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My understanding is that in standard modern English, an explicit grammatical subject is required in all sentences other than imperatives.

However, I've come across across a few examples where the subject pronoun thou is omitted in questions.

Basically my question is: what's the deal with this? Did this used to be standard usage? or is it a nonstandard or dialectal (but still common) usage? or just a quirk of the author or their characters? Is it specific to thou or also seen with other pronouns? Does it only occur in questions? When and why did it arise and when and why did it disappear?

In Moby Dick, whenever the Pequod meets another whale ship, Ahab obsessively asks about the white whale. There are a few different phrasings of the question:

  • Have ye seen the White Whale? (asked once)
  • Hast thou seen the White Whale? (asked once)
  • Have you seen the White Whale? (asked once)
  • Hast seen the White Whale? (asked five times)

Of course it is the last form (missing the subject pronoun thou) that interests me.

I also came across this in the novel Moonfleet (written in 1898, set in 1757 in England):

  • "Art sure the well is clean, and that no deadly gases lurk below?"
  • "Art sure that thou canst do it, lad?"
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    Dropping the subject ("conversational deletion" or whatever you'd like to call it) occurs often in contemporary English, too. For example, when someone makes a suggestion I often reply, "Sounds good!" Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 0:15
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    @MarcInManhattan Yes, certainly. But I can't imagine anyone saying "Have seen the white whale?" no matter how casual or conversational they may be. That's the type of dropping you expect to see in Spanish, but never in English. Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 3:27
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    Yet, "Seen the white whale?" works well. Also, sailors, crazed Ahab included, are renowned for potty mouths and not textbook English. Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 3:43
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    See also Shakespere. (Possible dupe?)
    – TRiG
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 9:22
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    It's also worth noting that "you" was often used as the plural: "hast thou" (you, the individual I am directly addressing), vs. "have you" (all of you, the group to whom i speak). In truth, I sometimes wish we'd retained the distinction in the language.
    – NerdyDeeds
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 18:19

2 Answers 2

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In E. A. Abbott's A Shakespearean Grammar you will find his entry:

Omission of Thou. (See also 399, 402.) After a verb ending with the second person singular inflection, the thou is sometimes omitted in questions, as: “Didst not mark that?” (Othello, ii. 1. 260.)

In A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (Otto Jespersen, 2013), Volume 3, it is explained that:

The frequent omission of thou in questions (in EIE and later in archaic style or dialect) as in

Art mad? = Art thou mad?

was explained 1.6.36 from the purely phonetic dropping of the weak vowel, after th had been assimilated to the preceding t: art /ou > art-te, arte > art, etc.

Examples:

  • Gammer 104 Art deffe.. why canst not heares [ = hear us]
  • 122 Canst not learn to-night, man? Seest not what is here?
  • Marl J 1930 Wilt drinke?
  • 1956 hast been in Malta long?
  • 1958 Dost not know a Iew?
  • Sh Gent III. 1.390 Why didst not tell me sooner?
  • Lr IV. 1.29 Fellow, where goest?
  • Cy V.5.110 Know'st him thou look'st on? speak! Wilt haue him liue?... Wherefore ey'st him so?
  • Byron 572 Art sure of that?
  • Lamb R 11 Dost hear, girl? Why don't you answer?
  • GE A 2 dost think thee'st finished?
  • Bennett C 2.44 Who'st been running after?

The introduction to a 2003 edition of The Reformation (a play written by Joseph Arrowsmith in 1673) sheds some light on the contexts in which the ellipsis of thou can be used and on the connotations it can convey:

The use of thou required verbal forms ending in -st (e.g., comest or com t) or -rt (art, wert). Although the presence of the subject has always been obligatory in English sentences since the early modern period, the distinctiveness of these endings could at times lead a writer to dispense with the pronoun, especially in interrogative sentences in which the pronoun should have followed the verb (see Barber 200). In The Restoration, this kind of ellipsis had already become archaic, but in Arrowsmith’s play it appears several times, in conversations in which a character displays an extreme degree of familiarity: most instances belong to speeches by Lysander and Juliana in which the speaker expresses his or her affection or concern for the person addressed (e.g., in combination with terms of endearment, as in Juliana’s

“Poor innocent, do’st think that love’s the only cause?” before Lelia, 1.2.21;

or

“Ar’t’ come, dearest?” before Lysander, 3.3.18).

Some of these, however, are feigned expressions of affection, or appear in the context of mock-heroic discourse, to the extent that it is difficult to ascertain whether the ellipsis of thou should ultimately be regarded as a device with mocking overtones.

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    You have a particularly charming typo, "Joseph Aerosmith" (auto-correct run amok?) Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 10:47
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    :)) Will edit... I felt funny typing it but I still did it!
    – fev
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 10:52
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    Thanks, this is exactly what I was looking for! So basically we ended up with questions like 'Hast seen the white whale?', but not 'Have seen the white whale?', because there's a phonetic similarity between the end of hast and the beginning of thou, but no such similarity between have/you. (I will accept the answer after waiting a day or so for other answers.) Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 13:18
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    @DavidLoeffler Now I want to know more about this "Joseph Aerosmith". Hast the album?
    – Michael
    Commented Jun 15, 2023 at 1:59
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    "Ar’t’ come" isn't an omission of "thou" as such, but merely a contraction, as evidenced by the apostrophe placement. It expands to "Art thou come". This doesn't apply to "do'st" however. But it's easy to see how spoken word and less careful writing will eventually lead to dropping the apostrophes entirely.
    – Miral
    Commented Jun 15, 2023 at 2:46
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To give a broader perspective: hast unambiguously indicates that the subject is the second place singular pronoun. This phenomenon of dropping the subject pronoun is quite ubiquitous in Spanish, Italian, Russian, Arabic, and other pro-drop languages. It is impossible in modern English, because it has (almost) lost its inflections, and dropping the subject can make a sentence ambiguous. But it was certainly possible when these inflections still existed.

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    Although a bit buried, this is mentioned in one of the quotes in fev's answer: "the distinctiveness of these endings could at times lead a writer to dispense with the pronoun". Still, +1 for pointing out that this is a common practice in many languages, so might have happened in English regardless of phonetic factors, had we not lost most of our inflections.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Jun 15, 2023 at 12:24

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