a+present participle


New Member
Spanish - Argentina
I've found some examples in poetry, specifically beatnik poetry, of some phrases containing forms such as "a-working", being "a-gerund". I'm not a native english speaker, I'm from Argentina. In spanish we have a phenomenom called "parasíntesis" which is adding both a prefix and a sufix at the same time to a base to emphazise the meaning. Is this something similar? What does this a- before gerunds mean (if it has a meaning, considering it could be simply a metric matter)? Is it correct or incorrect (regardless the fact we could call this a poetical license) These are some examples I can quote at the moment, from Patti Smith's Songs

"The cauldron was a-bubbling"
"the girls a-saying grace"
"If you see me walking
a-walking a-walking"

I tend to guess that what it does is to emphasize not the progressive aspect of present continuos forms but the imperfective-situational drawing it near to present simple.
I'd like to know what you think,
Thank You
  • Sharifa345

    Senior Member
    US English, DR Spanish
    I think it's just a cute way of saying something. It means the same thing as it would mean without the "a-"
    You wouldn't hear it in normal conversation, or in a formal paper.


    Senior Member
    This is archaic language that means, roughly, "the cauldron was at bubbling (at the boil) and the girls were at saying grace", Luis. It's probably an old trace of our Germanic roots in Anglo-Saxon, which used something similar to the "Ich bin am lernen" (I am at learning) used in modern German. Though I'm impressed by your grammatical analysis, I doubt the people who used the construction thought in terms of "imperfective-situational" and such. :)
    Last edited:


    American English
    This isn't the a prefixed to a gerund, it's a prefixed to the present participle. It's an older form that survives in a few fixed phrases, more or less as an idiom. Its a participle since it serves as an adjective. A gerund is a verbal noun, which can be the subject, direct object, or object of a preposition:

    Hunting is fun: Gerund as subject
    I like hunting: Gerund as direct object
    I am in love with hunting: Gerund as object of a preposition

    In "The cauldron was a-bubbling," a-bubbling is a predicate adjective, since it follows a form of the verb "to be" and describes "the cauldron." One of the fixed phrases in which this form survives is "A-hunting we will go." That can be rearranged as "We will go a-hunting." Here "a-hunting" looks like an adverb, which is neither a gerund (noun) nor a participle (adjective).

    This a- prefix comes from Middle English (before 1450) and is a reduced form of several different prepositions.


    New Member
    Spanish - Argentina
    Thank you Fabulist, but, if you (or anybody) would please me with further explanation, does this mean that the use of this "a-" would (or used to) convert the present participle forms that can be used as adjectives into forms that can serve as adverbs?


    Senior Member
    I'd regard them as the prepositional equivalents of participles, Luis. I've always seen them used with certain verbs such as "go" and "be". I don't think they were used as adverbs in the current sense of that term. As far as I know, they weren't used as freely as adverbs are in modern English.


    Senior Member
    This "a-" prefix is used in several ways, both in standard speech ("awake") and in dialect ("a-huntin'"). The following concerns just one of these uses:

    From the Oxford English Dictionary entry "a. prep.1":

    [II. 11. d.] Before a gerund used as subject or object complement generally, equivalent to (and generally considered to be) a present participle.

    Examples given include

    1958 ... A big bull frog‥seed‥a mockin' bird‥jes' a singin' to beat de ban'.
    Here, the "a" before "mockin'" is simply the indefinite article, but the "a" before "singin'" is the prefix.

    1968 ... the man a-slandering me

    2006 ... Male túngara frogs a-wooing

    I see the first two as representing examples of dialect, while the third, which appears in an article in the science journal Nature, seems to me to be inspired by dialect, specifically a folk song which goes by various names, including "Frog Went A-Courting" and "Froggie Would A-Wooing Go."