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Character Dialogue: How to use Thou, Thee, Thy, and Thine

Why would you want to use Early Modern (think Shakespearean) English? Wasn’t high school English Lit hard enough?

There are valid reasons to use Early Modern English in your book.

I recently worked with an author writing a historical fiction book with Mennonite and Amish characters. Any dialogue with these characters was in early modern English because it helped differentiate the characters and add authenticity.

Also, if your book is set in the Early Modern period (late Middle Ages), using this type of English may also add authenticity to your dialogue.

While there are other aspects of Early Modern English (like how to properly use verbs, like dost), we’ll start with all the various ways to use “you” and “your.” These words become thou, thee, thy, and thine.

Using Thou and Thee

When I started editing with my author, she had initially replaced all the yous in her dialogue with thous. This is a good start but only half right.

When we use you in English now, it’s you whether it is the subject or the object of the sentence. For example,

You are my sunshine.

I love you.

However, in many languages (including the dialect of Early Modern English), the word changes to indicate whether it is the subject or object. Thou is you as a subject, and thee is you as an object. For example,

Thou are my sunshine. (Thou art my sunshine)

I love thee.

So, just replacing you with thou won’t be accurate. You have to look at every sentence and how you has been used.

To further complicate the use of you in Early Modern English, there are also two words to replace yours.

Using Thy and Thine

The rules for using thy and thine are a little simpler. It’s analogous to how we use “a” and “an” in English currently.

Thy is used in place of your when the next letter is a consonant. For example, eat thy food.

Thine is used in place of your when the next letter is a vowel. For example, eat thine own food.

How Accurate Do You Need to Be?

Adding a touch of Early Modern English to your dialogue can be a way to add authenticity to a time and place. However, writing in full on Early Modern English is likely to confuse your readers more than Shakespearean dialogue confuses high schoolers.

As an editor, I prefer when dialogue is clear and easy to read rather than totally baffling. This is one reason why I worked with my author to consistently use thee and thou, but we didn’t add any other unusual words. There are many unique Amish pronunciations of words that we could have included, but they aren’t well-known by the general public.

As an example, Grammarly doesn’t even recognize thine as a word. This is one of the challenges of using Grammarly as a replacement for an editor.

Most people know that thou and thee are versions of you, so using only those adjustments is a nod to Early Modern English while also still being understandable to modern readers.

Of course, as a writer, you can always decide how far to go. But your editor may try to reign in some of the very authentic dialogue in favor of clarity.

For more information on using Early Modern English, I found this academic blog about Shakespeare very helpful.