Blogging out some thoughts around preposition agreement

Just as subjects and verbs can agree (“he walks”) or disagree (“he walk”), so, too, with verbs and prepositions. For example, we “bring up” a topic; we don’t “bring of” a topic; we “speak of” someone”; not “up” someone. Arbitrary though preposition agreement is, it matters. As with verb agreement, errors be hard on the ears.

How hard depends on what your ears have gotten used to. For decades now, “different than” has been edging out “different from”, and “based off of,” “based on.” Then there’s the gradual displacement of “about” by “around”—as in “issues around.”

The latter, I believe, is part of a larger, older trend that begin with the spatial meanings of certain prepositions. People used to look about the room; now they only look around the room. They also used to see things before them: now they only see things in front of them. For decades, the meanings of “about” and “before” have been shifting away from the concrete and spatial, narrowing towards the more abstract and temporal.

But now even the abstract meaning of “about” is in jeopardy, what with issues around identity and discussions around immigration. Meanwhile, “around” is broadening into some sort of all-purpose preposition, with people doing work around special education and the like.

Other recent examples of preposition displacement—or is it examples around preposition displacement?–include jargon: ”follow-on” for “follow-up” (“follow-on questions”), and the superfluous “out” of “share out” and “tweet out.” When I hear these, I also hear the faint echoes of consultants and commentators coining new phrases for old concepts.

Beyond the trendy, there the sloppy—the stuff that abounds, for example, in student papers:

  • There are different elements to the question.
  • She was the subject to an investigation.
  • He felt shame towards what he did.
  • It was made in bronze.

These seem like the byproducts of mental interference from (or is it mental interference around?) similar phrases in which the verbs and prepositions do agree:

  • There are different sides to the story.
  • She was subjected to an investigation.
  • He had feelings towards someone.
  • It was cast in bronze.

Then there’s plain old weird:

  • Another key criterion that distinguishes Asperger’s Syndrome to autism is…

Or the weirdly inverted:

  • She attributes the child’s multiple supports to his academic success.

I’m guessing that many of these errors would be evident to their authors, and readily corrected by them, if only they would carefully re-read and revise. But might today’s preposition disagreement also reflect a more general decline in attention to the details of sentences—not just in writing, but in reading?

7 thoughts on “Blogging out some thoughts around preposition agreement

  1. A couple of things:
    1) the “out” in “share out” or “tweet out” isn’t a preposition, but a particle.
    2) The preposition substitution that bothers me most comes from the confusion of “replace x with y” and “substitute y for x” to get “substitute x with y” (I’m never sure which direction they mean) and, worse, “substitute x and y”.

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    1. “Out” (in “tweet out”/”share out”) isn’t the only example here of a preposition functioning as a verb particle. There’s also “up” in “bring up” and “follow-up.”

      There’s actually a neat little test for determining whether a preposition functions as a verb particle or as the head of a prepositional phrase. If it sounds weird when separated from the verb, it’s a verb particle. Compare:

      Of whom are you speaking? (“of” is the head of the prepositional phrase “of what”)
      *Up what topic did you bring? (“up” is part of the verb-particle combo “bring up”).

      Preposition confusion occurs both in verb plus prepositional phrase combinations, and in verb particle combinations.

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  2. Preposition use is rather arbitrary, very dependent on dialect (BrE and AmE often use very different prepositions to express the same concept, for instance) and subject to rapid change with time.

    For dialectal differences, see here:

    http://www.onestopenglish.com/grammar/grammar-reference/american-english-vs-british-english/differences-in-american-and-british-english-grammar-article/152820.article

    at about 1/3 down the page, for example.

    Further, specific prepositions can inject subtle differences in meaning that are hard to teach explicitly (talk to any ESL teacher). To take single example related to those above, one can be “subject to” investigation or the “subject of” an investigation. I could explain the difference, but there are dozens or (more likely) hundreds of similar cases. And the only real way to know which to use is experience, which native speakers largely internalize while very young.

    The problem is, of course, exacerbated by poor instruction. My son, for instance, was given a list of “the 50 prepositions in English” that he was supposed to memorize. The teacher was either unaware that there are far more than 50 prepositions in English or willing to lie to her students. Given her Mrs. Grundy-esque tendencies in other areas of language instruction, it’s unclear to me which is more likely.

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  3. Thanks for clarifying the preposition/particle distinction. My pet peeve regarding particles is the use of “FOOup” or “FOOin” for the verb form, as in “Please setup your tables like this” and “After you login to the system”.

    Noun: setup, login
    Verb: set up (setting up, set up), log in (logging in, logged in)

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  4. There are also borrowed constructions from other languages. In German-influenced Milwaukee you often “go by the store” instead of “going to the store”: biem vs zum.

    When the kids were very little we sort of fell into using “it happened on accident” instead “by accident”. I think our teenagers are starting to shed that now.

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