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Shakespeare’s Use of Language

Of ‘Em’s ‘n Thems: Do these two words reveal an important clue in the Elegy debate?

©1996 by Stephanie Caruana


This article first appeared in the Summer 1996 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

When I first became aware of the use of the word “‘em” (meaning “them”) in certain of the “Shakespeare” plays, I had a visceral reaction—as to the sound of a knife scraping across a plate. Had my literary hero, so precise in his poetry and prose structure, so abundant and flowing in his gorgeous vocabulary, really chosen to express himself in what seemed like gratuitous “up-to-the-minute” Jacobean slang? To me it felt like discovering “Hey, cool, man! Check it out! Bitchin’!” in the middle of a T.S. Eliot poem. It is not that there is anything inherently wrong with these words and phrases. It’s just that they seem to belong to a different stratum of expression, even a different world view, or to reflect the language and usage of a different time—perhaps the world of TV sitcoms where writers often use words like “cool,” “smokin,” “bitchin’” or whatever to indicate that their characters are “with it.”

My first impression was that “‘em” was Jacobean slang which came into general or faddish use after 1604. However the OED states that “‘em” is an old form derived from the now obsolete pronoun “hem,” and more commonly used in north midland (i.e., S. Yorkshire) dialects. Could “‘em” and “them” have a “vector” quality? I explored the matter through the Harvard Shakespeare Concordance, and found a significant evolution in the usage of these two words in the Shakespeare plays and major poems.

In the Sonnets, Venus and Adonis, Rape of Lucrece, and 15 of the 37 plays in the First Folio, the word “‘em” does not appear at all. The word “them” does—ranging in frequency from 17 to 70 occurrences. It seemed apparent that in his earlier works, “Shakespeare” was not in the habit of using the word “‘em” for “them” when writing poetry or dramatic dialogue. As the table shows, the incidence then slowly increases. As I looked at the plays with a small sprinkling of “‘em’s,” it seemed to me that the entity I like to think of as “Shakespeare” occasionally chose to use the contraction “‘em” rather than “them” when he was writing regional dialect or a song, the slang of a somewhat crude or common person, or for some other special use, being fully aware of the vastly different effect on the ear. But “‘em” is rarely or never used in the precisely written language which makes up most of the dialogue in most of the plays.

For this reason I therefore decided that up to 6 occurrences of “‘em” in a work was not especially significant. Using 6 occurrences as a cutoff point, there are then only 6 works that have a significant occurence of “‘em” in them. The following table, developed by counting the occurrence of the two words, gets interesting I believe at the bottom.

Play/Poem Them Em Ratio, them/em

Ratio of “Thems” to “Ems” in Shakespeare’s Works

Sonnets 17 0 -
Venus & Adonis 27 0 -
Rape of Lucrece 27 0 -
MND 27 0 -
R2 31 0 -
ERR 32 0 -
JN 37 0 -
LLL 39 0 -
MM 40 0 -
MV 42 0 -
TRO 43 0 -
OTH 45 0 -
2H4 50 0 -
ROM 52 0 -
ADO 53 0 -
3H6 60 0 -
R3 65 0 -
1H4 70 0 -
2H6 86 1 86:1
H5 81 1 81:1
HAM 71 1 71:1
PER 43 1 43:1
SHR 38 1 38:1
AYL 35 1 35:1
CYM 71 2 35:1
WIV 47 2 24:1
1H6 42 2 21:1
ANT 53 3 18:1
TGV 46 3 16:1
TN 25 4 6:1
MAC 50 5 10:1
AWW 50 5 10:1
WT 61 6 10:1
JC 58 6 10:1
LEAR 45 9 5:1
COR 217 15 14:1
TMP 43 17 2.5:1
TIM 66 21 3:1
TNK 31 55 1:1.6
H8 25 65 1:2.7

The most striking thing about this table is the clear increase in the incidence of "'em's" in the plays toward the bottom.

With regard to the last 6 plays, I think each should be looked at separately, because each may reflect a different history.

In Lear, for instance, we may be looking at an admixture of scenes, or rewrites, added at a later date by someone else to Oxford's original play.

Coriolanus seems to stand out oddly because of its sheer number of "them's"—2 1/2 times as many as the play with the second greatest number of "them's"—together with its liberal sprinkling of "'em's." This play is rarely performed, and rarely quoted. Nothing in its lines seems to have lodged as permanently in the minds of readers/hearers, as have quotes from R&J, Hamlet, Macbeth, etc. Perhaps this is another "ringer'—a non-Shakespearean play added to the Folio-written by ??? Timon's ratio of "them's" to "'em's" (3:1) is distinctly different, and it could easily be a hybrid of some sort.

In Tempest, the them:'em ratio has shrunk to 2-1/2:1. I believe that the original version was written by Oxford (before 1604, and possibly as early as the 1580's), and that the Folio version was substantially cut and rewritten by someone else in 1610–11, perhaps to make room for the Masque and add a few topical references to the 1609–10 Bermuda/Virginia shipwreck and colonial happenings. These updates would make the old play more interesting to King james and the rest of the audience when this version was presented in 1611. My tentative nominee for this rewrite job is Ben Jonson. Fortunately for us, whoever did the rewrite kept most of the original material. If it was Jonson, sheer pride may have caused him to place The Tempest in the #1 lead-off position in the Folio. Also I wonder whether Susan de Vere might not have been one of the Masquers in her father's play.

With TNK, the "'em's" are more numerous than the "them's" for the first time. The ratio is 1:1.6. Although this play is indexed in the Harvard Concordance as though it were established as a play by Shakespeare, I think it fails the"'em-them" test because it was written by someone else altogether, Webster perhaps, who was a Shakespeare wannabee, but not a Shakespeare.

Speaking only for myself, I believe that most if not all of Henry VIII was not written by "Shakespeare." There is a notable lack of "quotable" stuff in it.

"'Em's" now outnumber "them's" by 2.7:1. It seems likely to me that this play was written by someone to whom "'em" came more naturally to mind than "them" while writing basic dialogue, and that this someone was not "Shakespeare" (Oxford.) Why should it be Shakespeare? Old age has its problems, but I can't think of any reason for a writer/poet to suddenly lose his gracefulness of expression and go from hummingbird to Goodyear blimp in this way. I have no idea who to nominate as author of this play.

To be more specific: I consulted the Concordance with regard to "'em's" vs. "them's" in Henry VIII. In only 3 scenes, 1:01, 1:02 and 5:01, do the "them's" have it. In 6 scenes (and the Epilogue), "'em's" prevail: 1:03, 1:04, 2:01, 3:01, 5:02, 5:13. The other scenes are either too close to call or do not have enough items to be meaningful.

I personally don't care that much about Henry VIII, but it and TNK are routinely cited as representing "Shakespeare's later style." Right now they are providing Donald Foster and Richard Abrams with their primary ammunition in their determined efforts to have the dogsbody Funeral Elegy declared by professorial fiat to be "by Wm Shaksper."

To quote Richard Abrams: "...W.S.'s rare-word vocabulary exactly matches what we should expect of a Shakespearian text written in 1611–12....of all Shakespearian dramatic texts, the Elegy (1612) finds its highest correlation with Shakespeare's portion of Henry VIII (1612/13), followed by The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613). (TLS 2/9/96 p.26).

The editor who has declared himself willing to go out on this creaky limb is none other than Berkeley/Harvard's Stephen Greenblatt! (The argument is currently raging-sedately enough-in the pages of the London TLS.) The presence of H8 and TNK in the Concordance certainly skews results of statistical analysis. Would they were gone!

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