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What is the lexical class of the word 'worth' when used in a sentence like “Is this apple worth $3?”

In a sentence like the following:

The knight’s statue had a tale worth telling.

What is worth? I wanted to identify it a preposition, showing relation between tale and telling.

  • 5
    This is actually a tough question. The wiktionary says "The modern adjectival senses of worth compare two noun phrases, prompting some sources to classify the word as a preposition. Most, however, list it an adjective, some with notes like 'governing a noun with prepositional force.' Fowler's Modern English Usage says, 'the adjective worth requires what is most easily described as an object.'" – Ataraxia Sep 27 '12 at 1:45
  • See google.co.uk/search?q=worth&tbs=dfn:1 Adjective # 2 & 3. The tale is worth being told. – Lee Kowalkowski Sep 27 '12 at 9:07
  • Would someone say "worth" is a preposition in "That isn't worth much"? – rogermue Sep 14 '14 at 0:56

It is actually an adjective. The OED has a note about it:

Almost always (now only) in predicative use, or following the sb. as part of a qualifying phrase.

I can see why you would think of it as a preposition, in that it seems to take an object.

  • That cow is worth five hundred dollars to me.

When used following its “object”, it acts as a noun with a possessive in front of it — or you might think of it as a postposition that takes a genitive.

  • I’d like ten dollars’ worth, please.

It’s a very old word. The OED’s second citation for it is from the 7th century:

  • A. 695 Laws Ine lviii, ― Oxan horn bið x. pæninga weorð

Which (I presume) means something like “Oxen horn be-eth 10 pennies worth”. By the time Old English had creoled into Middle English, we see the now-familiar formula:

  • C. 1350 Athelston 391 ― Now is my goode hors forlorn,··He was wurþ an hundryd pounde.

If someone asked how much something was valued, you would think of valued as an adjective. They can similarly ask how much something is worth, so it stands to reason that worth is also an adjective. But yes, it is weird.

One upon a time there was an adjective wurthe, meaning worthy, which eventually merged with worth. The OED writes:

OE. wierðe, wyrðe, etc., a derivative from weorþ worth sb.1 or a. In OE. and early southern ME. texts distinguishable from worth a., but subsequently merged with it.

The most legible citation is this:

  • C. 1325 Chron. Eng. 741 in Ritson Metr. Rom. II. 301 ― Afterward, ase he wes wurthe,··An abbot him remue wolde.

Wurthe also meant merited or deserved, as in this citation:

  • A. 1225 Ancr. R. 138 ― We moten þauh don him wo, ase hit is ofte wel wurðe.

It is not surprising that it merged with worth.

A more clearly adjectival use is the now archaic:

  • 1871 B. Taylor Faust II. ii. ii. 148 ― Little worth is woman’s beauty, So oft an image dumb we see.
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  • I'm not convinced: "He had a tale worth/*valued telling?" – Mark Beadles Sep 27 '12 at 2:22

I have seen some authorities (including the CGEL) put worth in a class of words called marginal prepositions. These words can be used mostly like prepositions, but "have affinities with other word classes"; usually they come from other parts of speech that have undergone some grammaticalization. This characterization is admittedly vague, but the number of words in the class is small, and it has been observed that "Their occurrence is tightly constrained by grammatical and lexical factors." (Rankin and Schiftner, 2009)

Other marginal prepositions in English include:

following, concerning, considering, excluding, given, granted, pending, worth, minus, plus, instead of

Other languages sometimes have marginal prepositions too. Generally they seem to be words that are derived from other parts of speech and are in the process of becoming regular prepositions.

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Here's a paper about the relative grammar and meaning of value, worth, cost, and price.

What it says (on p.391) about the grammatical category of worth is:

".. the categorial status of worth is a matter of some dispute. It has variously been claimed to be a preposition and an adjective (cf Maling 1983 and McCawley 1985). If it is a preposition, then it must have a homophonous derived noun, since phrases like the worth of the book are common enough. On the other hand, if it is an adjective, then it must be transitive, since it has a complement; this is surely unusual -- or even impossible, according to some theories of grammatical categories. I will have nothing to say about the categorial status of worth here, since the matter is irrelevant to its meaning; let it stand that no matter what category worth may belong to, it is an atypical example of the category."

  • Heny, Frank; and Richards, Barry (eds). 1983. Linguistic Categories: Auxiliaries and related puzzles (2 Vols). Dordrech: Reidel.

  • Maling, Joan. 1983. "Transitive adjectives: A case of categorial reanalysis." In Heny and Richards 1983.

  • McCawley, James D. 1985. Review article on Heny and Richards (eds) 1983. In Language, vol 61, pp 849-62.

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  • I also sometimes wonder whether like is a preposition in “there aren’t many people like him”, since it takes a complement there. But then you realize it admits modifiers of degree, which is a funny thing to apply to a preposition. I guess some things can be more inside the house than others are, but it still seems odd. – tchrist Mar 28 '13 at 21:46
  • As Sapir put it, all grammars leak. POS are just a guide, and there will always be cases that fall between the stools. Language is alive, after all, and variation is the key to surviving evolution. – John Lawler Mar 28 '13 at 21:56

Oxford English Dictionary says that worth is a predicative expression - part of a clause predicate.

When the worth is relative to a person, the dative of that persion is invoked. In this such cases of direct or indirect questions, worth is an indefinite article.

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  • 1
    I get downvoted for citing a dictionary? – New Alexandria Sep 27 '12 at 15:31
  • Is the indefinite article statement also a part of the citation? – musiphil Mar 28 '13 at 21:14
  • @musiphil Yes, OED indicates that it is an indefinite article. – New Alexandria Mar 29 '13 at 23:13

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