Definition and Examples of A-verbing in English Grammar

The Times They Are a-Changin'
The final word in the title of the Bob Dylan song "The Times They Are a'Changin" is an example of a-verbing. Columbia Records

A-verbing is a form of the verb (usually the present participle) in which the base is preceded by the prefix a-.

The term a-verbing was introduced by Walt Wolfram and Ralph W. Fasold in The Study of Social Dialects in American English (1974).

Examples and Observations

  • "Time is the stream I go a-fishing in." (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854)
  • "Frog went a-courtin' and he did a-ride." (English folk song "Frog Went A-Courting")
  • "Some young men, who had been a-gunning, went to Beaman's Tavern, where one of their guns accidentally went off and killed the landlord's daughter on the spot; she was at that time suckling her child, who was providentially preserved." (June 4, 1770, Massachusetts Gazette, quoted by Peter Manseau in Melancholy Accidents. Melville House, 2016)
  • "I'm a-leavin' tomorrow, but I could leave today"
    (Bob Dylan, "Song to Woody." Bob Dylan. Columbia Records, 1962)
  • "I'm a-thinkin' and a-wonderin' walking down the road.
    I once loved a woman, a child I am told."
    (Bob Dylan, "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." The Freewheelin Bob Dylan. Columbia Records, 1963)
  • "Then you better start swimmin',
    Or you'll sink like a stone,
    For the times they are a-changin'."
    (Bob Dylan, "The Times They Are a-Changin'." The Times They Are a-Changin'. Columbia Records, 1964)
  • "There's a low green valley
    On the old Kentucky shore,
    There l've whiled many happy hours away,
    A-sitting and a-singing
    By the little cottage door,
    Where lived my Darling Nelly Grey."
    (B.R. Hanby, "Darling Nelly Grey." The Spirituals: Their Story, Their Song, by Dave Marshall. Mel Bay, 2007)

Emphatic Uses of A-Verbing

  • "A-verbing . . . is a holdover from earlier varieties of English, but it is familiar to modern readers from nursery rhymes and folk songs, both old and modern. . . .
    "Wolfram and Fasold (1974), who studied the use of a-verbing in Appalachian English in West Virginia, say that the prefixed -a emphasizes the duration of an action. 'She's working' means that she's engaged in a relatively short-term task. 'She's a-working' means that the task is of longer duration. . . . Feagin (1979) [found that] a-verbing was used to intensify the action or to create dramatic vividness. She found that a-verbing forms were common in stories about ghosts, accidents, murders, tornadoes, and other dramatic topics." (H. Adamson, Language Minority Students in American Schools. Routledge, 2005)

From Old English to Present-Day English

  • "Old English was a more highly inflected language than Present Day English, with more prefixes and suffixes that provided grammatical information. This a- is a reduced form of the Old English preposition on, which could occur before a noun, forming an adjective: afoot, ashore, away; before an adjective: afar, aloud; before a present participle: a-ringing, a-hunting (which we find in certain American and British English dialects); and finally, added to a verb stem: ablaze, aglow, asleep." (Anne Lobeck and Kristin Denham, Navigating English Grammar: A Guide to Analyzing Real Language. Wiley-Blackwell, 2014)

A-Verbing in the East Anglian Dialect of England

  • "[In the East Anglian dialect] as in many other dialects, it is usual in continuous aspect forms for participles in -ing . . . to be preceded by a-:
    a. I'm a-runnen
    b. you're a-runnen
    c. he's a-runnen
    d. we're a-runnen
    e. you're a-runnen
    f. they're a-runnen The history of participles as nominal forms can still be seen from the fact that such transitive verb forms are usually followed by on (which corresponds to Standard English of):
    a. He wus a-hitten on it.
    'He was hitting it.'
    b. I'm a-taken on em.
    'I'm taking them.'
    c. What are you a-doen on?
    'What are you doing?' (P. Trugdill, "The Dialect of East Anglia," in A Handbook of Varieties of English, ed. B. Kortmann et al. Walter de Gruyter, 2004)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of A-verbing in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of A-verbing in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of A-verbing in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).