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The cover of the August 18 print edition of The Economist:

As Every Schoolchild Knows, -eth is the obsolete English third-person-singular verb inflection. The OED explains,

[T]he normal third person singular ending in standard southern English was -eth. The form -(e)s, originally from Northern dialect, replaced -eth in most kinds of use during the seventeenth century. A few common short forms, chiefly doth, hath, continued often to be written, but it seems likely that these were merely graphic conventions.

So why does The Economist use the -eth ending with a plural subject? Well, it's a reference to the motto of New College, Oxford, "Manners Makyth Man", attributed to William of Wykeham (1324 – 1404).

But this just pushes the question back to the 14th century: Why did William of W use a singular verb form with a plural noun? Was -yth /-eth a plural form in his era? Or did he simply choose to construe manners as singular?

Apparently it was the former. According to Goold Brown, The Grammar of English Grammars, 1851:

In early times also the th was an ending for verbs of the third person plural, as for those of the third person singular *…

* The Rev. W. Allen, in his English Grammar, p. 132, say: "Yth and eth […] were formerly, plural terminations; as, 'Manners Makyth man.' William of Wykeham's motto. 'After long advisement, they taketh upon them to try the matter.' Stapleton's Translation of Bede. 'Doctrine and discourse maketh nature less importune.' Bacon." The use of eth as a plural termination of verbs, was evidently earlier than the use of en for the same purpose.

And of course the meaning of the New College motto is not that etiquette is important, but rather that people are defined by how they behave, not by their birth or wealth.

Update — But not so fast. According to Mark Griffith, "The Language and Meaning of the College Motto":

Manners makyth man’ is the motto of both the institutions founded by William of Wykeham, New College and Winchester College. Although no contemporary record attests to this, it is often thought that Wykeham devised it himself and appended it to his coat of arms. We do not know when he first used either the arms or the motto, but his seal as Archdeacon of Lincoln displays the arms and he was appointed to this position in 1361. […]

The earliest datable appearance in college is found on the small silver seal which bears the initials of John London, Warden from 1526 to 1542: Manner + Makyth + Man, and nearly the same spelling is found in a stained glass window of c. 1560 in the Warden’s Lodgings: Maner Makyth Man Q[uod] D[icit] Byshop Wykham. A sixteenth century stained glass window on the north side of the nave of Bradford Peverell church, near Dorchester, where the motto appears on a scroll above the arms in the form manare makythe man, represents its earliest known use outside College. This church was given by Wykeham to Winchester College in 1395. These three earliest examples of the motto all display the singular form of the first noun. The standard orthography now found in College, however, is manners. This form is morphologically plural but may have functioned syntactically as singular with collective sense. In southern dialects of Middle English -eth (variously spelled) is the inflection of the third person singular and plural of the present indicative of verbs, but midland dialects characteristically distinguish singular -eth from plural -e(n). The founder, born at Wickham in Hampshire and educated at Winchester, was a southerner and so would have said manner maketh man and manners maketh man. Oxford, however, in the south midlands and bordering southern dialect areas, was situated in an area where both -eth and -e(n) might occur in the plural, so that a local would have said manner maketh man but either manners maketh man or manners maken man (or manners make man). Accordingly, if the current standard form was the original one, then both its subject and verb were ambiguous in number whether its original dialect was southern or south midlands. However, there are pointers to the conclusion that the original form was singular: the singular form manner in the earliest example of the proverb and in the earliest examples of the motto, together with the absence from Wykeham’s foundations of unambiguous verbal plurals in make(n).

Griffith also notes that

Authorities disagree about the motto’s meaning, in particular, the exact sense of ‘manners’. OED ascribes to it in this idiom the sense ‘a person’s habitual behaviour or conduct, esp. in reference to its moral aspect; moral character, morals’, but the MED gives it the more narrowly social sense ‘a way of conducting oneself toward others; outward behavior, deportment, bearing…proper conduct, good manners’ where no explicit link is drawn with moral principles. Both are found quite early in adaptations of the proverb: manner(s) and clothing make(s) man occurs several times in fifteenth century texts and illustrates the superficial interpretation, but grace and manerz make a man in Rawlinson MS C813 from the end of the same century appears to show the deeper or broader sense. In practice, the two are often hard to distinguish in late Middle English, but the founder, a bishop and, by all early accounts, a pious Christian, is unlikely to have selected a motto without strong moral import, still less would he have given such a one to an institution for the education of clerics.


  1. Boris JF said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 10:03 am

    AND this is why LL is so awesome. #language #culture #unconventionalwisdom Thanks, this was a productive and highly enjoyable break from work!

  2. Andy Averill said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 10:29 am

    Isn't it also true that writers of that era were a lot more casual about agreement in number between subject and verb? Shakespeare did it a lot:

    Our doubts are traitors,
    And makes us lose the good we oft might win,
    By fearing to attempt.
    (Measure for Measure, I.4.77)

    The wrathful skies
    Gallow the very wanderers of the dark
    And makes them keep their caves.
    (King Lear, III.2.43)


  3. Tony said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 11:11 am

    It strikes me that there's a difference between someone's "manner" and someone's "manners." Is that either imagined (by more) or perhaps a more recent distinction?

  4. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 11:19 am

    A note on the Economist's practices in titling stuff: the magazine is heavily into playful variations on formulas of all sorts — as in the title on this cover.

  5. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    Also note Mike O'Hare's disparagement on his Language Police Blotter — including a number of useful comments.

  6. marc ettlinger said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

    Certainly an interesting survey.

    As to the original question, however, I'd submit that it's currently a (variation of a) frequent snowclone, "X (pl.) maketh the man" as in "Clothes maketh the man," "Shoes maketh the man" and so on. There are many ghits for those phrases.

  7. SeekTruthFromFacts said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

    @marc ettlinger:

    I think that you underestimate the number of Old Wykehamists and New College graduates* at 'The Economist'

    *Is there a unique word for such people?

  8. Kasper said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

    There's a war memorial in Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, England, with the words 'Their names shall liveth for evermore' — two levels of ignorance at work here.

  9. Jim said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

    This sounds like the "Northern subject rule".

    Whoever wrote the wiki on Brittonicisms says

    Northern subject rule: The Northern subject rule was the general pattern of syntax used for the present-tense in northern Middle English. It occurs in some present-day dialects. The 3rd person singular verb is used for 3rd person plural subjects unless the pronoun, "they", is used and it is directly adjacent to the verb, e.g. "they sing", "they only sings", "birds sings". This anti-agreement is standard in Modern Welsh — excepting the adjacency condition. It had general usage in Old Welsh and therefore, presumably, in Cumbric.

  10. peterv said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 4:37 pm

    Re: 'Their names shall liveth for evermore' (@ Kasper)

    Anyone attending Roman Catholic or high-church Anglican religious services before the mid 1960s would have heard similar phrasing. Indeed, Australians and New Zealanders may still hear this exact sentence spoken aloud at Anzac Day Dawn Services, held at sunrise each 25 April.

  11. Albatross said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

    Anyone attending Roman Catholic or high-church Anglican religious services before the mid 1960s would have heard similar phrasing.

    Anyone attending Roman Catholic mass before the mid-1960s would have heard Latin. Not sure if that's what you mean, though. Being born after that, I've always heard modern English. Or Spanish.

  12. yonray said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    Is the Manners maketh Man thing therefore telling us that Actions Speak Louder than Words? Is that it?
    I suppose the reason I'm asking is that for my sort of Brit the saying carries a lot of resonance, and may be dragon to be slayed.

  13. David Morris said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

    My eye was also caught by 'On the origin of specie' in small print in the top left-hand corner. I assume that The Economist is talking about money and making a little joke at the same time.

  14. Chris said,

    August 20, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

    It's perhaps not surprising that a 19th century source would be wrong, or at least have oversimplified the situation. At the time there seem to have been a lot of confidently written conclusions based on very limited evidence.

    Medieval historians now tend to be more or less reflexively skeptical about 19th century conclusions, in part because we often have much more evidence available, and in part because the fashion today is to be much more cautious about assuming we understand the Middle Ages.

    [(myl) In this case, the 19th-century sources aren't wrong, just incomplete.]

  15. Peter Taylor said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 2:09 am

    @SeekTruthFromFacts, since the alumni page of the New College website uses "Old Members", one can reasonably infer that there isn't a special term for them. How many Oxbridge colleges have special terms for their alumni? (Alumnyms?) It seems de rigueur for public schools, but the only possibility that comes to mind is Old Johnians.

  16. Ray Girvan said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 5:12 am

    @Tony: It strikes me that there's a difference between someone's "manner" and someone's "manners.

    Yes. I go with the interpretation that the modern sense of "manners" is singular: a synonym for "proper etiquette".

  17. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 6:03 am

    SeekTruthFromFacts asks, 'Is there a unique word for such people?'
    not a word, but I've often heard 'public school and Oxbridge'.

    I find the kerfuffle over this strange. I would be more surprised if you could find an edition of the Economist that didn't have a panoply of bad paronomasia and word play.
    And anyway it's perfectly acceptable because:
    a) it perfectly follows the pattern and
    b) if microbes can't be considered a mass, what can?
    Also consider such (I think common British) humorous devices as pronouncing the long-s as an f.
    So I fay "Fie to your filly ftance!"

    [(myl) From my point of view, at least, the issue is not The Economist but the motto; and about the motto, not its acceptability but its origins and developments and relationship to the history of the language. It's interesting that whenever we write about an interesting usage, some people think that we must be censuring someone.]

  18. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 7:08 am

    On the subject of Winchester College and the history of the English language, Wykehamists were heavily involved in translating the King James Bible.

  19. Rodger C said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 7:15 am

    @peterv: Are you sure they say "shall liveth"? If so, someone needs talked to, as we say in Ulstamerica. Anyhow I've been to many high-church Anglican services–Rite 1 still exists, by the way–and I've never heardeth this horrible construction.

  20. Ray Girvan said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 9:13 am

    @Kasper: war memorial in Yarmouth, Isle of Wight

    Here's an image.

    "Their name liveth for evermore" (from Ecclesiasticus) is the usual phrasing.

  21. Bloix said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    Mark – Mr Howland-Bolton may have been reading the post over at The Reality Based Community, which is explicitly a censure of The Economist.

  22. Andy Averill said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

    I'm still recovering from a line in The Economist a couple weeks back, when they attributed a bank crash to "an errant logarithm." It's certainly the most action logarithms have seen in years.

  23. Rodger C said,

    August 21, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

    Could they have meant "algorithm"?

  24. Hans said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 8:36 am

    @ David Morris: Yes, the article titled "On the Origin of Specie" is about conflicting theories of how currency money came about.
    @ Andy Averill, Rodger C – yes, they meant "algorithm". People had some fun with that.
    (Yes, I'm a regular Economist reader.)

  25. Alex M said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 3:37 am

    Here's a similar plural subject with singular verb, in the second person this time, from today's Science:

    "Esophageal Stem Cells, Where Art Thou?"

  26. brotzel said,

    November 8, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

    Alumni of Corpus Christi College are known as Corpuscles I believe

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