The Grammarphobia Blog

‘Enthralled to’ or ‘in thrall to’?

Q: An article in the Daily Mirror quotes Lady Colin Campbell as telling Channel 5 in the UK that Prince Harry “is completely beguiled by Meghan and completely enthralled to her.” Shouldn’t it be “enthralled with” + person?

A: We suspect that the reporter who wrote that Daily Mirror article or the transcriber who took down Lady Colin Campbell’s remarks may have misconstrued the phrase “in thrall to” as “enthralled to.” What she probably said was “Harry is completely beguiled by Meghan and completely in thrall to her.”

The verb “enthrall” usually means to captivate, fascinate, or beguile in contemporary English, while the phrase “in thrall” means enslaved, controlled, or influenced. If Lady C, as the British press calls her, did indeed mean that Prince Harry was under the spell and influence of the Duchess, it was proper to say he was “beguiled by her” and “in thrall to her.”

You’re right that “enthralled to her” is unusual in contemporary English. The usual preposition would be “by” or “with,” as in these examples from Oxford Dictionaries Online: “Any reader would be enthralled by the story and find themselves rapidly taking it in” … “He can enthrall you with a story from his past.”

However, “enthralled” is often followed by the infinitive marker “to,” as in this example in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Pat was not enthralled to find she was carrying the extra weight of things like carpets, headrests, and other bits and pieces.” (From Harnessing Horsepower, a 2011 book by Stuart Turner about the rally driver Pat Moss Carlsson.)

The verb “enthrall” now usually means to captivate, as we mentioned above, but it meant to enslave or subjugate when it showed up in Middle English in the 15th century—and it’s still sometimes used that way.

The earliest OED citation for the verb, dated 1447-48, is from the letters and papers of John Shillingford, mayor of Exeter: “The sute [about tax assessments] made by the saide Mayer and Comminalte for to have oppressed and enthralled the saide Bisshop, Dean and Chapitre.” The letters and papers, edited by Stuart Archibald Moore, were published in 1871.

The dictionary’s most recent example is from Vikings, a 2012 BBC documentary written and presented by Neil Oliver: “Historians differ in their opinions of just how many individuals might have been enthralled, taken and traded by Vikings.”

Oxford Online, a standard dictionary that focuses on contemporary usage, labels this sense of “enthrall” as archaic. The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t go that far, but says “to captivate, fascinate, hold spellbound” is “now the usual sense.”

In addition, the OED has an entry for the adjective “enthralled” used to mean enslaved or subjugated, and notes: “In predicative use frequently with to.” The dictionary’s latest example is from a March 24, 2012, article in the Financial Times about a scheduled performance of The Firebird, Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet:

“In Fokine’s version the 13 maidens enthralled to the wicked wizard Kaschei are mild and virginal, playing catch with apples.” We’ve expanded the citation, which refers to Michel Fokine’s original choreography for the ballet.

The ultimate source of the verb “enthrall” and the adjective “enthralled” is þrǽl, the Old English noun for “one who is in bondage to a lord or master,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Mark 10:44 in the Lindisfarne Gospels (circa 950): “And sua huæ seðe wælle in iuh forðmest wosa bie allra ðræl” (“And whoever will be the first among you shall be the slave of all”).

Getting back to your question, when “enthralled” (past tense, past participle, or adjective) is followed by a preposition and an object, the preposition is usually “by” or “with.” But “to” does show up once in a while in mainstream publications, especially when “enthralled to” is used in the sense of “in thrall to.”

This usage does have a history, but “by” and “with” are now overwhelmingly more popular than “to” as prepositions for “enthralled.”

Here are the results of our recent searches in the News on the Web corpus, which tracks newspaper and magazine websites: “enthralled by,” 2,390 results; “enthralled with,” 913; “enthralled to,” 147. (Some of the “enthralled to” results include infinitive markers.)

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