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How Shakespeare Used Prepositions

17 June 2015

From Grammar Girl:

In this excerpt from David Thatcher’s book, Saving our Prepositions we see how Shakespeare used (and didn’t use) prepositions, and how prepositions’ meanings have changed since Shakespeare’s time.

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There is a scholarly consensus that Shakespeare contributed about 1,800 words (and phrases) to the English language. Most of his lexical innovations were nouns (e.g., addition,assassination, bedroom, discontent, investment, luggage, moonbeam, pedant, radiance,watchdog, zany) and verbs (e.g., arouse, besmirch, donate, grovel, impede, negotiate,submerge, undervalue, widen) and adjectives (e.g., abstemious, bloodstained, deafening,equivocal, fashionable, jaded, lonely, obscene, sanctimonious, unreal). A few adverbs also figure as products of his inventiveness (e.g., abjectly, rightly, unaware, vastly). But he did not add one single preposition to the fifty or so which already existed in his time. As we have seen, they had been in existence for centuries. He made use of all of them, with a few exceptions (though some of these he employs as other parts of speech): alongside, across,amid(st), around, atop, inside, and outside. He never uses onto, a word first recorded in 1715.

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In fact, as is the case with the English language in general, prepositions (together with articles, pronouns and conjunctions) are the most frequently used parts of speech. Of the first sixteen most frequently used words in Shakespeare, five are prepositions: after the(first place), and (second place), and I (third place) they are to (fifth), of (sixth), in (tenth), for(fourteenth) and with (sixteenth). Not a single noun, adjective or adverb appears in the first fifty of Shakespeare’s most frequently employed words, and only four verbs (be, have, do,are, as well as will if we realize it also gets counted as a noun).

Link to the rest at Grammar Girl

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4 Comments to “How Shakespeare Used Prepositions”

  1. Prepositions are one of the most subtle areas of language. In every language I’ve dabbled in, the prepositions–while similar in themselves to those in my native English (it seems most or all languages need words to describe relationships in space and time)–are used quite differently. In editing works by writers to whom English is a second language I’ve found that even when the writer’s English is excellent, they frequently use a different preposition from the one that would be chosen by a native speaker.

  2. As to the article: Umm! Not sure what use this is. No doubt, a similarly useless analysis can be made of of the King James Bible.

    As to prepositions: Many of these are idiomatic, i.e. not translatable.

    What gets me is the “onto” thing! Versus “on to”. Ran into this with a British publisher where the house rules demand the onto is always written together regardless of whether the “on” has served as a special (idiomatic preposition) with a verb. It seems to me there should be both options depending on the role of “on” in the sentence.

  3. While many Elizabethan writers did delight in coining words, Shakespeare was the kind of guy who wrote to be understood. It’s far more likely with most of these that he’s just the first professional writer who used these words in print that has survived.

  4. I like your article comparing Shakespeare’s word usage in his writings. However, when I write I just select words that spill onto the pages from my mind and pay no attention to what is considered correct usage by others. I find my characters have their own words to say and in their own vernacular. Perhaps Shakespeare did the same as he seems to have made his characters words, actions and thoughts a part of literary history.

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