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How Shakespeare Used Prepositions

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

By
Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #470

Prepositions in Shakespeare

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.

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).

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.