Extra Negatives  

In Modern English, double negatives cancel each other out, but Middle English often uses double negative compounds, inherited from Old English, which emphasize the negation. Modern French also uses two adverbs to negate one statement, ne … pas, ne … jamais, ne … plus. A pair of Middle English negative adverbs is best expressed in translation using a single negative adverb, so that ne roghte nat a bene (MT 3772) becomes ‘he didn’t care a bean’. There are some triple negatives, but in these cases the translation must omit both parts of the double negative around the verb: thus, noon of us ne speke nat a word (MT 3586) is literally ‘none of us not says not a word’, but makes more sense translated as ‘none of us says a word’. 

Word Order  

Word order in Middle English is often freer than in Modern English, and there is more inversion of subject and verb (e.g., wol I wake, ‘I shall wake up’ (MT3686) or subject and object (e.g., knokke they, ‘they knock’ (PT541), often dictated by the needs of the poetic meter or rhyme.  

In analyzing sentences, you should first locate the verb, then its subject, and finally the object. As in Latin, a verb that involves activity usually takes an object: she hits the ball, he gives her the book. A verb that describes a situation takes a complement: it was yellow, you look better. When you have found these elements, put them together and reorder them according to Modern English practice, which should make it easier to see how what any adjectives and adverbs modify.  

Connection of clauses  

Middle English often does not connect clauses as clearly as in Modern English. In trying to understand or translate lines of Chaucer’s poetry, you may need to insert connecting words. On occasion you may even have to provide verbs that have been omitted. This happens particularly with the verb to be – for instance, Hir filet brood of silk, ‘Her broad headband [was made] of silk’ (MT3243) – or with verbs of motion. (You may also need to regularize number or tense: in Middle English, a subject can shift from singular to plural or the syntax from present to past within a sentence.) 

Simple words in Middle English may carry a variety of meanings, so it can be useful to consider the possibilities carefully (the Chaucer Concordance can be helpful here), and select the meaning that best fits the context. Many of the words Chaucer uses are also found in Modern English (often with different spellings), but some of them have changed their meaning, so it is always worth taking the time to check the notes or the Concordance if a word looks familiar but does not seem to make sense in its context.

If you are interested in investigating the ways in which words change their meanings over time you can look at the entries and quotations provided in large historical dictionaries, such as the Oxford English Dictionary (available through most college and university libraries on line) or the Shorter Oxford Dictionary; see also R. W. Burchfield, The English Language (Oxford, 1985), pp. 113–23, or G. Hughes, Words in Time: A Social History of English Vocabulary (Oxford, 1988).