A listener named Kat says her holiday joy is crushed every time she hears the Christmas carol “Joy to the World.” She asks:
Why do we sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” rather than “Joy to the world, the Lord has come”?
Not wanting Kat to face the holidays with grammar consternation, I went on a quest to figure out what’s going on with these lyrics.
It actually turned out to be a pretty tough question, but I eventually discovered that the phrase the Lord is come uses an archaic form of English that was very common back in 1719 when “Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts. A number of references say that this construction uses the word come as an unaccusative intransitive verb (and don’t worry: you don’t need to remember that because it’s a form that’s now nearly extinct in the English language ).
If you’re watching for it, you’ll find similar constructions in a lot of older works. For example, in the 1300s Chaucer wrote, “The spices and wine is come anon,”* in The Squire’s Tale. In the late 1700s Jane Austen wrote, “Oh, Look. Charlotte is come,” in Pride and Prejudice, and in the 1800s William Blake wrote, “The melancholy days are come,” in The Death of Flowers, and Charlotte Brontë wrote, “It is come now,” in Jane Eyre. I found examples from as late as the early 1900s (2). But what happened after that?
Sometime in the 1900s people stopped speaking this way. I’m not sure why, but one reference said that it might have been “partly due to the identical pronunciation of is and has” when they’re used in contractions. For example, “he’s come“ could mean either “He is come“ or “He has come“ (3).
I don’t usually talk about foreign languages, but I found it interesting that many Romance languages, such as French and Italian, still use this verb form, and it is normal today in those languages to say the English equivalent of “He is come.”
A lot of the material I found about archaic English usage was far too complex for Quick and Dirty Tips, so I am including a list of further-reading resources at the end of the transcript for people who want to learn more about it.
A big thank-you to every single subscriber out there. Every one of you helped make Grammar Girl a People’s Choice podcast for 2006 at opens in a new windowiTunes, and also thank you to the iTunes staff who chose Grammar Girl as a Staff Favorite for 2006. We are thrilled.
Finally, if any of you are wondering what I would like for Christmas, I have two simple requests for anyone who’s celebrating a holiday. First, just relax and be kind to others. I’m sure The Modern Manners Guy would approve of that message!
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*Original spelling: “The spyces and the wyn is come anon.”
- Melyngoch, A. A. 100 Hour Board. 2005. BYU Newsnet. opens in a new windowhttps://theboard.byu.edu/index.php?area=viewall&id=15836 (accessed December 19, 2006).
- Thomas MacDonagh (1878-1916). Searc’s Web Guide to 20th Century Ireland. opens in a new windowhttps://www.searcs-web.com/mcdonagh.html (accessed December 19, 2006).
- Carol. be+intransitive. 2001. The Maven’s Word of the Day. opens in a new windowhttps://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=20010912 (accessed December 19, 2006).
Further Reading (in no particular order)
- opens in a new windowWord Reference Forum Discussion on “I am come”
- opens in a new windowDie.com entry on “come.” (See “Note:” about halfway down the page.)
- opens in a new windowAnswers.com entry on “unaccusative verbs”
- opens in a new windowWikipedia Entry on Unaccusative Verbs
- opens in a new windowHow Students Acquire Things You Never Teach Themopens POWERPOINT file (A PowerPoint presentation that includes a discussion of unaccusative verbs)
- opens in a new windowBYU 100 Hour Board discussion of unaccusative verbs
- opens in a new windowThe Maven’s Word of the Day: be + intransitive
- opens in a new windowUniversiteit Utrecht “Search the Lexicon” entry on unaccusative verbs
- opens in a new windowWhy Language Changesopens PDF file