[OED:] want {verb} = 1. a. intr. To be lacking or missing; not to exist; not to be forthcoming; to be deficient in quantity or degree.
In early use const. with dative or to. rare since the 17th c., and now arch.

3. †b. to want of : to lack, not to have, or to have in insufficient measure: = the trans. sense 2.

3. c. to want for: (chiefly in negative context) to suffer from the want of; to be ill-provided with; in later use also, to be lacking in (some quality).
to want for nothing: to have no lack of any of the necessaries or comforts of life.

Here, I ask only about the olden definitions of 'want', namely those that mean 'to lack'.
Particularly, what are the origins of the prepositions in the prepositional verbs containing want, such as 3b and 3c above? Do these prepositions mean anything?

Per Wikipedia, the prepositions in certain 'phrasal verbs' can be interpreted as metaphors of the original core meaning (except those that defy the principle of compositionality).
So can the prepositions for want above be explained likewise? Please expose and explain any (hidden and missing) semantic drifts and links.

  • I suspect the prepositions are used to make it clear that they aren't the more common meaning of "desire". – Barmar Jun 22 '15 at 18:35
  • 2
    It's probably worth pointing out that the verb usage #3b above (to want of) is flagged = obsolete in OED. The only "valid" version of that one I know of today is in, for example, They are in want of nothing, which may not actually be obsolete, but imho is at the very least dated, if not archaic. – FumbleFingers Sep 12 '15 at 15:03

Here's a tentative distinction, that sort of fits what vague feelings I have for what little I've read from this period.

'to want for' = 'to lack something'; The object is not integral to the subject, which is usually animate, hence OED defines this as "to be ill-provided with": "hee cannot want for money"

'to want of' usually means 'to be missing something' and refers to something which is integral to the subject, which is often inanimate or abstract: "The Gold, as well as gilded Silver, wants considerably of that Lustre and Brightness..."

There is also 'the want of' but this is a noun phrase, rather than a phrasal verb, and grammatically quite different.


Even though the "to" use is noted as old/archaic, the construction can be thought of in contemporary terms. In general, the presence of the preposition "to" in front of a verb is just an infinitive phrase. In that context, "to want" is not really that different even in a contemporary context from other infinitive phrases such as "to eat," "to walk," etc.


The want+preposition is less often used now, except as preserved in old expressions like "to want for nothing", or "wanting in courtesy/manners/common sense etc".

I don't know if this was the original sense, but to the modern ear, the presence of a preposition denotes that the less common, archaic meaning of "want" (ie to be lacking or needful) is intended. For that reason, most modern speakers would say 'lacking' or 'missing' instead of using "want for".

Without the preposition, modern speakers would assume the modern meaning of want is "wish" or "desire". Obviously, while "I want a beer" also implies that beer is currently missing or lacking from the speaker's situation, the proper interpretation is just that the speaker wishes for a beer, not that this speaker is always in possession of a beer and his beerless state shows a departure from normalcy. However true that might be.


Consider this quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin:

For want of a nail the horseshoe was lost,

For want of a horseshoe the horse was lost,

For want of a horse the rider was lost,

For want of a rider the message was lost,

For want of the message the battle was lost,

For want of a nail the kingdom was lost.

Here the "for" seems to carry the prepositional meaning it does in the phrase "for this reason". "Lack" would work, too, I guess, but it wouldn't sound as Benjamin Franklin-y.


One way which you still hear “want for” used in modern colloquial expressions is in a sentence such as: “He wants for absolutely nothing.” This is used to express that someone has all the luxuries of life.

  • (1) The question already cites the example to want for nothing. What are you contributing by throwing it back as “He wants for absolutely nothing”? (2) The question asks for the meanings and historic origins of the prepositions used with want. Do you have an answer to the question? – Scott Jul 20 '17 at 6:55

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