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I'm reading some Shakespeare and noticing past tense verbs are written as deceiv'd and search'd etc rather than the modern deceived and searched.

When did the shift take place in English to the modern way of writing it? Do we know how it happened?

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    Going out on a limb here as a songwriter, but I read such Bard markings as squeezing the word into fewer syllables to fit the pentameter. While beloved is 3 syllables, belov'd is 2. So, not the past tense evolving, but poetic license, literally (literally). May 5, 2023 at 22:40
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    It's not a "modern way of writing it". In shakespeare's day there were two alternate pronunciations.
    – Fattie
    May 8, 2023 at 14:16

2 Answers 2

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These apostrophes were widely used in poetry, but rarely in prose, and only between the 16th and 19th centuries.

In Shakespeare's time, there were two ways to pronounce many regular past tenses of English verbs. For example, you could either pronounce expressed as express'd, to rhyme with best, or you could pronounce it expressèd, to rhyme with less said. In earlier Middle English, past tenses were always pronounced /-ɛd/, but by the time Shakespeare wrote, dropping the /ɛ/ was common.

Poets in Shakespeare's times used this freedom in pronunciation to make their poetry scan. For example, in the line from Shakespeare's Sonnet LIV,

When summer's breath their masked buds discloses,

you need to pronounce maskèd with two syllables for it to scan. But in the line from Sonnet XXXIII,

The region cloude hath mask'd him from me now.

mask'd needs to be pronounced with one syllable for it to scan.

Poets generally (not always) used apostrophes to tell the reader how to pronounce it — expressed would be pronounced with three syllables, while express'd would be pronounced with two syllables.

For prose, where it didn't matter how it was pronounced, the spelling was almost always without an apostrophe, like the modern spelling, and the reader was free to pronounce it however they wanted.

Many poets kept up this convention through the early 19th century, well after the /ɛ/ was dropped in non-poetic speech, as it was so convenient to be able to adjust the number of syllables in your lines to make them scan. For example, in 1820 Keats wrote

I saw their starv'd lips in the gloom
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side

-- La Belle Dame sans Merci

Here, to make it scan, gaped needs to have two syllables, and starv'd just one.

Looking through Google Books, it seems that by the 1840s, many editors reprinting older poetry had stopped using mask'd to indicate the one-syllable pronunciation, undoubtedly because most readers didn't read mask'd any differently than masked. And by the 1860s, some editors had started using maskèd with an accent on the e to make this distinction

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    Only the second time I've ever had someone whose name I recognized answer me on SE, in 11+ years using the site. Thanks for the detailed answer!! May 6, 2023 at 2:21
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    Might be worth highlighting that once the syllable was no longer pronounced by default, it became standard to use a diacritic — ‘èd’ — to indicate when it was pronounced (as this answer demonstrates).
    – gidds
    May 6, 2023 at 22:49
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    Of course, almost no·one understands this usage, so a pizza place near me describes their pizzas as "fast fire'd", (it's clearly an apostrophe, not a grave affect, that they're using), and I have no idea how they intend for me to pronounce it!
    – JonathanZ
    May 7, 2023 at 5:20
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    The misuse of apostrophe's in advertising copy L
    – Kevin
    May 7, 2023 at 5:26
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    @Janus: Shakespeare and John Donne rhymed the preterite ending with /εd/. For example, So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life, // The prey of worms, my body being dead; // The coward conquest of a wretch's knife, // Too base of thee to be remembered. Of course, this is only in preterite endings that are after unstressed syllables ... I don't know how preterites worked in double rhymes; I expect those were reduced. May 8, 2023 at 17:47
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Shorter Mr Shor:

I'm reading some Shakespeare and noticing past tense verbs are written as deceiv'd and search'd etc rather than the modern deceived and searched.

When did the shift take place in English to the modern way of writing it? Do we know how it happened?

The 'modern way of writing it' has always been the way of writing it since Middle English and Shakespeare used -ed past tenses all the time too.

Whenever you see anyone writing 'd for the past tense, they are drawing your attention to the fact it should be pronounced as /d/ or/t/ on the last syllable and should not be read as /ɛd/ or /əd/. That was more important to poets like Shakespeare and less important—even to modern poets—as /ɛd/ and /əd/ pronunciations have largely died out.

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