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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
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 the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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