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a- 1 or an-
Share:
pref.
Without; not: amoral.


The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
 
a- 2
Share:
pref.
1. On; in: abed.
2. In the act of: aborning.
3. In the direction of: astern.
4. In a specified state or condition: abuzz.

[Middle English, from Old English, from an, on; see ON.]

Our Living Language Prefixing a- to verb forms ending in -ing, as in a-hunting and a-fishing, was once fairly common in vernacular US speech, particularly in the highland areas of the South and in the Southwest. Such verb forms derive from an Old English construction in which a preposition, usually on, was placed in front of a verbal nouna verb to which -ing had been added to indicate that the action was extended or ongoing. Gradually such prepositions were shortened to a-. The -ing forms came to be regarded as present participles rather than verbal nouns, and the use of a- was extended to genuine present participles. Eventually a- disappeared from many dialects, including Standard English in the United States and Great Britain, although it is still retained today in some isolated dialect areas. Today, speakers who use the a- prefix do not use it randomly. Rather, a- is only used with -ing words that begin with a consonant, have stress on the first syllable, and function as part of a verb phrase, as in She was a-running.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
 

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