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Example:

When I called, he came a running.

My first inclination was that it's an article and the participle is being used as a gerund, but that doesn't make sense structurally.

My second is I wonder if it comes from Latin or a Latin-based language influence. For example, European Portuguese puts an "a" between:

He came running. (He came a running)

Ele(He) veio(came) a(a) correr(running).

Update:

What is the story behind "a-" prefix / suffix?

This suggested duplicate question is not in fact duplicate. It doesn't provide a grammatical basis. It doesn't explain what it is. Is a being used as an article or a preposition or something else? It is (couched midway in the third of seventeen paragraphs of one of three answers on the alleged duplicate post) postulated to be a preposition. But this has no basis in grammar because the only prepositional definition of a is per, as in each, because a does not mean on, not in any dictionary from OED to Merriam-Webster to American Heritage or to any other I could find. This other post asks for the story behind a; I'm asking what tenet of grammar justifies using a, which this other post does not illuminate.

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    In "ele veio a correr", a is a prepositon, not the indefinite article.
    – Jacinto
    Jan 15, 2016 at 11:14
  • @Jacinto : I know. I wasn't suggesting that it was an article. Instead, I was offering another alternative. I'm suggesting that it's maybe not an indefinite article but maybe something vestigial from a Latin-language influence, or maybe from Gaelic, which heavily influenced both Portuguese and English. I don't know what the grammatical basis is, thus the question, but these are my thoughts. Jan 15, 2016 at 11:16
  • My mistake. Correr is the infinitive though. Correndo is the equivalent to running but it takes no a: ele veio correndo. There might be some similarity between a correr and a running though. The a in veio a correr is misterious to Portuguese speakers too; but in passei uma hora a nadar (I spent an hour swimming) it can be roughly understood as in, at. Etymonline lumps togethter de a of a running with that a of twice a day: it says it means on (each) day.
    – Jacinto
    Jan 15, 2016 at 11:45
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    From the answer to that question: "Such verb forms derive from an Old English construction in which a preposition, usually on, was placed in front of a verbal noun — a verb to which -ing had been added to indicate that the action was extended or ongoing. Gradually such prepositions were shortened to a- by the common linguistic process that shortens or drops unaccented syllables." What is not explained here about what it is?
    – herisson
    Jan 17, 2016 at 11:17
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    'What's the story behind' invites discussion of the grammar involved. Jan 21, 2023 at 15:53

2 Answers 2

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This "a" is actually not an article, it's an old-fashioned prefix meaning something like "to". It's archaic and only really used in poetry and songs... maids a-milking, lords a-leaping etc.

It's possible it was influenced by Old Norse/French in Middle English.

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    I'd be interested in knowing where you got the Old Norse/French influence idea. It's too arbitrary to have made up, so I figure you read it somewhere. Do you know where? Jan 15, 2016 at 14:34
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Source derived from “Linguistics Girl”, Heather Marie Kosur -- All prefixes in English are derivational, which means the affixes create new words.

Prefix: a-
Meaning: predicative adjective with progressive aspect [ongoing action]
Examples: awake, afloat, atremble.

Suffixes in English may be derivational suffixes, which means the suffixes create new words, or they may be inflectional inflectional suffixes, which means the suffixes create new forms of the same word.

Derivational Suffix: -ing
Meaning: present participle [ongoing action]
Examples: marking, arguing, writing

Hence, a + Verb stem and Verb stem + the suffix-ing indicate ongoing action in two different ways.

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