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Believe you me

Q From Andrew Gerrie: Why do people use the phrase believe you me, when they want to emphasise a point or opinion? I really don’t think it makes any sense; possibly it would be better if it were believe me you, but even that is poor English.

A It’s a puzzling way of speaking because we don’t use English in that way any more. My knowledge of formal grammar being more than a bit shaky, I went for information to Professor Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, the 1800-page volume that is the standard work.

Because English doesn’t add endings to words to show how they are being used in a sentence, word order is crucially important. Today, virtually all sentences that make a statement have to be put in the order subject-verb-object (SVO): “The man pats the dog”. That makes clear who is doing what to whom. “The dog pats the man” has a quite different sense.

At one time, however, English used to allow verb-subject-object (VSO) in certain situations, mainly imperatives. The 1611 King James version of the Bible has many examples: “And he went out to meet Asa, and said unto him, Hear ye me”; “Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me”; “For thus saith the Lord unto the house of Israel, Seek ye me, and ye shall live”; and “Lay ye them in two heaps at the entering in of the gate until the morning.” And here’s G Herbert Temple in 1633: “Come ye hither all, whom wine Doth define” and another writer in 1695: “Mark ye me; that’s holy stuffe”. These days, we only see them in old writings or fossil expressions like:

Mind you, she’s very intelligent.
This was the fifth time, mark you.
Oh, come ye back...

In every case, you or ye is the subject, but it comes after the verb it’s attached to. Believe you me belongs in this set. It seems odd to us today because English language rules forbid us to construct such expressions. We can’t naturally say “Take you care of yourself, now!” for example.

An oddity, however, is that believe you me is relatively modern. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is from 1926. I’ve only been able to improve on that by six years — it turns up in the USA in 1919 as the title of a novel by Nina Wilcox Putnam. For further help here, I turned to Benjamin Zimmer, at the University of Pennsylvania, an ace at researching historical word usage. He tells me that there are earlier examples, but that nearly all of them are in verse, where the phrasing is useful for scansion. He has been able to find only three examples in prose from the nineteenth century.

What seems to have happened is that a once-standard phrase that had been lurking in the language for generations suddenly became much more popular and widespread around the 1920s. What we have here is a revitalised fossil, a semi-invented anachronism.

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Page created 22 Jul 2006