The Preterite and Perfect in Middle English

by Morgan Macleod (University of Ulster)

The Proto-Germanic tense system, consisting only of a present and a preterite, was augmented in Old English by the addition of a periphrastic perfect. This perfect had already been grammaticalized to the point where it could be used even with intransitive verbs, e.g. þin folc hæfð gesyngod ‘your people have sinned’ (Mitchell 1985: I, 289). However, it was still possible to use the preterite to express similar temporal content, e.g. Ic heold nu nigon gear[…] þines fæder gestreon ‘I (have) now held your father’s property nine years’ (ÆLS I.21.42). For many Old English authors the preterite was in fact the preferred mode of expression; previous research on a sample of Old English texts found that the new periphrastic perfect was used only in 26% (95/360) of the cases where it would have been possible semantically (see Macleod 2014). However, little previous quantitative work exists on the subsequent development of the perfect and preterite towards the modern system, in which the two categories are paradigmatically opposed and can seldom be interchanged without altering the meaning of an utterance.

A preliminary investigation of the preterite and perfect in Middle English was performed using the Helsinki Corpus (Rissanen et al. 1996). Such a corpus, small in size yet selected for balanced content, was ideal for a form of analysis involving manual review of entire textual passages. The methodology was based on that of Macleod (2014): texts from the earliest Middle English period, 1150–1250, were analysed to identify all situations for which a present perfect would be an appropriate representation, and the relevant verbs were identified either as preterites or as perfects. This research revealed an abrupt transition between Old English and Middle English; in Middle English, not including texts that represent late copies of Old English works, the periphrastic perfect was used in 94% (258/274) of cases. It is possible that the earlier stages of this transition took place within OE, where they were obscured by the relatively homogeneous nature of the textual record. In addition, some ME authors seem to show awareness of a new opposition between the preterite and the perfect, e.g. Orm 197 Þe þridde god uss hafeþþ don / Þe Laferrd Crist onn erþe, / Þurrh þatt he ȝaff hiss aȝhenn lif ‘The Lord Christ has done us the third good on earth in that He gave His own life’. Here the same situation is described with a preterite to position it within a historical narrative and with a perfect to highlight its continuing relevance, showing a clearer contrast than seems to have existed in Old English.

Although the majority of Middle English examples seem to conform to the modern pattern, a small number of exceptions remain, a fact noted by previous authors such as Mustanoja (1960) and Fischer (1992). One factor involved in these exceptions may lie in the variation observed (e.g. Elsness 1997) among varieties of English in their tense preferences: constructions such as American English I already ate can be paralleled in Middle English examples such as Ich ne seh him neauer ‘I never saw Him’ (St Juliana 100.15), while examples such as mare wunder ilomp ‘greater wonders (have) happened’ (Ancrene Wisse 32.9) may show an even greater tolerance for the preterite than would be possible in present-day American English. This variation may best be interpreted as a difference not in the temporal meaning of the forms involved, but in the pragmatic presuppositions created by their use, in keeping with the approach of Portner (2003).

Some Middle English examples also involve the use of a past tense under a present-tense verb in a way that would be of marginal acceptability in Modern English. This can be seen in examples such as Brut I.384.7424, Ich þonkie mine Drihte[…] þet he swulche mildce; sent to moncunne ‘I thank my Lord that He sent such mercy to mankind’. Although much research on the sequence of tenses (e.g. Abusch 1997; Gennari 2003) has tended to focus on cases in which the matrix verb is in the past tense, it is known that sequence-of-tense phenomena are subject to cross-linguistic variation in their construction and interpretation. Examples such as the above may reflect an underlying difference between Middle English and Modern English in their sequence-of-tense rules.

This preliminary investigation has found a high degree of similarity between Middle English and Modern English in their use of the perfect even at a very early date, in sharp contrast to the patterns found in Old English texts. While the explanations proposed here may help to explain the small number of apparent counterexamples, more work is needed to substantiate these proposals. In particular, a larger data sample might provide further examples to clarify the factors influencing speakers’ choice between the perfect and the preterite, while a more general examination of the sequence of tenses found in Middle English would be essential to establish the details of the system obtaining at this period and the ways in which it might differ from Modern English. Further research in this area has the potential to illuminate many currently obscure details of the Middle English verbal system.


Abusch, Dorit, 1997. ‘Sequence of tense and temporal de re’, Linguistics and Philosophy 20, 1–40.

Elsness, Johan, 1997. The Perfect and Preterite in Contemporary and Earlier English, Berlin: de Gruyter

Fischer, Olga, 1992. ‘Syntax’, in Norman Blake (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, vol. 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 207–408.

Gennari, Silvia P., 2003. ‘Tense meanings and temporal interpretation’, Journal of Semantics 20 35–71.

Macleod, Morgan, 2014. ‘Synchronic variation in the Old English perfect’, Transactions of the Philological Society 112, 319–343.

Mitchell, Bruce, 1985. Old English Syntax, 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon.

Mustanoja, Tauno F., 1960. A Middle English Syntax, Helsinki: Societé Néophilologique.

Portner, Paul, 2003. ‘The (temporal) semantics and (modal) pragmatics of the perfect’, Linguistics and Philosophy 26, 459–510.

Rissanen, Matti, et al. (eds.) 1996. The Helsinki Corpus of English Texts, Helsinki: University of Finland, electronic.

The Loss of the Latin Case System – A New Morphological Approach

by Zeprina-Jaz Ainsworth (University of Oxford)

Much work has already been done on the development of the Latin case system, which has been lost almost entirely from nouns and adjectives in Romance. Scholars such as Herman (2000) have outlined phonetic, analogical, functional, and syntactic changes which may have contributed to the opacification of certain morphological case forms. However, none of the previous analyses account for the near-total loss of the case category in Romance. For instance, as the result of regular phonological changes, the singular forms in the first declension would not have ‘fallen together’ into a single, invariant shape:

PluralClassical LatinSound ChangeResult

AccusativeMENSAMLoss of final -m**mensa
AblativeMENSĀLoss of vowel length distinctions
GenitiveMENSAEae >[e]
DativeMENSAEae >[e]

Table 1: Phonetic erosion in first declension singular case/number suffixes

Moreover, cross-linguistic comparison indicates that, despite phonological, analogical, and functional developments, languages do not necessarily always lose their case systems. Finnish, for instance, retains the fifteen case values (for nouns and adjectives) reconstructed for proto-Finnic (although the abessive, comitative, instructive and prolative are now in restricted usage), and has even begun to develop new morphological suffixes:

Proto-Finnic nominative, genitive, partitive, essive, translative, elative, inessive, illative, ablative, adessive, allative, abessive, comitative, instructive, prolative
Modern Finnish nominative, genitive, partitive, essive, translative, elative, inessive, illative, ablative, adessive, allative, (abessive, comitative, instructive, prolative), comitiative2, excessive

Table 2: Case values in proto-Finnic and modern Finnish

This study is concerned with answering the question: why do we find such different developments cross-linguistically?

One major difference between these two languages is that Latin is characterized predominantly by fusional morphology, whilst Finnish exhibits an abundance of agglutinative structure. By analysing these structures from a unit-agnostic ‘abstractive’ approach (as opposed to a ‘constructive’ perspective, in which forms are considered to be ‘built’ up of sub-word parts),[1] we may best understand how they behave in significantly different ways in diachrony.

In Latin for instance, the fully-inflected wordform and the relationship it bears to other forms in the paradigm provides the language-user with informative patterns which may be extended in the inflexion of other lexemes – there is no need to posit ‘underlying’ forms or identify sub-word morphs in order to ‘construct’ new forms. For instance, if the language-user knows a nominative singular form ending in -a, the lexeme must belong to the first declension. In the second and fourth declensions, however, even if both the nominative singular and accusative singular forms are known, there is residual ambiguity about the inflexion class to which the lexeme belongs:

Nom. sg. PUELLA 1st declension SERVUS 2nd/4th declension GRADUS 2nd/4th declension
Acc. sg. PUELLAM 1st declension SERVUM 2nd/4th declension GRADUM 2nd/4th declension
Gen. sg. PUELLAE 1st declension SERVĪ 2nd declension GRADŪS 4th declension

Table 3: Implicational relations in a sub-set of Latin nouns

In Finnish, implicative relations provide information about inflexion class, whilst the frequent isomorphic form~function mapping exhibited by inflexional suffixes provides absolute certainty in the expression of most case functions.

Nom. sg. ajatus ‘thought’ -Vs ~ -Vks-/-Vs ~ -VV- vieras ‘stranger’ -Vs ~ -Vks-/-Vs ~ -VV-
Part. sg. ajatusta -Vs ~ -Vks-/-Vs ~ -VV- vierasta -Vs ~ -Vks-/-Vs ~ -VV-
Gen. sg. ajatuksen -Vs ~ -Vks- + [n] vieraan Vs ~ -VV- + [n]

Table 4: Implicational relations and sub-word units in a sub-set of Finnish nouns

Whilst multiple forms are required in Finnish to determine the declension class to which a lexeme with a nominative singular form in -s belongs, there is certainty in many cells as to the inflexional material that will follow the lexical stem.

The abstract patterns that exist in Latin are not maximally-informative, that is, there is occasionally still uncertainty about the shape of an unknown form, even given knowledge of two forms in the language (consider table three). In Finnish, on the other hand, there is a sub-word area of absolute certainty in most of the cells in the inflexional paradigm. In addition to implicational relations, therefore, a Finnish speaker, even where there is not have sufficient information to deduce the inflexion class of a lexeme, may utilize maximally-predictable sub-word forms to produce a form (whether or not the ‘correct’ one) which may be interpreted correctly by a hearer.[2]

The observations offered here accord with language-learning data. Niemi and Niemi (1987) and Laalo (2009), for instance, observe that Finnish children recognise early the direct mapping of the suffix -n and genitive singular functions; they then utilise this knowledge in the deduction of previously unencountered forms. In Latin, exemplary paradigms and principal parts have long been used to capture the inflexional variation exhibited by lexemes. The implicational relations that exist between the nominative singular and genitive singular forms of a noun, for instance, are sufficient to enable L2 learners to ‘match’ novel items to the correct inflexion class.

I suggest that understanding the way in which morphological structures are recognised and exploited by languages-users may help to explain (in conjunction with, e.g., phonological or analogical developments) whether morphological case distinctions are likely to be lost or maintained. In Latin, the implicational relations, although informative, are not always maximally-predictive, and became opacified through time following regular phonological developments (such as those given in table one). As a result of such phonetic erosion, the area of informativeness in the Latin case system has shifted from the area of suffixal variation, distinct across declension, towards the certainty associated with the invariant form of the lexeme. By contrast, the maximally-predictable sub-word elements in Finnish may be rote-learned, which provides them with diachronic stability. These units, in addition to the less informative abstract relations, offer language-users on average more information in language use than is available to a learner of Latin in the production of novel inflected forms. Consideration of the morphological structures found in a given language and the ways in which they are recognised and exploited in language use may therefore offer some additional insight into why the robust Latin case system is not found in Romance.


Blevins, J.P., 2006. ‘Word-based Morphology’. In Journal of Linguistics 42:3. 531-573.

—-, 2016. Word and Paradigm Morphology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blevins, J.P., P. Milin, and M. Ramscar. 2017. ‘The Zipfian Paradigm Cell Filling Problem’. In F. Kiefer, J.P. Blevins, and H. Bartos (eds.). Perspectives on Morphological Structure: Data and Analyses. Leiden: Brill. 139-158.

Herman, J., 2000. Vulgar Latin. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Laalo, K., 2009. ‘Acquisition of Case and Plural in Finnish’. In U. Stephany and M. Voeikova (eds.). Development of Nominal Inflection in First Language Acquisition: a Cross-Linguistic Perspective. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 49-90.

Milin, P., V. Kuperman, A. Kostić and H.R. Baayen, 2009.
‘Words and paradigms bit by bit: An information-theoretic approach to the processing of inflection and derivation’ in In J.P. Blevins and J. Blevins (eds.). Analogy in Grammar: Form and Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 214-252.

Niemi, J. and S. Niemi, 1987. ‘Acquisition of inflectional marking: A case study of Finnish’ in Nordic Journal of Linguistics 10:1. 59-89.

[1] The terms ‘abstractive’ and ‘constructive’ are from Blevins (2006).

[2] This discussion may be recast in terms of the information-theoretic notion of ‘entropy’. See, e.g., Milin et al. (2009) and Blevins (2016:171-196).