Ye Old Timey English: The Stumbling Block for AP and SAT II English

By Janka Steenkamp

(English Literature, Edge Writing, Public Speaking, Drama (IB) tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

Old Timey EnglishBy now, most of you will have encountered a text that’s got a very lovely old school stamp on it, that makes you wonder how on earth people communicated back then, and why on earth you have to trudge through these texts to begin with. While I advocate the evolution of language, and acknowledge that overly flowery language can discombobulate even the most eloquent scholar (and is sometimes somewhat superfluous), one has to admit that there’s something beautiful about language being used in an archaic way. This beauty doesn’t always translate into intelligibility, however, and many of my students bemoan the fact that the AP Lang and AP Lit, as well as the SAT II and SAT, regularly choose older texts as reading passages (they can also be encountered in the Prose Fiction section of the ACT). So…what are we talking about when we talk about these texts and what can we do to help ourselves un-fog the fogginess of old timey constructions?

Let’s look at an example from an AP Lit exam:

“To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two millions which I now despise. To deprive myself of the right to the money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed, and so break the compact…”

Here are the three main things going on in these texts that can make them jarring for modern readers:

Word Order

This is a facet of these texts is hugely important. Let’s take the line:

“ To deprive myself of the right to the money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed…”

Now, in modern English you would’ve said: “To deprive myself of the right to the money I will leave here five hours before the specified time…”

So, what happens is that students who skim read and aren’t aware of changes in word order misread the sentence and read “time fixed” thinking that time was fixed somehow – not realizing that “fixed” is an adjective in this sentence and not a verb. Added to this, is the fact that in daily life we don’t really tend to use ‘fixed’ as an adjective, which adds to the confusion and leads nicely into our second attribute.

Old School Ways of Describing or Iterating Things

Think of the famous opening line of the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago”… wait what? Is that four hundred and seven years ago? No, a score is a measure of twenty years, so what Abraham Lincoln is actually saying is 87 years ago, and obviously we don’t use this way of speaking at all anymore.

In our example we can look at the last part of the sentence we looked at for word order:

To deprive myself of the right to the money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed, and so break the compact…”

No, the speaker is not going to break some makeup holding device by leaving early – in this context ‘compact’ is used to mean contract or treaty. So we are forced to look logically at the context of the rest of the passage to try to infer a meaning that isn’t completely bonkers.

That Mellifluous and Beautiful Vocabulary

Lastly, old timey texts are awash with luscious vocabulary. Look at our sample: “despise”, “renounce”, “deprive” – what lovely words! We still use them today, but they’re not necessarily part of the common reading experience, so these words are definitely going to test our ability to digest words and understand them within context. They are also a great way to expand our vocabularies with words that allow us to write more fluently and eloquently (discounting words that are used archaically that we no longer employ in such a way and would lead to confusion).

So, here we have three stumbling blocks, but how do you overcome them? The most important thing to do is to try and read as many of these kinds of text as you can. Familiarize yourself with the register and tone, that way the constructions become less jarring, and you can slip into them more easily. I know that for some of you it’s not the solution you would like to hear – but it’s the only foolproof way to do this. As a bonus you will gain vocabulary that can benefit you across subjects. Where do you start? Well, here are a few suggestions:


Ralph Waldo Emerson’s – On Nature

The Gettysburg Address

Essays by Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde


Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe

Related Blog: FOA & IOP: The Burden of Creativity

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