Thou, thee, you, and ye

Ever wonder what the rules were for when to use thou, thee, ye, or you in Shakespeare or the King James Bible?

For example, the inscription on front of the Main Building at The University of Texas says

Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.

Why ye at the beginning and you at the end?

The latest episode of The History of English Podcast explains what the rules were and how they came to be. Regarding the UT inscription, ye was the subject form of the second person plural and you was the object form. Eventually you became used for subject and object, singular and plural.

The singular subject form was thou and the singular object form was thee. For example, the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Originally the singular forms were intimate and the plural forms were formal. Only later did thee and thou take on an air of reverence or formality.

35 thoughts on “Thou, thee, you, and ye

  1. “The singular subject form was thou and the singular subject form was thee.” The second should say object.

    I think I’m going to start using these in formal communication. I’ve always hated using the same word for singular and plural.

  2. The loss of distinct singular and plural 2nd person seems weird to me. They’re so useful. Many non-standard English dialects have replacements: y’all, youse and others.

  3. I cringe when I hear “thee” or “thou” used as if it were a “God pronoun,” a notion that was unfortunately bolstered by the first version of the NASB, which maintained these pronouns when God was being addressed.

    It seems implausible that Biblical and language scholars could have been ignorant of the meanings of these pronouns when this work was being done in the 1960s, and as they were, after all, translating greek and hebrew words, not updating the King James Bible. Most likely this was a business decision, that the raw pronouns would not sound appropriately reverent enough to sell. Fortunately, this was fixed with the update in 1995.

    Not the last time that money would dictate pronoun choices in Bible translation …

  4. Swedish still uses different forms for these. It also has separate forms for possessives when the possessor is singular or plural as well as when the possessed thing is. Oh, and the forms change depending on what kind of noun the possessed thing is categorized as, and the noun form itself changes depending on if they’re singular or plural, and in different ways depending on the noun.

    My wife is studying Swedish and she sometimes looks ready to throw the grammar book at me. I try to stay away at those times.

  5. It may be useful to compare with German

    Thou – du ( singular subject)
    Thee – dir/dich (singular object)
    Ye – ihr (plural subject,pronounced similar to “eer” or maybe “yer”)

  6. Knowing Dutch sometimes feels like cheating at English etymology:

    ye – je
    you – jou

    In fact you can almost translate the whole thing word-for-word: “je zal de waarheid weten en de waarheid zal jou vrij maken”.

  7. And there were also posessive forms for the 2nd person singular, “thy” and “thine”.

    My understanding is that “thy” was the more common (as in “take up thy bed and walk”).

    “Thine” tended to be used when the next word began with a vowel (“drink to me only with thine eyes).

    But I understand that it could also be used when there was no following noun (“it is thine”).

    BTW, my understanding is that the letter “y” was used as an abbreviation for “th”, so that “ye inn” would have been pronounced much as it is today.

  8. I’ve read at several sites that “thou” is used as subject and “thee” as object. However, I’ve seen both words used in direct address. Example:
    “Dolley, thou hast tricked thy brother…”
    “Thee’ve got no business here.”
    “What’d thee see?”

    I’ve seen “thou art” and “thee are.” What’s the deal?

  9. If I was in England in 1629 and used “modern day” American English; using correct grammar and articulation of course would they be able to understand me or would they be as confused as us reading works of other renaissance writers?

  10. These second person singular pronouns “thou” (subject), “thee” (non-subject), and the 2nd person singular possessive adjective “thy”, and the second person singular possessive pronoun “thine” were still used by me and my workmates 30 years ago when last I lived in the county of Lancashire in the northwest of England, e.g.

    What’s up wi’ thee? Th’ast getten a funny look on thy face . I tell thee what, I’ll buy thee a drink. Maybe that will cheer thee up. Money’s no problem! What is mine is thine!

    (th’ast = thou hast)

    Such talk was then common in the coal mining areas where I lived and worked.

    I was always addressed in like manner by my parents and grandparents in the 1950s.

  11. The only one that survived (sort-of) is Who and Whom

    Who, Thee, You = Object
    Whom, Thou, Ye= Subject

  12. The unfortunate fact is that in high school today, one is not likely to learn about nominative and objective cases and the pronouns that belong in those cases. One probably has to learn a foreign language, such as German, to understand “thou speech” or “du Sprache”. Illiteracy reigns in modern America.

  13. Felix M
    The ‘y’ in the name of a tavern was actually a different letter, the ‘thorn’ or ƿ, which is not available in the modern UK English alphabet and replaced by th. It originally had a top bar but this wasn’t always complete so it looked a bit like a gothic y – Ye olde worlde pubs and shops are using a mocked-up ‘English’ they don’t understand.

  14. In the Midlands, U.K. we use “Y’uz lot” for the plural informal you and “Yaou” for the formal Singular of you.
    Personally, I would love to see the old forms (Thou, thee, ye etc. brought back as they are so useful and they add flavour to the language, which sadly is going down hill (again!)

    Thanks everyone for your feedback and comments!

  15. The use of ‘Thou’, ‘Thine’ and ‘Thee’ in Liturgical English is, I believe, very important, mainly because when we address God, it is always as a Singular. ‘…Yours is the Kingdom’ is plural. There is only one God so ‘…Thine is the Kingdom’ is correct. When we pray it is to change us, not God and so the language is something we adapt to (like Greek, Church Slavonic etc)

  16. Hi
    I wonder how it is possible that in some texts we can come across the conjugated verbs together with these pronouns and in some texts verbs are not conjugated, but these pronouns are still used there.
    That’s the question I’m dealing with right now and I don’t know how to deal with it.
    i.e. these examples of different translators of R.U.R
    ‘Now, Lord, lettest Thou Thy (…)
    – lettest
    and the other translator does not conjugate the verb in the very same case:
    Now let Thy servant depart in peace, (…)
    – just let

    I would be grateful for any help.

    Sorry for my mistakes, I am not a native speaker. (Czech Republic)

  17. Christopher Briggs

    “Originally the singular forms were intimate and the plural forms were formal. Only later did thee and thou take on an air of reverence or formality.”

    UNTRUE! You are comparing English here to French, “tu” and “vous”. The original use of the English address was simply to mark singular from plural. The fatuous notion about informality/formality was introduced into English by the Normans (to be fair, for a time English almost got replaced by Old French), and today’s all purpose “you” is the result of the English just using the formal polite form for everyone.

    It would have been by far better for you to have done what has happened – in living memory – in Norwegian. The two Norwegian languages (bokmål and nynorsk) also marked formality and informality until approximately 1970. In the case of the bokmål Norwegian, this followed the German (“Sie”) pattern of using the third person plural “De” for “you” – capitalised of course; in the nynorsk Norwegian, this followed the French system of using the plural of the second person as a singular. Today, except in fossilized expressions and (very) rare exceptions, Norwegian simply marks a distinction between the singular “du” and the plural “dere”.

    THAT is the original purpose of “thou” and “ye”. Nothing more, nothing less.

  18. @Felix M (sorry to have run across this so late):

    With respect to your speculations about “thy” and “thine”, the distinction is between a possessive adjective and a possessive pronoun. It’s the same distinction as the one between “my” and “mine”, or “your” and “yours”; one of these (the adjective) must be followed by a noun, the other must not be. (For example, “This is my dog.” vs “This dog is mine.”) Both forms indicate possession.

  19. @Doug R

    Not quite. Thine is also what you use instead of “thy” before a vowel, and was sometimes used (I don’ t know why) for “thy” even without a following vowel. Check a few dictionaries.

    And that’s actually similar to the distinction between “my” and “mine” in not-quite modern English. In the Battle Hymn of the Republic, we have “mine eyes have seen the glory …”

  20. @Lucie
    Thy/Thine are 2nd person singular possessive pronouns used similarly as 1st person My/Mine
    eg. My book…thy book.
    eg. the book is mine…the book is thine.
    In certain uses Mine=My own
    and Thine=Thy own

    Thou/Thee are subject/object pronouns. The “T” verb conjugation is applied always-and-only to the verb associated with Thou.
    eg. Thou art… Thee are…
    Thou lettest… Thee let…

  21. Dave Williams

    Excellent years-running discussion. What brought me here was Ruth 2:4 in KJV, where just I noticed both “the Lord be with you” and the “the Lord bless thee” in the same verse. I gathered that “you” was strictly plural then, and I think the above discussion confirms it.

  22. Wonderful article, thank you! I never knew the subject/object information (I’m 71), and it makes perfect sense now.

    Tangentially, I once saw a Shakespeare play where an actress said, “Would thoust.” My friend and I had an awful time containing our laughter.

  23. @ Lucie March 25, 2020
    ‘Now, Lord, lettest Thou Thy (…)
    – lettest
    and the other translator does not conjugate the verb in the very same case:
    Now let Thy servant depart in peace, (…)

    From my own knowledge and understanding, in the first sentence “lettest” would denote a question or a statement – perhaps akin to ‘Will you allow?’ or ‘You allow’, whereas in the second sentence “Now let” is an imperative case – ‘Do (please)allow(!) Your servant to leave’
    – in other words a gentle or kind command.
    I hope it makes sense to you. This is my understanding being 77 years old and having been heavily involved in religious matters during the years (1950s) when such language was still the norm in prayer books of the Christian faith.

  24. Also worth noting that English did use to have both first and second person dual pronouns as well up until the later Middle English period.

    First person

    Wit – subject (“we two”)

    Unc – object (“we two”)

    Uncer – genitive, possessive (“belonging to the two of us”, “both of ours”)

    Second person

    ġit, ȝit – subject (“you two”)

    Inc – object (“you two”)

    Incer – genitive, possessive (“belonging to the two of you”, “both of yours”)

    Kind of sad how we lost all of these words in addition to thou-thee-thy-thine, it’s very boring to say “you” for everything.


    We have lost the ability to distinguish between the singular and plural forms of “you” in English. Americn English tries to overcome the resulting ambiguity with the use of “you all”, “you guys”, “yous” and, in Pittsburg, “yinz”. My preferred form is “yous” — it is one word, plain and follows the usual English plural convention of just adding “s”.

  26. I agree with you, James Montgomery. For instance, “You should wear this hat, and yous should wear those helmets.” Would someone in charge please institutionalize this?

  27. Kevin Wendell Johnson

    It’s not “Ye olde whatever” it’s THE Old. The single letter for th resembled a Y. When reading The Gentle Persuasion about Quakers I noticed they misused thee, and the characters used it as a subject. I have no idea if other Quakers knew better. We say “It is thine” because thy is no longer an adjective but a pronoun. WE still say mine today.

    I was hoping to get enlightening why an author would shift between use of Thou and You on a single page—as in final encounter between Gawain and the Green knight. They both shift in a single scene and as cute as it sounds, there I see no lines suggesting one said, “Please use the familiar” as if deciding to use first names. Once in college a prof remarked the speaker changer tu to vous to signal a gradual change in attitude to the other. This explanation just seems preposterous in Gawain ATGK,

  28. I hate it when the priest turns to the congregation and addresses God using “you”. It leads to momentary but very unfortunate confusion making me feel that we are the all-powerful ones.

  29. Scot Blickenderfer

    I feel we’ve actually ‘dumbed down’ the English language over time, leading us to the innate need to create such words as ‘ya’ll, ‘you’ns’, ‘you’s’ – etc. It’s unfortunate we feel the early forms of English were too ‘archaic’ for our modern minds. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It is (or it’s) as I used at the beginning of the previous sentence is a prime example as we create contractions to unnecessarily simplify the English language in the first place.

Comments are closed.