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.

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #470

 The Elizabethans had fewer prepositions, so each had to serve a wider function.

Because language in Shakespeare’s time was still in a state of flux, authors were more or less at liberty to opt for any preposition they fancied: for example, the verb repent could be followed by at, for, in, of, or over. The very meanings of prepositions differed: “In fact it is a characteristic of the various prepositions at an earlier period of the language that they all had a much wider range of meanings than we are accustomed to today. There were in the Elizabethan period fewer prepositions in any case, so each had to serve a wider function; as we have increased the number of prepositions by employing phrases and present participles in this role, so we have been able to restrict the range of meaning that each one has” (Blake 1983, 111).

Since meanings were so variable, there was no sense of fixed or “proper” usage: no rule could be broken, no idiom transgressed, because there were no formal or formalized standards to be violated. Shakespeare had the good fortune to live at a time well before stern, fuddy-duddy grammarians had imposed their unbending notions of absolute correctness on the language.

On the English language, that is. Grammarians there were, but they were interested in the morphology and syntax of only the ancient languages of Greek and Latin, languages which Shakespeare had drummed into him (not according to Ben Johnson, entirely successfully) while attending his Stratford-upon-Avon grammar school. Two passages in his plays may well express a lingering resentment at the labours he was compelled to undergo. One is the scene (4.1) in The Merry Wives of Windsor in which Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh parson, tests a hapless boy, William Page, on his knowledge of Latin grammar, especially on the declension of nouns—William’s knowledge turns out not to be impressively extensive. The other passage is a speech by the leader of a popular uprising, Jack Cade, after he has just arrested a member of the aristocracy and threatens to have him beheaded for manifold crimes and misdemeanors, leveling the following charge: “Thou has most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school. . . . It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian can endure to hear” (2 Henry VI 4.7.33-35, 39-42).

Many of the prepositions Shakespeare employed have the same meaning (or meanings) as they do today (above, along, below, beyond, concerning, despite, during, except, excepting, inside, round, till, underneath, until), and therefore do not pose any problems of understanding. But many of his common prepositions have meanings not in currency nowadays: examples are against, at, by, for, of, out, to and with (each of which can be assigned eight different obsolete or current meanings or more). It is regrettable that many editions of Shakespeare text make little or no attempt to gloss these deceptively simple words satisfactorily. For readers to be informed that to frequently means “compared to” can assist enormously in the task of understanding: “Prepositions are important words which can modify the sense of a clause and so need to be interpreted correctly” (Black 1983 ,113). This is especially true of prepositions now regarded as archaic or obsolete: again (in the sense of against), betwixt, crosse (across), maugre (in spite of), sans (without), sith (since) and withal (emphatic form of with when occurring at the end of a sentence).


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. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.