How To Use Thou, Thee, Thy, and Thine in a Story

by Gower

<< All Articles | Print

How To Use "Thou," "Thee,"  "Thy," and "Thine" in a Story and Not Completely Bungle It


Let's say you want to write a story set in some mythic or historical setting, and you want to heap on loads of flavor.  Let's further say you want to have your adventurer purchase some beer at a tavern or something.


Your doughty warrior goes over to the bar, looks the bartender in the eye and says, "Have thee any ale, thine fine barkeep?"

And then the bartender says, "I have a delicious and foamy mug for thou, m'lord!"


It's over.  You've lost all credibility.  This, then, is a short but powerful guide to getting your thou, thee, thy, and thine right. 

The purpose of this guide is because it annoys me when it's done wrong.  This is not to suggest that your story should use archaic words.  Not necessarily.  Indeed, very possibly you don't need them at all.  But if you do, here's your guide.



1.  Short Background

Once there was a time when there was an informal and a formal word for "you" in English.  In early Modern English, the informal word is "thou" and the formal is "you." 

"Thou" is used for social inferiors, loved ones, social intimacy, and to show scorn.

"You" is used formally, to social superiors, strangers or acquaintances whom you respect, and to show general respect or distance.

Many languages still have this distinction--French, German, Russian, and more.  It just fell out of English at one point.


But it still exists in Shakespeare's time.

There's a great moment in Richard III where one character is plotting to murder another but doesn't want to tip his hand yet.  He calls the to-be-murdered guy "You" to his face, but "Thou" in an aside.  He secretly despises the guy, so he calls him "thou" when not in earshot.


I do, my lord, but long I cannot stay there.
I shall return before YOUR Lordship thence.

Nay, like enough, for I stay dinner there.

And supper too, although THOU know’st it not.—




2.  Rule 1:  Thou is a subject


You have to know the difference between a subject and an object.  I wish I could say this was trivial, but I have spent too much time in front of classrooms full of college students who do not know the difference.

The subject is the person doing the action.  "I" love cake.  "You" kick me.

***THOU is a subject.  Thou does stuff.   It is not an object.

You cannot say "I love thou."  Or "I kick thou."  If you do that you have to stand in the pillory and get fruit thrown at you.



3.  Thou gets an -est (or -st) ending

When you use "thou," the verb gets -est (or sometimes -st).  Different regions/times/poetic meters will use -est or -st, and you aren't wrong using either.


Thou lovest cake.

Thou speedest down the highway.

Thou kickest me.


4.  Questions will often put the verb first.


Lovest thou cake, indeed?

Kickest thou me, varlet?

Darest thou fail my exam?

Hast thou a cigarette?  (Hast = Have-est)

Beest thou so bold as to challenge me?



5.  ***THEE is an object.  Thee has stuff done to it.

You cannot say Thee smells good.  You cannot say Thee failed my exam.


I kick thee.

I will take thee, lift thee up, and toss thee out yon window.

Come back to my humble shack, and I will teach thee the meaning of love.  Thou canst not deny it.





OK, the above is the bare minimum.   


But learn the below, as well.




6.  ***THY is possessive.  It's like saying "Your."

Thy pencil is dull.

I fed thee stew, and now thy belly beest full.    <----note how "thy" still gives "be" the "est" ending.


7.  ***THINE is the SAME THING as THY only in front of vowels.


Thine eggplant is dull.

I fed thee stew, and now thine arse beest of gross proportions.

To thine own self be true.


8.  ***THINE also means "yours."  Honestly, this one won't come up much.


For example:


All of my love is thine.



9.  That's it.  Now you know the rules.  Now you can say things like "Thou playedst thyself and with thine own actions madest thee a fool."


There is now no longer any excuse to do this incorrectly.  Thou hast been warned.