A lot of questions have been dedicated to how the evolution of English got many constructs of the old either fall out of use, merge, or evolve into different forms but still with 1:1 relation to original. The English of Victorian times was significantly more complex than modern-day English.

But I'm quite convinced that elements of grammar didn't just die out or evolve into uniform counterparts — I'm fairly sure entirely new ones were borne over time, or simple cores were branched out into multiple, significantly different, more complex variants.

Can you identify elements of contemporary English grammar that would simply baffle someone who spoke Early Modern English?

Common, everyday constructs of grammar that don't have simple direct counterparts of the old, or are significantly more complex? New tenses? Inflections where there was none?

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    Fascinating question, and I look forward to the answers. Off the top of my head, however, I'd say that the only thing that would give, say, Shakespeare any difficulty would be the great extension in use of modal auxiliaries and of modal phrasal verbs, and corresponding loss of tense in modal auxiliaries. I think you're mistaken in thinking that Victorian English was more complex than contemporary English; the difference is that Victorian literary English valued complexity and today we deprecate it. Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 12:32
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    There are an incredible number of phrasal verbs in English, and it's acquiring new ones all the time. This is one of the things that baffles foreigners; would it also baffle Early Modern English speakers? Were phrasal verbs as prevalent back then? Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 13:49
  • I once long-distance-borrowed 'Multi-word Verbs in Early-Modern English' by Claudia Claridge (2000), but mainly as a sourcebook of modern examples. There were a lot in use hundreds of years ago, I remember, and some are now obsolete. Only parts of this fine work are available online. Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 21:18

3 Answers 3


As Barrie mentions, there is little systemic that has changed in English in the last few centuries. Most of the major systemic changes that you might recognise over the last 1000 years, such as the breakdown of the declension system and the simplification of verbal morphology, were probably all but complete by Shakespeare's time or not much thereafter. Some possible candidates of "recent" semi-systemic changes that might sound if not "baffling" at least "very odd" to Shakespearean ears:

  • a change in the so-called "raising" behaviour of verbs, so that it is now completely ungrammatical to say "he plays not", and that it sounds much more natural to say "he often plays" rather than "he plays often";
  • the frequency with which we now use paraphrases such as "be able to", "have to" etc rather than modals "can", "must" etc;
  • there are no new "tenses" as such, but some combinations of elements making up the verb phrase are relative neologisms (e.g. compounds of past passive progressives: "to have been being watched" etc);
  • using the 's form with inanimates appears to have been much rarer a century or two ago, so it would probably have sounded very strange to say e.g. "the planet's species", "the book's cover" etc.
  • a few other isolated bits of syntax have become more less mainstream whereas they would have been much rarer a couple of centuries ago, e.g. putting elements between "to" and the verb ("to really go", "to fully appreciate", "to not be there"), using analytic comparatives even though synthetic ones exist (e.g. "more cold" instead of "colder").

But on the other hand, these are about as "systemic" as it gets in terms of changes in English over the last few hundred years, and it's probably fair to say that they're not so major as to render the language "baffling" to a speaker either side of the change.

  • Thank you for an excellent answer. I'll keep the question open some more in case someone has something else to contribute (and hope to get to accept before close-voters get it closed), but I think you outlined some significant "new inventions" of the language, and while maybe not baffling, some appear quite interesting and you definitely managed to teach me something new today. I guess the "been being" construct might indeed require a double-take...
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 20:21
  • The 'be like' construction would doubtless confuse people born before a certain date (like me). It is almost universally accepted as a quote verb nowadays (racing through the registers), though if one didn't know this, it would be extremely hard to analyse. Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 21:26
  • @Neil Coffey: It's interesting that the 's form's usage was semantically more restricted in the past. Nowadays, for non-possessive usages, the tendency is to drop the apostrophe (Waterstone's are now Waterstones, and one can buy the children's clothing in the childrens clothing departments of some stores). Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 21:34
  • The latter issue is essentially just an orthography issue, though-- they're still possessives. This phenomenon arguably isn't restricted to possessives incidentally: in modern signwriting and some other instances (book titles, web site headers etc) there's a general tendency to do away with punctuation. Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 22:34
  • It's not just an orthography issue if the apostrophe from childrens clothing department is dropped but that in our children's clothing is simultaneously retained, as is implied in Wiley (1988) and at parliament.vic.gov.au/downloadhansard/pdf/aphea/Vic/… : Adjectival possession. When the sense of a noun is more adjectival than possessive, the pos s and s pos [i.e. the apostrophe] are frequently omitted. Thus: girls high school, senior citizens centre, visitors book, travellers cheques, teachers training college, workers canteen Commented Nov 22, 2012 at 23:45

If the question is about the extent to which earlier generations would be able to understand the way we speak today, I’m not sure it’s one we can ever answer. Its investigation might in any case be better suited to an academic paper than to a place such as this. I would, however, begin by challenging the assumptions on which the question seems to be based. English is marked as much by continuity as by change, and at least two distinguished commentators have drawn attention to the grammatical similarities of the language at different stages of its development. In ‘Think On My Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language’, David Crystal writes that

the grammatical rules of English have changed very little over the past 400 years; some 90 per cent of the word-orders and word formations used by Shakespeare are still in use today.

That would apply with much greater force to a period only 150 years ago, so it is doubtful that ‘English of the Victorian times has been significantly more complex than modern day English.’

If we go much further back to the Old English period, the language differs to a far greater extent, partly because Old English was highly inflected. Yet in ‘An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England’, Bruce Mitchell writes that

the factor which above all makes Old English seem like a foreign language to those trying to read it today is neither its inflexions nor its word-orders not its syntax, but its vocabulary.

  • I agree with every point made here (not least that it's not really a suitable question for ELU). My gut feel is I also agree StoneyB's point that Victorian literary English valued complexity and today we deprecate it. But that may just be a side-effect of which examples of Victorian English we tend to still see today. Plus the "reduced" syntax of many non-native speakers that we see more and more of in the global village Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 13:22
  • ...then the small number of differences should make this question rather easy to answer. Unless the number matching this particular set of requirements is zero, that is.
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 21, 2012 at 13:43

What about "there is" and "there are" meaning "to exist" like in "There is a hamburger in the fridge". Note that the word "there" should typically carry information about a place or time. So does the phrase "in the fridge" which acts as a locating adjective. Having these two in one sentence is redundancy. The way the Victorians said it was "A hamburger is in the fridge" or "In the fridge is a hamburger". By vocally emphasizing the right word, they could convey whichever meaning they intended without needing "there is" and "there are".

This is an example of a very commonly used phrase that I did not find in Shakespearean/Victorian English. I urge whoever knows of a counter example that would prove me wrong to please present it. This is not only about the phrase, but about the concept of existence which has significantly evolved since Shakespeare's time.

EDIT: I was clearly wrong. Not only "there is" was used by Shakespeare, but also "here is" was used in the same sense. It would be nice however to know when its use has started.

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    Sorry, but Shakespeare did use There is a ...
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 20:25
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    You can use a search at online-literature.com/george_eliot to search George Eliot's works too; "There is a" occurs over 200 times. She lived 1819-1880, and was definitely Victorian.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 20:31
  • Thank you very much for your valuable feedback. My next question is when did it appear?
    – 3omarz
    Commented Apr 4, 2015 at 8:00
  • What you could have said was that "there's + N + N" is common in speech and in informal writing. For example, "There's a bat, a ball and a glove on the table" I don't think Shakespeare ever used this type of construction.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 5:05

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