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Death sentence

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  September 24, 2006 03:16 PM

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Since Fox TV is calling its new comedy series "'Til Death," my comments in today's Word column deal only with the absurdity of the spelling 'til, not the mystery of the phrase from which the title is taken. But "till death us do part" presents a puzzle beyond the proper spelling of till: Why the plural verb do?

I learned the answer only a few months ago, when a colleague e-mailed to ask "why the traditional Christian wedding vow has 'till death do us part' instead of 'till death does us part.' I cannot think of a reason, or of a grammatical explanation that makes sense," he said.

Me neither, though I vaguely thought there must be a subjunctive in there somewhere. Luckily, the Random House Mavens' Word of the Day website has the explanation.

"In a way, we can thank the six-times-married Henry VIII for this ringing affirmation of lifetime devotion," writes James E. Clapp, since it was Thomas Cranmer, named archbishop of Canterbury by Henry, who wrote the liturgy for the new Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer.

In the marriage ceremony prescribed in that 1549 book, the marriage vow included the phrase: till death us departe. In those days the word depart (with or without the final e) meant 'to divide, separate'. . . .

The reason that the verb was depart rather than the third person singular indicative departeth (which today would be departs) is that in those days it was customary to use the subjunctive mood in subordinate clauses describing action to take place in the indefinite future.

A century later, however, depart had lost the sense of "separate," and in the 1662 prayer book, "depart suddenly became do part." That maintains the rhythm of the phrase, and the verb is still a subjunctive, notes Clapp: "The indicative would have been doth -- in modern English, does."

The Word of the Day site shut down, sadly, in 2001, but the hundreds of words and phrases its contributors covered remain available in the archive.

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