Yours to command: Politeness and an Early Modern English subscription formula

Raisa Oinonen
Research Unit for Variation, Contacts and Change in English (VARIENG), University of Helsinki


This paper presents a corpus-linguistic study of one subscription formula popular in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century correspondence, focusing on the politeness aspects in its form and use. The lexical politeness devices and social context of the formula are quantified. Following politeness theory, the social context is analysed in terms of relational distance and interlocutor’s relative power. These aspects of social context are compared to the positive and negative politeness devices used in the formula.

1. Introduction [1]

Early modern English letters end with a subscription of the sender’s name, which is often expressed in a formulaic expression, much as today. This paper aims to determine how the choice of the subscription formula is influenced by considerations of politeness. Specifically, the social context of one particular subscription formula is analysed quantitatively. The effect of social context on subscription formulae have not, to my knowledge, been previously studied quantitatively. However, see section 2.2 for previous studies on them.

The formula studied in this paper contains an infinitive verb and a second person possessive. Examples (1)–(3) illustrate variation in the formula.

(1) Yours to commande John Greene. (PCEEC John Green 1582)

Mail coach photo Irma Taavitsainen

(2) Your lordships to be commanded, W. Burghley. (PCEEC William Cecil 1585)
(3) Your very loving frend to use Anth: Antònie. (PCEEC Anthony Antonie 1605)

Several verbs are used in the formula, “command”being by far the most frequent. Along with “command”,most of these verbs express subjection of the writer to the recipient of the letter: “serve”, “use”, “dispose (of)” and “do (you service)”. The only exception to this is the verb “love”. The infinitive verb is preceded by a second-person possessive, with the writer as the possessed. The possessive may be a possessive pronoun, as in example (1), a possessive noun phrase, as in example (2), or a possessive determiner in a noun phase, as in example (3). These components are usually followed with the signature of the sender. The construction also allows for elaboration through the use of adverbials and objects for the infinitive. As the construction centres around the infinitive verb, it will henceforth be called the subscription infinitive. The diachronic development in the frequency of the formula will be presented in section 4.1 from its first attestation in the material in the 1530s.

This formula was chosen for analysis because it seemed likely that it would be used for negative politeness. There are three reasons for this assumption. Firstly, the formula almost always contains lexical items expressing deference (see section 4.2.2 on the analysis of these). Secondly, the use of infinitive verb, in place of a finite verb, may function as a device for impersonalizing the utterance, since the infinitive clause does not carry reference to the speaker in terms of pronominal subject or verb inflection. Expressing deference and impersonalization are both common strategies for negative politeness (Brown and Levinson 1987: 101–210). Finally, previous comments on the use of the formula point towards its use for negative politeness (see section 2.2 for discussion).

This paper will analyse the pragmatics of the formula from three angles. Firstly, the lexical politeness devices used in the formula are examined. While negative politeness items prove to be more frequent, there are some lexical items representing positive politeness. Secondly, the social context of the letters will be quantified in terms of relative social power of the interlocutors and their relational distance. Finally, the lexical politeness items will be related to this social context. It will be discovered that the social context seems to factor in the choice of negative and positive politeness devices in a structured manner.

Before the analysis in section 4, theoretical background and previous study on politeness and EModE correspondence are shortly discussed in section 2. The material and methods for the analysis are described in section 3.

2. Background

2.1 Politeness theory

My pragmatic analysis of the subscription infinitives draws on politeness theory formulated by Brown and Levinson (1987). Firstly, I analysed the positive and negative politeness devices used in the formula. According to Brown and Levinson, positive politeness aims to evoke social closeness and co-operation between speaker and hearer or to fulfil the hearer’s want for something, and it thus includes, for instance, compliments and in-group identity markers. Negative politeness, on the other hand, aims to distance the hearer and speaker, for instance by giving deference to the hearer or by being indirect about the hearer’s wants (Brown and Levinson 1987: 101–210). The subscription infinitives employ both negative and positive politeness strategies and they will be discussed in section 4.2.1.

Secondly, I will analyse the social context of the formula in terms of two social variables that, according to Brown and Levinson, influence the choice of politeness strategies. The first of these variables is the closeness of the interlocutors’ relationship. Interlocutors in close relationships tend to use positive politeness, while socially distant interlocutors opt for negative politeness. The second of the variables is relative power. Those who have social power over their addressees tend to use positive politeness, while those who are less powerful than their hearers often use negative politeness (Brown and Levinson 1987: 74–83).

A word of caution is warranted, as the social concepts of power and social distance are not entirely straight-forward. Brown and Levinson have been criticized, for example, for not taking into account the dynamic construction of identities (e.g. Watts 2003: 143). For the purposes of this study, however, social variables are seen as more or less constant. These constant variables are considered to influence the range of dynamic identities constructed in the micro-level of discourse, and as such they are sufficient for the analysis employed in this study. Some identities, however, are operationalized as being situationally determined. For instance, professional identities are considered to be assumed only in professional correspondence or, topically, in the interlocutors’ areas of expertise or jurisdiction. The operationalization of these variables is discussed in section 3.2.

2.2 Politeness in Early Modern English correspondence and subscription formulae

Based on contemporary writing on Early Modern English (EModE) epistolary practices, concerns of politeness are crucial to choosing subscription formulae. Sixteenth and seventeenth-century letter-writing manuals continually stress that writers should take into account their own social rank and that of the addressee in subscribing letters. For instance, William Fulwood instructs that subscription “must be don according to the estate of the writer, and the qualitie of the person to whome we write” (1568:A7r) (see also Tanskanen 2003).

Nevala (2004: 128–158), who has studied politeness in EModE subscription formulae,  charts the development of subscriptions in familial correspondence, and finds that the choice of subscription formulae is somewhat sensitive to both relative power and social distance. This paper aims to test whether her qualitative findings hold for quantitative assessment of the subscription infinitive and for correspondence outside the nuclear family.

In terms of politeness, one of the most studied linguistic phenomena in EModE is address. This has been studied specifically in correspondence by Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg (1995) and Nevala (2004: 115–127, 159–255). In her quantitative study, Nevala found that the choice of address terms is indeed conditioned by social distance and relative power. My method  of applying it to subscription formulae owes a great deal to this study (see section 3.2).

Two studies on EModE subscription formulae have commented on the sociopragmatics of subscription infinitives specifically. First, Tanskanen has two examples of subscription infinitives and notes that they are used by “inferiors to [express] their reverence” (2003: 181). Contrary to this, Nevala considers subscription infinitives as exhibiting both positive and negative politeness in her study of subscriptions in early English familial letters. Nevala bases her politeness evaluations on nouns and adjectives in the formulae (2004: 132–137, following Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 1995 and Raumolin-Brunberg 1996b). Thus she analyses “your most loving brother to command” as a device for positive politeness and “your dutiful daughter to command” as an example of negative politeness, because the adjective “loving” represents positive politeness, and “dutiful” negative (Nevala 2004: 140–141, 151, 154). [2]

In contemporary comments, subscription infinitives are mainly advocated as appropriate subscriptions from inferiors to superiors. Fulwood gives an example of a subscription infinitive as a proper way of ending letters to superiors. Daines also offers subscription infinitives as one of the appropriate ways of ending a letter “from an inferiour person to a Baronet or Knight” and “To a Gentleman of ordinary quality from an inferiour person” (1640: 93). These evaluations indicate that the construction would have been used as a negative politeness device by social inferiors to superiors.

3. Material and methods

3.1 Parsed Corpus of Early English Correspondence and retrieving linguistic data

The material for the study is the Parsed Corpus of Early English Correspondence (PCEEC), which contains 2.2 million words from private and official correspondence from about 1410 to 1695. [3] I will analyse the 3755 letters in the corpus written between 1530 and 1655, as the subscription infinitive formula is not found in the corpus earlier.

The subscription infinitives were retrieved from the corpus as part of my ongoing study on independent infinitive constructions. PCEEC was searched for syntactically independent infinitive clauses, i.e. infinitive clauses without matrix clauses. To find these, the parsed corpus was searched automatically for all infinitives that are not subordinated to another clause. [4] These data contained clauses with various functions, such as directives, exclamations of affect and metatextual comments. The largest group, however, were infinitive clauses used in subscriptions of letters, with 233 instances. These are the subject of this paper. The subscription infinitives are distinct from other types of independent infinitives as they have limited formal variation, as well as being limited in function as subscription formulae.

PCEEC is especially suited for studying sociopragmatics, as it was originally compiled with sociolinguistic studies in mind. Therefore many aspects of the social context of the letters are catalogued, and some of this information is distributed with the corpus. The next section deals with retrieving social data from the corpus.

3.2 Operationalising social variables

In section 4.2.2, I will analyse one of the subscription infinitives from the point of view of politeness. This analysis relies partly on data of the social relations between the interlocutors. The two social variables used in this analysis are the social distance between speaker and addressee and their relative power over each other. For this study, the variable of relative social power is deconstructed into two components, relative social rank and control inherent in certain relationships. A similar conception has been previously used by Nevala (2004) for studying address forms on the same corpus.

Most of the social data used in this study comes from a database compiled by the Corpus of Early English Correspondence team for in-house use. The database contains, among other things, information on interlocutors’ social relationship and their social ranks (see description in Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 1996: 49–52), which can be used for determining social distance and relative social rank. [5] The variable of social control is not directly coded in the corpus and it was somewhat more laborious to operationalize.

The operationalization of each of these variables is next discussed in turn. The first of these is social distance. This variable is directly derived from a coding of five broad relationship types for each of the letters in the database, illustrated in Table 1 below.

1. Nuclear family
2. Close friends
3. Family servant – master(‘s family)
4. More distant family
5. Other

Table 1. Relationship types

The relationship types above are placed on a scale of social distance, 1 being the closest and 5 being the most distant. The reasoning behind this scale is based on Wrightson’s view of early modern English family relationships (1982: 44–58, 108–119). [6] The closest relationship type is arguably the nuclear family. The early modern English nuclear family was a close-knit unit and the close ties between parents and children usually persisted after the children had reached adulthood (Wrightson 1982: 44, 108–118). The second closest relationship type is that between close friends. Friendship in early modern England was viewed, much as it is now, as a close and often long lasting emotional relationship between two people who have chosen to pursue it by their own free will (Wrightson 1982: 55). Third closest are the relations between the family servant and the family they serve. The servants lived under the roofs of their master families, but social inequality coloured these relations and prevented true intimacy (Wrightson 1982: 58). The next type of relation is between kinfolk outside the nuclear family, such as grandparents and grandchildren, in-laws and cousins. These were not in general very close, but kinfolk may have, for instance, received preferential treatment from each other (Wrightson 1982: 44–51). The most distant category comprises of all other relations. These other relationships are varied, including business acquaintances, neighbours, professional colleagues, various officials and citizens, tenants and landlords, or in general anyone who might have anything to say via a letter to anyone else.

The second variable, relative power, has two components, the first being interlocutors’ relative social rank. The hierarchical model of social stratification in Early Modern England, presented in Table 2, is adapted from Raumolin-Brunberg (1996a).

Secular Title or occupation Ecclesiastical Title or occupation


King, Queen




Baron, earl, marquess, duke, viscount

Upper clergy

Archbishop, bishop

Upper gentry

Knight, baronet (after 1611)



Lower gentry

Esquire, gentleman





Physician, lawyer, teacher, army officer, government official

Lower clergy

Priest, chaplain, vicar, rector, nun…





Manual labourers

Yeoman, husbandman, servant, labourer



Table 2. Social stratification in Early Modern England (adapted from Raumolin-Brunberg 1996a: 26).

Early modern English society was highly stratified and ordered into ranks based largely on land ownership, wealth and education (Wrightson 1991: 36–38). The social rank of a woman was determined by the rank of her father and, after marriage, by that of her husband (Wrightson 1982: 17–23). In the hierarchical model adopted for this study, ecclesiastical and secular occupations are kept separate, but the clerical professions are integrated into the overall hierarchy (see Wrightson 1982: 22 and Raumolin-Brunberg 1996a: 26). The variable of relative social rank is operationalized to have three possible values: the addressee has higher rank than the writer, the writer has higher rank than the addressee or they are equal.

The second component of relative power is based on inherent social inequality in some social relations. Professional and official relations are perhaps the most evident of such, but familial organization was also highly hierarchical at the time, the father being the head of the family and children expected to respect their parents (Wrightson 1982: 90–118). For the operationalization of this variable, husbands are seen as having control over wives, parents over children, masters over servants, landlords over tenants, those higher in military, clerical and administrative hierarchies over those lower in them and so on. Some of these control relations are treated as depending on the context. Professional identities are considered to be relevant only in professional correspondence or, topically, in the interlocutors’ area of expertise or jurisdiction. For instance, physicians are considered to have professional authority in matters of health. Again, three values are possible: the addressee has power over the writer, the writer over the addressee, or they are equal.

In section 4.2.3, these three social variables will be used to compare the letters containing subscription infinitives to all of the letters of the period in order to determine how social context factors into the choice of the subscription formula.

4. Analysis

This section presents an in-depth analysis of the subscription formula, based on the 233 instances found in PCEEC. First, the formula is described in terms of syntactic organisation. This is followed by an analysis on its diachronic development. The following sections deal with its sociopragmatics: first the politeness strategies evidenced in its form, which are then related to the social contexts the formula is used in.

4.1 Diachrony

The diachronic development in the use of the subscription infinitive is quite rapid. The first instance of the subscription infinitive construction in the corpus is from 1536. [7] The frequency increases drastically right after its first instance and by the mid-sixteenth century the construction is used in almost twenty per cent of the letters in PCEEC. Almost as quickly, its usage wanes, and in the latter part of the seventeenth century it is used in just a few per cent of the letters. See Figure 1 below for specific data.

Figure 1

Figure 1. The percentile frequencies of subscription infinitives. [8]

The formula continues to be used into the twentieth century, although by then it is somewhat old-fashioned. One contemporary usage manual judges it “savoring too much of affectation” (Devlin 2008/1910: 65).

The rapid proliferation of the formula does not seem to be influenced by letter-writing manuals, since there is no mention of the formula in the earliest English language letter-writing manuals from the 1560s and early 1570s. [9] It makes its earliest appearance in the 1578 edition of William Fulwood’s Enemie of idleness. In this manual Fulwood instructs: “For our superiors wee must write at the right side in the neither end of the paper, saying: By your most humble and obedient sonne, or servaunt, &c. Or, Yours to commaund, &c.” (1578: 5, emphasis mine). By 1578, when this manual was published, the frequency of the construction had already reached its high-point. Thus letter-writing manuals cannot be credited for the early success of the formula, as they document it after it is already established. After this first instance, the construction appears in a variety of letter-writing manuals. These include Angel Day’s English Secretorie (1586: 25) and Simon Daines’s Orthoepia Anglicana: or, the first principall part of the English grammar, which gives “Your Lordships to command”, “Your assured friend to serve you”, “Yours to command” and “Yours to use, but not abuse” among the instructed subscriptions (1640: 92–93). Edward Phillips’s The mysteries of love & eloquence instructs the subscription “Yoursto command eternally” (1685: 23). These later letter-writing manuals advocate a formula that had already gone out of fashion, and their instruction seems to have little effect on actual usage.

4.2 Politeness

In this section the politeness value of the construction is examined. This assessment of politeness has three facets. First, the lexical items used in the construction will be examined from the point of view of politeness. Then, the sociopragmatic patterns in its usage are analysed and found to corroborate its use as a negative politeness strategy, with some reservations. Finally, the lexical items will be related to the sociopragmatic patterns.

4.2.1 Lexical items indicating politeness

One way of assessing the politeness level of the subscription infinitive is to look at the lexical items it is composed of. Below is a list of the politeness items used in the formula, together with their raw frequencies. Negative politeness items are much more frequent than positive politeness items with 413 and 80 instances, respectively. [10] All of the negative politeness items represent the strategy of giving deference, while positive items fall into two distinct categories: in-group identity markers and expressions of positive affect. The following section discusses these strategies and their lexical realisation in the formula.

Negative politeness items (413 instances total)
1. Expressing deference
A. Expressing subjection
verbs: to command (196 instances), to serve (24), to use (6), to dispose of (2), to do (you service)
adverbials: in all duetyful ... service, in oony suche seruyce as lyith in my lytyll power
B. Raising the addressee’s esteem
address terms: your lordship (97), your ladyship (14), your honor (17), your worship (8), your grace, Madam, Sir
C. Lowering the writer:
self-referring nouns: servant (11)
modifiers to self-referring nouns: poor (4), most humble (4), most obedient (2), most bound
adverbials: most humbly (17), in all humbleness, most readily and humbly
other: my little/small power (3)
Positive politeness items (80 total)
1. In-group identity markers
kinship terms: brother (16), niece (7), sister (2), son (2), uncle (2), cousin (2), brother-in-law, fatherhood's (as address term)
other: friend (14), in friendship
2. Expressing positive affect
to love (5), your (most/truly) affectionate, your (most/very) loving (8), dearest, in all dutyful (love and) affection (2)

Table 3. Negative and positive politeness items of the subscription infinitive.

The negative politeness items will be discussed first. They all employ the politeness strategy of expressing deference. This is a well-attested negative politeness strategy (e.g. Brown & Levinson 1987: 178–187, Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 1995 and Nevala 2004: 115–127). Giving deference means asserting the social superiority of the addressee over that of the speaker. This can be done directly by expressing the subjection of the speaker to the addressee. The addressee’s esteem can also be raised, or the speaker abased (Brown and Levinson 1987: 178). Most of the infinitive forms used in the construction express the speaker’s subjection to the addressee. These verbs are “command”, “serve”, “use”, “dispose of” and “do (you service)”. The subjection can be further enforced with adverbials, like in example (4) below, where “in all dutie & service” modifies the infinitive verb:

(4) Your Ladyships in all dutie & servyce to commaund.
(PCEEC Samuel Hatchett 1619)

Another way of showing deference is by elevating the status of the addressee. This can be accomplished by using honorific address forms indicating the addressee’s high social status. Early Modern English address forms have been widely studied and status-indicating forms such as “Lady”, “Lord”, “Sir” and “Dame” have been linked with negative politeness (Brown & Gilman 1989, Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 1995 and Nevala 2004). Nouns referring to the social status of the speaker are very commonly used in the subscription infinitives. They are almost always realized as the possessive noun phrase in the construction. The most common of these honorific possessives is “your lordship” with 97 instances, as in example (5) below.

(5) Your lordships to command, Fra: Walsyngham.
(PCEEC Francis Walsingham 1585)

The corresponding feminine “your ladyship” is used fourteen times. These forms explicitly refer to the social rank of the addressee, and are only used for Lords and Ladies, that is, those belonging to the nobility (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 1995). [11] Similarly “your grace”, used in one subscription infinitive, denotes a specific social rank, according to the OED either that of a duke, duchess or an archbishop. Other, more general honorific address terms indicating high social status in subscription infinitives are “your honour” (used in seventeen subscription infinitives) and “your worship” (eight instances, see example (6) below).

(6) Yor Worps to comand Tho: Stockwell.
(PCEEC Thomas Stockwell 1608)

Unlike “your lordship”, “your ladyship” and “your grace”, these are not restricted to addressees of any specific rank, instead they can be used for anyone of a high rank, and are in the material used to address people ranging from lower clergy to nobility. [12] Two subscription infinitives are also parenthetically annexed with honorific address forms, one with “Sir” (see example (7) below) and one with “Madam”.

(7) Sir, your affectionate freind to serve you, T. C.
(PCEEC Thomas Corie 1671)

Deference can also be given by abasing the status of the speaker. This is done in the subscription infinitives with a variety of means. Firstly, the author may refer to himself as “servant (eleven instances). This does not necessarily indicate that the author is really the addressee’s servant, for the form is often used as a general expression of deference. For instance, in example (8) below Thomas Wentworth refers to himself as a “servant to his brother-in-law Henry Clifford.

(8) Your Lordship's most humble seruant to bee comaunded Th. Wentworth.
(PCEEC Thomas Wentworth 1622)

Another method of self-abasement used in the subscription infinitives is modifying self-referential nouns with adjectives such as “poor” (four instances, see example (9) below), “humble” (four instances, see example (8) above), “obedient” (two instances) and “bound” (one instance).

(9) Your ladyship's poore brother to command, Francis Hastings.
(PCEEC Francis Hastings 1598)

The construction may also contain adverbials such as “(most) humbly” (18 times, see example (10)) and “in all humbleness” (once).

(10) Your honore's euer most readily and humbly to bee comaunded, Th. Wentworth.
(PCEEC Thomas Wentworth 1623)

There are three instances where the author states he has little power, as in example (11) below.

(11) yours to commande in oony suche seruyce as lyith in my lytyll power ffraunncys halle
(PCEEC Francis Hall 1536)

While all of the lexical items indicating negative politeness employ the politeness strategy of giving deference, positive politeness is accomplished with the use of two distinct politeness strategies: using in-group identity markers and expressing positive affect towards the addressee. The in-group identity markers in the subscription formulae are mostly kinship terms such as “brother” and “daughter”. This evaluation of kinship terms as indicators of positive politeness follows Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg (1995), who consider them positive politeness forms when they are used as address terms. In subscription infinitives, kinship terms are used by the authors to refer to themselves. The most common of these is “brotherwith sixteen instances; see example (12) below.

(12) Yowr brother to command Robert Doyly.
(PCEEC Robert D’Oyly 1576?)

Other terms used are niece (seven times), son (twice), sister (twice), cousin (twice), uncle (once) and brother-in-law (once).

The use of kinship terms for self-reference or as an address form is not necessarily an indication of actual kinship, since they can be used between people with no blood relation (see e.g. Nevala 2004: 89–80). However, in the subscription infinitives, the use of kinship terms almost always indicates an actual kinship relation. The only exceptions are the two instances of “cousin”. In example (13) below, Baynam Throckmorton refers to himself as a “cousin” to Thomas Smyth, who apparently had no blood relation to him. Instead the kinship terms serve to strengthen the expression of close friendship between them, also indicated by the phrase “affectionate friend” in the example.

(13) they affectionate freinde and Cousin to serve thee B. T.
(PCEEC Baynam Throckmorton 1640)

The fact that the kinship terms index a true blood relation does not undermine their use as a positive politeness device. Even though they most often reflect the actual relationship between the interlocutors, they are not neutral in terms of politeness. This is because the use of the kinship term is not obligatory in subscription formulae between family members (Nevala 2004: 138–158). Thus referring to oneself with the kinship term is a choice, most likely one influenced by politeness. Another in-group marker used in the subscription infinitives is the word “friend”, indicating a close mutual relationship (see e.g. Nevala 2009). This is used fourteen times, as in example (13) above. Also the adverbial “in frendshepe” is used once, in example (14) below.

(14) Yours in frendshepe to use William Paston.
(PCEEC William Paston 1592)

Positive face wants of the addressee are also attended to by expressing close positive feeling, love or affection, towards them. This is done in the subscription infinitives by a variety of structural means. Firstly, the infinitive verb is “love” in five sentences, as in example (15) below.

(15) Your Lap’s most obedient sonne to love and serve you, F. Cornwallis.
(PCEEC Frederick Cornwallis 1581)

An author-referring noun may also be modified with the adjectives “affectionate” (20 instances, see example (13) above) or “loving” (eight instances). Example (16) shows one of the two sentences that also include the adverbial “in all dutiful (love and) affection”.

(16) Your lordship's in all duetyful affection and service to be commanded, Francis Hastings.
(PCEEC Francis Hastings 1600)

As was seen in the examples above, the use of negative and positive politeness strategies are not mutually exclusive. Both negative and positive politeness devices can occur in the same sentences.  Not only are lexical items indicating negative politeness much more common than those indicating positive politeness, but there is only one subscription infinitive in the material that does not contain a single negative politeness item. In contrast, only 52 instances of the formula contain one or more positive politeness item. Thus it can be said that the subscription infinitive favours the use of negative politeness strategies, and more precisely, those giving deference. The social parameters affecting the use of these lexical politeness items will be analysed later.

4.2.2 Social context

In the previous section the politeness of subscription infinitives was assessed by their lexical form. Next, their politeness level will be determined based on their social patterns of usage. This will be done by analysing the social variables of relative power and social distance (Brown and Levinson 1987: 76–77, see sections 2.1 and 3.2).

The first variable to be discussed is social distance. The distribution of the subscription infinitives across relationship types is shown in Table 4 below, contrasted with the figures in all of the letters from the period.


Subscription infinitives

All letters


Raw figures


Raw figures


Nuclear family





Close friends





Family servant





More distant family















Table 4. Social distance: The distribution of subscription infinitives by relationship type. Raw figures and percentages from all the instances.

In terms of relationship type, the subscription infinitive is most often used between socially distant people. The relationship type “other” accounts for 67 per cent of the instances, but this is the case for only 40 per cent of all the letters. In closer relationships, the usage is relatively rare. Letters to a member of the writer’s nuclear family account for eight per cent of the instances, compared to 26 per cent in all of the letters. Use among close friends is a little rarer than the proportion of correspondence in all the letters, with nine per cent in this category compared to eleven overall. Letters from family servants contain six per cent of the subscription infinitives, compared to two per cent in all the letters; they are thus somewhat more frequent than the baseline in this category. Finally, usage within non-nuclear family accounts for eleven per cent of the subscription infinitives, compared to 20 per cent in this category overall. The results show that the subscription infinitive is favoured between people who are not family or close friends, i.e. in relatively distant social relationships. This corroborates its use for negative politeness.

The next variable is the relative power of the writer and the addressee. The first component of this is the difference between the social ranks of the interlocutors. The proportions of the values for this are presented in Table 5 below.


Subscription infinitives

All letters


Raw figures


Raw figures


Addressee higher










Unknown [13]





Writer higher










Table 5. The first component of the relative power variable: The distribution of subscription infinitives by interlocutors’ relative social ranks. Raw figures and percentages from all the instances.

As can be seen in the table, the subscription infinitive is favoured by socially inferior authors writing to their superiors. This use accounts for 71 per cent of the data, compared to 41 per cent in all of the letters. Usage between social equals is somewhat rarer than the proportion of letters in this category merits, as 20 per cent of the instances are in this category, compared to 37 per cent overall. The use of subscription infinitives by social superiors is rare, as it is only seven per cent of the instances, while the proportion is 19 per cent in the overall data. Thus the use of subscription infinitives correlates with low relative social rank, although there is considerable usage between social equals. This use by social equals is in line with what has earlier been found out about Early Modern English address forms. Social equals tend to use deferential address forms, and thus follow the address term use of social inferiors. (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 1995). However, there is a distinct difference in relative frequency between social equals and social superiors, as social superiors are much more likely to use the subscription infinitive.

The second component of the relative power variable is the relational control that the interlocutors have over each other. The values for this are presented in Table 6 below.


Subscription infinitives

All letters


Raw figures


Raw figures


Addressee higher















Writer higher










Table 6. The second component of relative power: The distribution of subscription infinitives by interlocutors’ relational control. Raw figures and percentages from all the instances.

Social control relations seem to have a similar effect than social rank when one of the interlocutors holds power over the other. The proportion of instances where the addressee has control over the writer is 27, compared to 17 in all the data. Only three per cent of the infinitive formulas are used when the writer has control over the addressee, when this category accounts for 19 per cent of the overall data. Thus the use of the subscription infinitive correlates with the writer having low relative power. However, subscription infinitive is as frequent in equal control relations as in the overall data, with 68 and 65 per cent proportions, respectively. Thus relative social control, as it is operationalized in the present study, seems to be a less important factor in choosing this formula. Nevertheless, subscription infinitives are favoured in situations where the addressee is in a position of social control over the writer. This, again, indicates that the formula is used for negative politeness.

When the effects of relative social rank and social distance are examined together, pattern presented in Table 7 emerges.


Addressee higher


Writer higher

Nuclear family

5.2 (11.9)

2.6 (11.4)

0 (1.8)

Close friends

7.3 (5.1)

0.9 (3.6)

0.4 (2.8)

Family servant

6.0 (0.8)

0 (1.3)

More distant family

6.0 (7.2)

4.3 (10.4)

0.4 (1.5)


46.8 (16.0)

12.4 (11.3)

6.0 (11.5)

Table 7. Percentile proportions of signature infinitives across categories of relative social rank and social distance. Percentile proportions of the categories in all of the letters are in parentheses. Pink background indicates a lower frequency and green a higher frequency than in the overall data.

Based on these data, subscription infinitives are favoured by lower rank writers towards their superiors, in all but kin relationships, and especially by family servants to their master and their family and those in the category “other”. Use in the “other” category is also common between equal ranks. The formula is very rarely used by social superiors in all but the most distant relations, with only one or zero instances per category.

Thus subscription infinitives are most often used by socially distant interlocutors where the addressee has relative power over the writer, both in terms of social rank and social control. This indicates that the construction is connected to negative politeness. In the next section the interaction of the two social variables and their relation to the lexical items indicating either negative or positive politeness will be examined.

4.2.3 Social context and the poles of politeness

In section 4.2.1 the politeness level of the subscription infinitives was assessed based on the lexical items they contain. It was found that all but one instance of the construction contain at least one lexical item indicating negative politeness, while 52 instances contain a mixture of positive and negative politeness items. If politeness is viewed as a continuum with two poles, positive and negative (see e.g. Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 1995 and Nevala 2004), the subscriptions with mixed politeness items are closer to the positive pole than those with only negative items.

When the 52 subscriptions with both positive and negative politeness items are correlated to their social context, a distribution summarized in Table 8 emerges.


Addressee higher


Writer higher

Nuclear family



Close friends




Family servant


More distant family








Table 8. The proportion of subscription infinitives with mixed positive-negative politeness items across variables of relative social rank and social distance. Cell colouring is reproduced from table 5, pink indicating a relative low frequency and green a high frequency of subscription infinitives when compared to all of the data.

Forms containing mixed positive-negative politeness are, firstly, used within the nuclear family. All of the nineteen subscription infinitives in letters within the nuclear family contain at least one lexical item indicating positive politeness, most of them several. Furthermore, the only subscription infinitive without any use of negative politeness, given in example (17) below, is in a familial letter from Thomas Knyvett to his wife Katherine.

(17) Thy deerest freind to love thee A. T. K. T.
(PCEEC Thomas Knyvett 1644)

This example contains the three positive politeness devices: the self-referring noun “friend”, its modifier “deerest” and the infinitive verb “to love”.

The use of mixed strategies is also common within more distant family; 17 of the 25 subscription infinitives between members of the non-nuclear family contain positive politeness strategies. However, relative social rank seems to play a role in the choice of politeness items here. The use of mixed strategies declines from the 100% by relatively higher ranking writers to 90% by relative equals and 50% by relatively lower ranks.

Mixed positive-negative strategies are also employed by close friends when higher or equal in rank to the addressee (100% both), but not once by those with relatively lower rank. Servants do not use mixed politeness strategies and their masters do not use the formula at all.

In the relational category “other” mixed politeness strategies are least frequent and most of the subscription infinitives contain only negative politeness strategies. However, 50% of instances from higher ranking writers downwards do contain mixed politeness. This is contrasted with mixed politeness in 17% of the formulas used by social equals and only 1% of those used by social. For a typical subscription infinitive in socially distant relationship, see example (18) below, where Sir William Fawnte, a knight, uses a mixed politeness subscription in a letter to the actor Edward Alleyn, who was not a gentleman and thus of a lower social rank.

(18) Your Louing frend to ves William Fawnte.
(PCEEC William Fawnte 1600?)

This example contains two positive politeness elements: the self-referring noun “frend” and its modifier “Louing”. It also contains the infinitive verb “to ves”(‘to use’) indicating negative politeness.

Social superiors’ use of mixed politeness is non-reciprocal, since social inferiors very rarely use it in letters to their social superiors, except in familial correspondence. Use of non-reciprocal positive politeness across social hierarchies has earlier been attested in Early Modern English address forms (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 1995). This type of asymmetrical politeness is typical in cultures with strict social hierarchies and an emphasis on power (Brown & Levinson 1987: 249–151); this description certainly applies to early modern English society with its strict social hierarchy based mainly on social rank (see e.g. Wrightson 1982).

As the subscription infinitive is first and foremost a negative politeness device, which is evidenced by its form and social distribution, its use is occasioned by either the interlocutors’ distant social relations or the relative low status of the writer. When both of these conditions apply, the subscription infinitive almost always contains only negative politeness items. When only one of these conditions applies, subscription infinitives most often contain mixed positive and negative politeness items. When neither of these conditions is present, subscription infinitives are very rarely used. Thus in familial correspondence social superiors do not use subscription infinitives. Instead, they opt for other subscription formulae, further on the scale to positive politeness. For instance, Edward Harley, a knight, uses the subscription in example (19) in a letter to his younger brother, a mere gentleman.

(19) Your most affectionate brother, Edw. Harley.
(PCEEC Edward Harley 1651)

Although the subscription infinitive is mostly used as a negative politeness device, in distant relationships and by social inferiors, the flexibility of the formula allows the inclusion of positive politeness strategies. The resulting forms with mixed positive and negative politeness strategies are used in closer relationships or by social equals and superiors, when negative politeness is also occasioned. Thus the positive and negative lexical items correlate to the social context of the formula.

5. Conclusions

The subscription infinitive was frequently used in subscriptions in mid-sixteenth- to early seventeenth-century correspondence. The use and form of the formula follow the predictions of politeness theory. Social context influences the use of positive and negative politeness items much as predicted. Negative politeness items are by social superiors and by those in socially distant relationships, while mixed negative and positive items are found in subscriptions by social inferiors or in close relationships. Subscriptions with only positive politeness were almost non-existent, and correspondingly the formula was not used by social superiors in close relationships. However, my analysis reveals that the situation is not as clear-cut with writers in equal social standing or in medially close relationships, because they sometimes use forms with only negative politeness and other times forms with mixed politeness items. A closer look at the social context and an analysis of the situational context would perhaps shed some more light on this phenomenon.


[1] This article deals with subscription infinitives and is part of my ongoing doctoral study on independent infinitive constructions in various registers of writing. In addition to correspondence, I shall investigate the register of scientific writing based on medical  texts and legal writing in Early Modern English. The functions of  independent infinitives seem to be register-specific, as e.g. in medical writing they occur frequently in metatextual passages indicating topic shifts.

[2] Nevala’s study is on familial correspondence and, as will be seen, the subscription infinitive construction is very rare in correspondence between family members. Therefore this formula is also rare in her data. The closeness of familial relationships probably also accounts for the fact that her material contains relatively more subscription infinitives with positive politeness than the material for the present study.

[3] Compiled by Terttu Nevalainen, Helena Raumolin-Brunberg, Jukka Keränen, Minna Nevala, Arja Nurmi and Minna Palander-Collin, with additional annotation by Ann Taylor.

[4] The search was conducted using CorpusSearch 2, a tool developed specifically for parsed corpora (see manual at In the query language of the program, the search query was formed: node: IP* query: (IP-INF* exists) AND (!IP* Dominates IP-INF*). This can be translated into plain English as “Search all clauses (IP) containing an infinitive clause (IP-INF) where the infinitive is not dominated by another clause.”

[5] Additional information was gathered from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, prefaces and footnotes in the edited letter collections, as well as the letters in the corpus themselves.

[6] The scale of social distance in Table 1 is an approximation of social relationships in the early modern period as individual and rank-based variation seems to have existed.

[7] This antedates the earliest quotation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) by fourteen years.

[8] The frequencies are represented as percentile proportions of the letters containing the subscription infinitive, since each letter can only contain one subscription part, and thus only one subscription infinitive.

[9]The letter-writing manuals consulted were the 1568 and 1571 editions of William Fulwood's The enimie of idlenesse, a 1576 translation from Cicero, A panoplie of epistles, and an 1578 etiquette manual by Walter Darell titled A short discourse of the life of seruingmen plainly expressing the way that is best to be followed, and the meanes wherby they may lawfully challenge a name and title in that vocation and fellowship. With certeine letters verie necessarie for seruingmen, and other persons to peruse. Although the last of these is not a letter-writing manual per se, it contains 27 exemplary letters serving as models for various types of letters.

[10] Lexical items co-ordinated phrases in phrases such as affectionate freinde and Cousin are counted separately, as are adjectival and adverbial modifiers. Therefore this phrase accounts for three of the positive items.

[11]According to OED your lordship is “a form of address to noblemen (except archbishops and dukes).”

[12] OED defines your/his honour as a "title of honour, used in addressing or speaking of a person of note" and your/his worship as a title "formerly ... given to any person of rank or quality".

[13]‘Unknown’ contains letters where the writer’s or addressee’s social rank could not be determined.


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