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I'm trying to come up with a list of differences between Shakespeare's manner of writing and modern English, and one of the big differences I've noticed is that Shakespeare often seems to put adverbial phrases and objects before the verb, whereas in modern English we generally (always?) put them after the verb.

Examples from Hamlet:

Adverbial phrases preceding the verb:

  • If with too credent ear you list his songs; (...)
  • Youth to itself rebels, (...)
  • Do not as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, (...)
  • To thine ownself be true

Objects preceding the verb:

  • I shall th' effect of this good lesson keep, (...)
  • Neither a borrower nor a lender be.

My question is whether this was common in spoken English of the time, or if it was more of an artsy thing that would appear in plays and written English.

1 Answer 1

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One important factor is that Shakespeare usually wrote in iambic pentameter. This tells where the stress falls on the words. The rhythm is often described as de DUM dee DUM. I could write it in music notation if that would help.

If with too credent ear you list his songs;

When spoken out loud, the emphasised syllables would be as shown in bold.

If with too cre-dent ear you list his songs;

Iambic Pentameter is all about how many syllables and stresses we have in a line of a poem. Yes, it’s usually poetry. https://shanniiwrites.com/2019/04/18/what-is-iambic-pentameter-and-why-does-it-matter/

Iambic pentameter certainly explains one aspect of Shakespeare's word-order.


With regard to how people actually spoke, I suggest you Google how did people speak in Shakespeare's time

For example

Did People Really Speak The Way They Do In Shakespeare's Plays https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/did-people-speak-same-shakespeare-his-plays-83633


Further suggestions

If you search online you can actually find videos demonstrating iambic pentameter and you can also find ones that talk about how speech sounded in those days. It's just a matter of finding the right search terms and heading for your favourite online video resource.

There is an old song Sumer is Icumen in Try searching for and listening to various versions of this. They should all be in iambic pentameter.

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