By David Burnley (auth.)
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Additional info for A Guide to Chaucer’s Language
Such constructions have traditionally been called without any great accuracy impersonal constructions. They were very common in Old English, but were reduced in Middle English by the disappearance of the words concerned from the vocabulary; by conversion into structures with the formal subject it; and by re-interpretation of the dative or accusative pronoun as a subject form. This tendency to alter the impersonal construction to correspond better with normal subject-verb-object word order was facilitated in the case of the verb thinken by confusion of the impersonal pvncan with a personal verb pencan.
In (b) the Knight's use of shal rather than wal has to be seen in the light of an obligation placed upon him by the drawing of lots: modal colouring is therefore present. Such modality is obvious in (c), where the compulsion is to tell a tale in a particular manner. The degree of modal significance varies with the context in the case of wal also: (d) Be murye for the flood wol passe anon; (A 3578) (e) For I wol telle forth as I bigan; (A 1354) (f) 'By goddes soule,' quod he, 'that wol nat I. ' (A 3132-3) Example (d), of course, can contain no trace of volition, since 44 A GUIDE TO CHAUCER'S LANGUAGE the subject of the verb is non-personal, flood.
It is, however, common in his own prose works, so that it may have become for him an habitual mode of expression. It has been shown that purposive sense is most frequently found in its use in adjuncts, and it has also been suggested that the for to type serves as a useful clearly-marked form of the infinitive when it is syntactically far removed from the governing verb. 17 Fluctuation between the plain infinitive and the infinitive marked by to results in some unexpected usages in Chaucer's· language.