:32

1 Answer 1


The Context

Your example sentence comes from an undated broadside sold in Glasgow narrating a case of profound child abuse that occurred near Kirkintilloch, about 10 miles away. The broadside cites an article from the Glasgow Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in circulation from 1827–55.

Sold in the streets, broadsides were the tabloid press and clickbait of their day and for workers and artisans, the only source of news beyond word of mouth. Until repeal of the newspaper tax in 1855, the price of a newspaper was out of reach for the working classes, but broadsides, single printed sheets telling of some lurid crime or a public execution, only cost a penny.

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The Chronicle article was picked up by four English newspapers, all in March 1839: first, the London Examiner, 3 March; then the Worchestershire Chronicle, 7 March; and the Leicestershire Mercury and the Hereford Times, 9 March. These dates suggest that the events reported in the Glasgow newspaper and sensationalized by the broadside will not have occurred too much earlier than, say, February 1839, the "fortnight” mentioned in the broadside.

The Grammar

In Tudor English, ashame was used as an active verb:

[M]ay it not greatly ashame christian princes and others, that spoyle and suffer the kirk of god to be spoyled … —Robert Pont, Against Sacrilege: Three Sermons, 1599. EEBO

The verb was still in current usage when this broadside was written:

Probably there were some that were backward at first to bring their offering, but their neighbours’ forwardness stirred them up and ashamed them. — Walter M'Gilvray, The Portable Folio Family Bible, 1851, 84.

I have heard gentlemen, who have visited these kinds of dens in London, say, that they have found men and women sleeping together, three and four in a single bed, that they have not disturbed or ashamed them in the least, by discovering them in these situations… — Joseph Kay The Social Condition and Education of the People in England, 1863, 97.

Even in Middle English, however, the attestations for the participle in a passive construction — or as we would parse it today, a predicate adjective — outnumber those of the verb. This tendency, of course, led to the final disappearance of the verb.

In 1839, however, one could still call ashamed a past participle.

This only brings us a little way further in parsing the relative clause:

… which his relations seem to be so much ashamed

The antecedent of the relative pronoun which is either child — in which case one would expect of which his relations seem to be ashamed— or it is the whole clause, i.e. the mother sending him his illegitimate child “ashamed” his relations, and this cast in the passive voice — in which case one would expect by which his relations seem to be ashamed.

Whether one parses the verb were ashamed as passive or as a linking verb with a participle used as an adjective, the rules of 19th century grammar English would require a preposition. The most logical conclusion is a typesetter’s error.

  • Indeed, basically a penny dreadful. One wonders why OPs don't provide sources when questions are about texts like these. I suspect the typesetters left out the word "of", of which.
    – Lambie
    May 30, 2018 at 13:29
  • @Lambie: The rise of the penny dreadful along with the repeal of the tax contributed to the demise of the broadside in prose as well in ballad form, which for some reason might only cost half a penny. Notice how the built-in public outrage is rather tame by today's standards. But the account of the woman who cared for the boy after he was discovered could have been in a tabloid this morning — except for the 19 c. style.
    – KarlG
    May 30, 2018 at 13:37
  • It would be nice if you could acknowledge what I said about a possible typo. Clearly, it was supposed to be: to be ashamed of something. It then refers to: [...]the mother, [of ]which his relations seemed to be so much ashamed"
    – Lambie
    May 30, 2018 at 13:52
  • It could have been the author or the typesetter. I had that as a closer before, but figured it was so obvious I could leave it out. Do you really think I need to add it? In 1839, it could still possibly be by .
    – KarlG
    May 30, 2018 at 13:56
  • I think it is the whole point. And not getting into the grammar of it going back to the 1600's. The most likely is of which and not by which.
    – Lambie
    May 30, 2018 at 14:02

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