I'm reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein written in 19th century. I'm not sure whether the sentence I just encountered (bold text below) is a misprint or an example of archaic English and I'm trying to figure it out.

Volume 1, Chapter 7:

A flash of lightning illuminated the object, and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy daemon to whom I had given life. What did he there? Could he be (I shuddered at the conception) the murderer of my brother?

  • Directly Translated to German (my mother tongue) it means "Was machte er da" what means "What did he DO there?" Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 12:29
  • 2
    This old-fashioned English syntax is very similar to the current Dutch syntax as well Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 12:39
  • 12
    Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been? I've been to London to look at the Queen. Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you there? I frightened a little mouse under her chair. (traditional)
    – Alex Brown
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 18:20
  • @Glen_b : That mistake is on me. Sorry about that. Edited it as you asked.
    – 7_R3X
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 4:59
  • The bolded text made no sense to me (english native) until I parsed it as "What did he, there" Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 15:33

4 Answers 4


Today we would say "What was he doing there?"

In older English, any verb might invert with its subject to form a question:

How goes the night, boy? — Macbeth, ca. 1603
How goes our battle? — Nelson at Trafalgar, 1805

The restriction of inversion to auxiliaries, with do support where needed, developed only gradually, and the older practice lingered until the early 19th century.

  • 5
    I think both "What was he doing there?" and "What did he do there?" are possible for "What did he there?" Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 10:03
  • 3
    @SovereignSun I think that in OP's context an imperfective is required. Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 10:27
  • Can you provide sources for the quotes? I can find Macbeth but can't find the Nelson one anywhere. Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 11:47
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    @ToivoSäwén The source for the Macbeth is the first line of II,i--p.135 in the 1623 Folio. The ultimate source for the Nelson is Dr. William Beatty's eyewitness account, The Death of Nelson, 1807--but you'll find it in just about any narrative of the battle. Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 12:46
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    It might be worth mentioning that "What was he doing there?" actually means something more like "Why is he there?" or "What reason does he have to be there?" rather than literally asking what the person did. Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 3:29

What did he there?

This is a simple way of saying "What did he do there?".
Using the simple past this way is an older way of forming a question.
In speech, there would be an emphasis on "did" and "he", which would probably make the meaning clearer to a modern user. This formula is not completely gone from current English How goes it? although the use is limited.

  • Also the informal current English "What gives?" meaning "What is happening?"
    – alephzero
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 15:17
  • @ alephzero Of course.
    – J. Taylor
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 15:59
  • Maybe rewrite with usual notation markers, like italics and things? So, if it was said, it'd be more: "What did he there?" Or something? Maybe use a comma between "he" and "there"?
    – Malady
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 2:01
  • "What did he do there?" sounds very odd to my ears, unless you're using the past tense, which isn't the case here. Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 3:26

"What did he there?" is short from "What did he do there?"

In modern English inversions must involve the subject and an auxiliary verb.

  • He ate (was eating) fish there. What ate he there? (Middle English)
  • He was eating fish there. What was he eating there? (Modern English)
  • He ate fish there. What did he eat there? (Modern English)
  • What ate he there is Middle/Early Modern English, not Old English. Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 12:47

No, it isn't a misprint; you are correct that this is a language structure that is no longer in common use.

I remember a nursery rhyme from when I was a child that had a similar sentence:

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?
I've been up to London to visit the Queen.
Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair!

Having now read the same nursery rhyme to my own children, I find that today's books add the word 'do' into the third line. That certainly wasn't the case when I was young. The additional word means that I find it hard to make the verse scan properly when reading it aloud.

So although it sounds odd to our ears today, the structure didn't disappear that long ago and would certainly have been in reasonably common use in Mary Shelley's time.

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