Glossary Home Literary Device


Prosthesis is a literary device that occurs when a writer adds a new syllable or an extra sound to the beginning of a word.

Prothesis can make it easier to pronounce, add emphasis, or create a more poetic-sounding phrase. A prosthesis is not a common occurrence in contemporary literature, although it certainly happens. It is far more common in the 16th-19th centuries. Shakespeare has numerous examples within his writing that demonstrate the technique (as seen below), as do poets like John Milton and Edgar Allan Poe. 

Prosthesis pronunciation: pro-thee-sis



Definition of Prosthesis 

While prosthesis sounds like a complex literary term, it’s actually quite simple. It’s also very likely that readers have encountered it before if they have read poetry. It occurs when a writer adds a new sound or syllable to the beginning of a word. The device might occur once or a few times within a poem. There are a few common examples that readers are likely already aware of. They include “afar” in which “a” is added to the word “far” and “bemoaned” in which “be” is added to “moaned.” These words are so common that they are used every day in normal conversations. 


Examples of Prosthesis in Literature

The Works of William Shakespeare 

William Shakespeare’s poetry and dramatic writings are often the sources of literary devices. This is due to the incredible originality to be found in his plays, his coinage of new words, and the variety of characters he used. Prothesis is no exception. Consider these lines from As You Like It, one of Shakespeare’s best comedies: 

I remember, when I was in love I broke my sword upon a stone and bid him take that for coming a-night to Jane Smile. 

Here, Touchstone uses “a-night.” The letter “a” is added onto “night” to change the effect of the line. This is a simple and direct example of a prosthesis. In The Tempest, readers can find another example: 

Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d

The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,

And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault

Set roaring war: […]

These lines are spoken by Prospero in Act V Scene 1. He uses “bedimm’d,” changing “dimmed” by added “be” to the front of the word. This makes the line feel more poetic, especially helpful considering the character and his circumstances.

In Sonnet 29,’ readers can find another example. Shakespeare writes:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

He uses “beweep” in these lines while despairing over his fate and his differences from other luckier men. This is a good example of how writers use prostheses in order to conform to a specific metrical pattern. Adding “be” means that line has the right number of syllables, ten, or iambic pentameter. 

Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry. 


The Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Like with Shakespeare, there are several examples of prosthesis throughout Poe’s literary oeuvre. Consider these lines from Poe’s A Dream: 

What though that light, thro’ storm and night,

So trembled from afar–

What could there be more purely bright

In Truth’s day-star?

In the second line, he adds an extra syllable, “a,” onto “far.” This brings the line to a perfect six syllables and adds to the overall feeling of the passage. The more drama, the better in these lines. A Dream Within a Dreamalso provides readers with an example: 

Thus much let me avow–

You are not wrong, who deem

That my days have been a dream;

Yet if hope has flown away

Here, Poe uses “avow” in the first line. It makes the poem feel more rhythmic and adds interest. It also corresponds with “a dream” in the third line of the excerpt. 

Read more Edgar Allan Poe poems.


On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity by John Milton

Milton’s ‘Nativity Ode’ was written in 1629 when the poet was twenty-one years old. It’s concerned with the coming of age story of Christ and themes of religion. He celebrates Christ’s nativity and his entrance into the adult world. He also presents readers with a good example of a prosthesis. Consider these lines: 

Yet first to those ychain’d in sleep,

The wakefull trump of doom must thunder through the deep

In the first line, readers come upon an unusual word, “ychain’d,” that may, especially compared to some examples of a prosthesis, present a comprehension issue. By adding the extra sound onto the fronton “chained,” the poet changes the sound of the entire line while also adding a syllable. 

Read more John Milton poems.


Why Do Writers Use Prosthesis? 

Writers use this literary device when they want to change the sound of a word. This might be in order to influence the metrical pattern of the rhyme scheme. For example, if the line needs ten syllables, a writer might change “far” to “afar” in order to accommodate that. In another situation, the same word might be used because the writer wants to sound more poetic. Usually, more complex, flowery language has a different impact on the reader than if someone uses the minimum syllables and minimum sentences. 


Prosthesis, Apocope, and Aphaeresis 

These three literary terms are often grouped together because of the way they influence words. But, there are some differences that should be outlined. A prosthesis is concerned with adding letters or syllables to the beginning of words. But, apocope and aphaeresis do the opposite. They occur when syllables or letters are removed from the beginning of words. This device can also be seen in poetry, including in the works of William Shakespeare. 


Related Literary Terms


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