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From Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time":

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
    Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
    To morrow will be dying.
The glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun,
    The higher he's a-getting;
The sooner will his Race be run,
    And neerer he's to Setting.

What is with this a- in a-flying and a-getting above?

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Historically, the prefix "a-" derives from a preposition that was used before the gerund form of a verb. Johan Elsness cites an example of this in his paper On the progression of the progressive in early Modern English from Old English:

... yrstandæ ic wæs on huntune ... . (From Ælfric, Colloquy 68) [1]

In the above quote, "huntune" is the gerund of the verb "hunt"; the sentence as a whole essentially means, "Yesterday I was hunting".

The construction "on + gerund / progressive" then evolved into the form with the prefix "a-":

In Middle English similar constructions began to be common with just a light a before the main verb, as in ‘He was a-hunting.’, generally seen as a remnant of the full preposition.
If the preposition was not only reduced but dropped altogether, there was no longer any formal difference between the two constructions: that with BE followed by the present participle, and that with BE followed by the gerund, now without any intervening preposition.

(The uppercase "BE" simply refers to forms of the verb "be".)

Based on this, the "a-" prefixed to the -ing-forms in Herrick's poem does not have any special meaning. However, it does help with the metre: we would not have regular iambs if Herrick had written, "Old Time is still flying".

The "a-" could also be used without a hyphen, for example in the First Folio text of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, Act 3, scene 1:

Lucentio that comes a wooing

Modern editions of the play typically add the hyphen.

C. T. Onions notes in A Shakespeare Glossary (revised by Robert D. Eagleson, Oxford University Press, 1986) that

a before a gerund is a reduced form of 'on'

This is consistent with what Johan Elseness writes.


[1] The linked PDF version of the paper has "ZyrstandæZ ic wæs on huntunZe", which looks like some sort of conversion error.

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  • 3
    It might do well to add that adding that a- prefix to make the meter work is not uncommon in all kinds of poetry. And that it has been preserved in some dialects of English: cf. ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/a-prefixing#who-says-this – trlkly Apr 20 at 18:46
  • @Tsundoku: that with BE followed by the present participle, and that with BE followed by the gerund, now without any intervening preposition. Absenting any intervening preposition, how could "it" be followed by a gerund? Perhaps you mean He was hunting and He went hunting employ PP and gerund, respectively, right? – User4780993 Apr 21 at 4:29
  • @User4780993 I'm not sure what you are referring to. Nothing in my answer says "it" can be followed by a gerund and the construction "He went hunting" isn't mentioned either. – Tsundoku Apr 21 at 8:49
  • @Tsundoku I was quoting from your answer only. This: If the preposition was not only reduced but dropped altogether, there was no longer any formal difference between the two constructions: that with BE followed by the present participle, and that with BE followed by the gerund, now without any intervening preposition. Could you please explain the highlighted part a bit more? – User4780993 Apr 21 at 8:53
  • Those capital Zs look weird, having found the original paper I suspect they might be an error in the digitisation? What letter are they supposed to be? – Muzer Apr 21 at 15:54

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