I am given an exercise in which I the correct form of the verb sink is to be filled in a sentence-

And thousands had _________ to the ground overpower'd.

Though I know sunk will be used. But I have two problems regarding the sentence

  1. Is overpower'd same as overpowered?

  2. What grammar rule is used in this sentence to the ground overpowered?

  • 1 - yes, the version with the apostrophe is kind of old-fashioned but they are the same word. 2 - what do you mean? what is your confusion about the grammar? – Mixolydian May 16 '19 at 16:35
  • That apostrophe is essentially an antiquated poetic device to indicate that the final vowel is not pronounced. For this specific verb, it's never enunciated today, but if you have access to the BBC's Shakespeare comedy series Upstart Crow you'll notice that the character of Richard Greene (a rival to Shakespeare) deliberately adds that now-redundant extra vowel in many past tense forms, for comic effect. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 16 '19 at 16:53
  • ...for example, I suspect that when Shakespeare wrote Othello: Act 2, Scene 1, he would have used the orthography The wind-shak'd surge, with high and monstrous mane, seems to cast water on the burning bear. But later copies would usually "regularise / modernise" the spelling to at least wind-shaked (perhaps even to wind-shaken, which would be the "correct" form today). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 16 '19 at 17:02

Denoting past forms of verbs, as in overpower'd, is an archaic form of conjugation. It is no longer used, but semantically is the same as overpowered.

Overpowered here is referring to the subject of the sentence, the thousands. A comma may make it clearer for you (and I would argue the sentence is missing it): "And thousands had sunk to the ground, overpowered".

  • The cited text is from The Soldiers Dream by Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), and I don't see that comma in any of the dozens of instances available online. It might help non-native speakers parse the text, but I certainly don't think that justifies saying it's "missing". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 16 '19 at 17:17
  • @FumbleFingers I meant missing in reference to what would be proper grammar, not the original passage. – scatter May 16 '19 at 17:18
  • I'm pretty definite that "proper grammar" doesn't require that comma. By the standard rules of English syntax it's acceptable to include it or not, according to stylistic preference (and perhaps prosody, in some contexts). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 16 '19 at 17:21

As others have said, this is an archaic usage, but more than that, it's a usage that was particularly common in poetry or song where words are sometimes modified slightly to fit a particular rhythm. Your quoted sentence is a line from a 19th century English poem called "The Soldier's Dream" by Thomas Campbell, which is set in a very rigid rhythm (technically, "headless anapaestic tetrameter").

If you read the poem out loud, you'll discover every line ends with an accented (strong) syllable. If the word "overpowered" were pronounced normally, it would end with a weak syllable: "o-ver-POW-erd". Contracting that final 'e' with an apostrophe emphasizes the fact that, in order to keep the rhythm of the poem, you need to pronounce the "power'd" part of the word as if it were one single, strong syllable: "o-ver-POWRD."

This convention was quite common at one point in English poetry and hymn writing and goes back at least to Shakespeare.

  • In theory (and in modern natural speech), the over component in such constructions has two syllables. But in (particularly, older) poetry it would often be enunciated as a single syllable diphthong, in which case it would be written as o'er. But I have to say it looks a bit excessive with two, as in o'erpower'd, so maybe it wouldn't always be written that way even if the intention was that the compound word should be spoken using just 2 or 3 syllables (the vowel in -wer- there is often very "reduced", to the point that it's barely a syllable). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 16 '19 at 17:10

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