A Prepositional Tale

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December 16, 2012

Once upon a time, we used the preposition “upon”. Alas, its days are numbered.

It’s the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales this month, which is inspiration enough to look at the changing nature of prepositions.

Those little words have an important function, usually locating us in time and space. As the way we relate to time and space changes, we reduce our use of words like upon, add others, and modify meanings. Because prepositions morph so much, they can seem confusing.

Robert Lane Greene, who writes The Economist’s “Johnson” blog on language, says it comes down to how these words evolved.

“For example, behind has a hint of the old word “hind quarter” – the hind – so it was something near your rear end, essentially,” says Greene. “So they start very literal [and] they become pretty concrete but still spatially literal. Like behind is a location in space, and then you can say I’m behind in my work and that’s a more abstract meaning.”

So they can be grounded in the physical or the abstract.

But often, the prepositions we use don’t make the most sense. We say in debt, when under debt might be more appropriate. We open up a store in the morning, and close it up at night. An alarm goes off by going on. Even varieties of English differ; we say on the weekend where Britons say at.

“Whether a single preposition is correct isn’t established by a logic; it’s usually just by convention,” says Greene. “We dream about something in English. You say soñar con in Spanish: to dream with something. The speech community itself gets to establish what random preposition out of the bag might go with certain phrases or certain expressions.”

Since preposition use isn’t obvious or even logical, it can be challenging when we have a new spatial relationship. Like moving from physical, to digital.

“Do you say on or in a website?” Greene asks. “For example, Slate calls itself a magazine; it’s a news and commentary website. But people will tend to say on Slate, or in Slate. In some cases, the correct preposition takes a while to shake out [but] usually it will. People say on Twitter, not in Twitter.”

And with research studies proliferating in the news, the media have taken to saying a study out of such and such university, versus by particular researchers.

Over the past half century, we’ve actually added a number of new prepositions, according to Brett Reynolds, an English professor at Humber College. One of them is post, as in: How is the water, post Walkerton? I used it myself the other day: Post vacation, I always feel a little blue (but then I quickly bounce back!).

 

 So, if we’re continually adopting new ways to use prepositions, why do we cling to the old idea that we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition?

We avoid it. Or we do it, but quickly cover up. Or we try to avoid it, and do it anyway.

The idea of preposition “stranding” dates back to the 1600s to poet and essayist John Dryden. He liked to compose his writing in Latin then translate into English – more sophisticated, apparently. And in Latin, a preposition must precede its object. The idea was condoned in an influential grammar book in the 1700s, and stays with us today.

“One linguist I know calls it a zombie rule,” says Greene. “It’s dead and everyone knows it’s dead and yet it keeps on coming at you.”

But in fact, it’s often more natural to end with a preposition. As in: She likes being fussed over; He relishes the project he’s taking on; Who are you talking to?!

If we just moved on from that old-fashioned rule, we would all live happily ever after.

 Listen here:


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