i‑Learner Education Centre

Steps to Success » The Craft of Writing

Shakespeare the Wordsmith

Whatever your level of exposure to the plays and poems of William Shakespeare, you are using his language every day, perhaps without even knowing.


During his lifetime, Shakespeare coined thousands of words, over 300 using the prefix ‘un-’ alone; here are a few examples of words we use every day that we wouldn’t have without the Bard:



‘But that thy face is, vizard-like, unchanging,’ Henry VI, Part III


‘…his undressed, unpolished, uneducated, unpruned, untrained, or rather, unlettered, or ratherest, unconfirmed fashion,” Love’s Labour’s Lost


‘With sad unhelpful tears, and with dimm’d eyes,’ Henry VI, Part II


‘Hence, horrible shadow! Unreal mockery, hence!’ Macbeth


‘I am undone: there is no living, none,’ All’s Well That Ends Well


Why don’t you try making up your own words just like Shakespeare? Add ‘un-’ in front of any present participle (e.g. reading), past participle (e.g. read), or adjective (e.g. written). Check what you’ve created against a dictionary. If it’s in there, then Shakespeare probably beat you to it. If not, decide what your word means, and see if you can make it spread as effectively as Shakespeare did with his new words.


Although adding an ‘un’ was the playwright’s signature move, Shakespeare also coined words with other prefixes like ‘well-’, ‘in-’ and ‘dis-’. Not content with just prefixes, he also made up hundreds of new words with suffixes like ‘-less’, ‘-ment’, ‘-able’ and ‘-ful’.


Have you ever experienced excitement, felt useless or found something laughable? All the words in bold were invented by William Shakespeare.


Look at the following sentence, and think about how you’d communicate the same idea without the bolded words: every rose-cheeked schoolboy has found Shakespeare’s use of obscene language satisfying, though this is in danger of being scrubbed on purpose from curricula worldwide in a profound act of silliness.


People have ranted for centuries about the importance of Shakespeare, and you should now understand why. Hopefully, you haven’t found the level of detail in this article overpowering or distasteful. I always stare in amazement when people say studying Shakespeare is unhelpful. What a baseless and bare-faced accusation! 


Consider this your invitation to join the club of Shakespeare fans. Learning and using new words is all in an eventful day’s-work for a well-read member.

For more tips from our teaching team on succeeding in writing and everything else, see the rest of this article series here.