Wit (verb)

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The archaic verb 'to wit', whose broad meaning is 'to know', only really survives in current English in two constructions.

  • The present participle witting and its negative unwitting is commonly used adjectivally, and adverbially as wittingly and unwittingly.; Witting[ly] means 'consciously', 'with knowledge' - and unwitting[ly] means 'without conscious knowledge'. These are common in legal circles, where to be the witting cause of someone's death may be a crime, but showing that the person who caused the death did so unwittingly is usually enough to establish innocence.
  • The infinitive 'to wit' is common enough in academic, particularly legal, circles, as another way of saying i.e.: 'that is to say ...'. In Middle English this sometimes took the otiose form 'that is to wit'.

'To wit' is an irregular verb. Its forms are given here:

Base form past tense -ed participle Remarks
wit wist wist The present has a variable vowel
This is one of the "the 250 or so irregular verbs" listed in Quirk 1985. The list "contains most of the irregular verbs in present-day English ... but is not meant to be exhaustive, particularly with regard to derivative verbs." AWE has copied most of the entries in that list. The verb 'to wit' belongs to Quirk's Class 3
'to wit' is included here in Quirk's category 3, as it fits the criteria in the table in Quirk Irregular verbs. It is not listed in Quirk's A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language as it is not current English.

The forms of the verb are very variably recorded, as it was only really current in the ages when all texts were transmitted through manuscript, spelling was not standardized, and scribes wrote according to their local accents. A small selection from some of the forms recorded in OED should illustrate the variability.

  • The past tense wyste, wyst, wijst, vist and wist; westan or west(e); wuste, wste or wust; wost(e).
  • The past participle was OE–ME witen, (ME wy-, -in), ME witten, wytene, wetyn, -un, -en(e, Sc.ME witting, ME–15 -in, witne, 15 Sc. wyttin, 17 (?) wit; west, weste; and later, possibly by a decay of the distinction between the past tense and the past participle wist.
    • Many of these forms can be given a negative meaning and form by replacing the initial w- by n-, as in noot, nat and nist.
For more detail, consult the source of this knowledge, OED s.v. Forms: Inflexional Forms, of wit, v.1.
A famous quotation in modern times uses the 3rd person singular present:
"A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!" (Thomas Edward Brown (1893) Old John, and other poems, London, Macmillan, cited OED.)