Naomi Baron, in Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (1 edn 2015). p. 16, quoted Daniel Defoe's The Compleat English Gentleman, composed in the early 1700s:

Scan of book

I hate any thing that looks like a cheat upon the world. Whatever I am, I can't be a hypocrite. What should I do with books that never read half an hour in a year I tell you?

  1. Is there some linguistic term for the bolded words in the quote that I underlined in red in the image?

  2. I don't know the precise linguistic terms, thus here's my attempt to word the question using some that I know. Why could ‘read’ could be used transitively and without any auxiliary verb for an inanimate subject? Nowadays we must say ‘books that [WERE] never read’.

  3. How can I interpret this curio so that it feels natural and intuitive to a reader in 2019?

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    From the context of the conversation between the Gentleman and his friend, I think a modern version of the sentence would be "What would I do with books when I never read for even half an hour a year?". I've no idea if the quoted version was correct at the time of writing or if there's been something lost in reprinting. Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 9:47
  • 300 years ago ... I suspect much was different in English.
    – lbf
    Commented Sep 28, 2019 at 17:04
  • The edition from 1890 is available on Archive.org.
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 15:04

5 Answers 5


English in Defoe's time was different. Commas were used differently; relative pronouns were used differently; capital letters were used differently (although that last isn't evident here).

The that in the quote would be who today. It refers to I. A modern rendering would have to reorder the sentence in order to get the who nearer to I:

What should I — who never read half an hour in a year, I tell you — do with books?

In Defoe's time, it was preferred that the verb with its object was nearer its subject, and everything else was subordinate and came afterwards.

To answer your questions:

  1. There is nothing special about the verb read and adverb never.

  2. This question is moot, because the pronoun that doesn't refer to the books, but to the speaker.

  3. Hopefully, explained here.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 15:36

The comment and answer at time of posting are right about what the phrase means - it could also be written "What should I do with books? I've never read half an hour in a year, I tell you."

But I wouldn't overlook the Defoe factor. Daniel Defoe was an accomplished satirist, and in this extract he's writing in character as "The Gentleman". If the sentence structure appears odd, there's a good chance that this was - at least partly - the point.

This online edition has, on the front page (page 92 of the online document) the following :

"Usefull Observacions on the General Neglect of the Education of English Gentlemen with the Reasons and Remedies."


How can I interpret this curio so that it feels natural and intuitive to a reader in 2019?

Replacing "that" with "having" and introducing a pause helps me to read it naturally:

What should I do with books, having never read half an hour in a year, I tell you?


Insert a comma in the right place: What should I, that never read half an hour in a year, I tell you, do with books?

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    Your version involves a little more than inserting a comma in the right place. Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 10:48
  • To make clear that "books that never read" is not a phrase that is part of the sentence.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 23:32
  • This is more or less the answer I was about to give, so +1. (Though it does require more than only a comma insertion.) Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 23:52

Wikipedia takes a similar phrase as an example under mediopassive voice

A few examples of unaccusative verbs in English with meanings similar to a mediopassive:

  • The book reads well.
  • The trousers wash easily.
  • Ripe oranges peel well.
  • The book was not selling.

Further up it gives a short historic overview, importantly telling us:

A number of Indo-European languages have developed a new middle or mediopassive voice. Often this derives from a periphrastic form involving the active verb combined with a reflexive pronoun. This development happened independently in the Romance languages, the Slavic languages, and the North Germanic (Scandinavian) languages.

Indeed, German, though not strictly North Germanic, would also say "Das Buch ließt sich gut" ("The book reads [sich = reflexive pronoun] well"). Suffice to say that there is good reason to believe this construct was inherited into the 1700s (but whence came it?); an Old English equivalent shouldn't be too hard to find, if it existed itself. Answers and readers that don't like each other very well are unfortunate, but require just a little willingness to compromise.

Discussion: @AndrewLeach's notion, interpreting the phrase as "books that [I] never read" does not explicitly suppose ellipsis, but a semantic surface analysis that would be equivalent with "books that [were] never read [by me]". Andrew argues for 'distant modifiers' and the point is well taken, because it's needed to explain the adverb of time (a book doesn't have time, people do). I argued for the passive reading, because an apparent ellision of the auxiliary passivising verb is whitnessed in archaic literary German texts (actually more likely if not exclusively in active perfect constructions). Neither argument, basically implying ellipsis, is fully convincing. The apparent ellipsis is the reason that the phrase sounds wrong. It might be explained by a variant of mediopassive that became derilict perhaps via ellision (more likely at the end of a sentence) or morpheme loss and hapology (sound change).

PS: I see only now that Andrew had meant approximately "what should I, that [= who] never read for half an hour, do with books". This does seem not too alien, and would be obvious from verbal emphasis. My variant would need a set phrase that derives from "the book reads well". I'm not aware of such development, nor of "that" used as a personal relative pronoun refering to "I". Effectively, this answer is a lot of hot air.

A detailed explanation would belong on linguistics.SE. The uses of the mediopassive voice are diverse, so it's not clear in which way this phrase should be accepted as correct; From the descriptive point of view it is enough to acknowledge that it is existant and understood. A German might as well ask why a book should read itself (indeed, that's a misleading translation of the pronoun in this case).

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    Please get rid of all the arguing and stick to answering the question. Note that the question is about English, not German. Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 8:35
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    Read interpreted as the ergative meaning in an intransitive construction (see OED sense 22a.-d.) is more common in modern English with adverbs of manner. This also appears in the same work, p.168: some thing that may read well in the annalls of the family.
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 15:08
  • 6
    If you're tired of downvotes, stop using answers to argue with people. And you're absolutely right that there is no single dialect of English, but German isn't any dialect of English. Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 16:48
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    There is, however, an authority that mandates what is acceptable on ELU. German and any non-English languages are expressly so, but are welcome over on Linguistics. // The ergative / middle voice usages have already been well covered on ELU. Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 18:34
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    Also, if you want to stop getting downvotes, consider moving your PS from small text in the middle to large text at the top.
    – Justin
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 19:23