Prepositions: Use and Misuse

In this excerpt from David Thatcher's book Saving Our Prepositions, we learn the real reasons people have trouble with prepositions.

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #452

Use and Misuse of Prepositions

All words can be problematic, but prepositions are particularly so because their use and meaning often seem, and indeed often are, so arbitrary and “peculiar” (the word “idiom” derives form the Greek for “peculiar”). We might say that the idiomatic preposition tends towards the figurative, the non-idiomatic preposition tends towards the literal, as in this well-known jingle: “The bird is on the wing/But that’s absurd/The wing is on the bird.” We can sense the difference between “the dog jumped at the man’s throat” and “I jumped at the chance,” or between “she looked into the mirror” and “she looked into the problem.” Familiar prepositions like after, by, for, of and on can vary towards the figurative when found in phrases the meaning of which cannot be determined by their constituent parts alone. Examples are not that far to seek: “after all” (meaning all things considered), “by far” (meaning to a great extent), “for good” (meaning permanently), “of course” (meaning certainly), “on edge” (meaning nervous).

One explanation for misused prepositions may lie in a hybrid phenomenon we might call “crossover” or, as Paul Brians calls it, “cross-pollination.” This is essentially a problem of transposition, rather like the verbal confusion that produces spoonerisms, malapropisms and the “portmanteau” words like “slithy” (“lithe” plus “slimy”) in Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” When he asks, “What do you mean by that insinuendo?” Archie Bunker has conflated “innuendo” and “insinuation” and created high verbal comedy. My niece, as a young slip of a girl, did the same when she once asked me to fetch her an ice-cream from the “reshiverator.”

The semi-literate “irregardless” was probably spawned by “irrespective.”

It’s been pointed out that you can “hone down” the edge of a knife, or a point in an argument, and you can “home in on” a radar beam but you definitely can’t “hone in on” anything. At my local tennis court there is a notice: “In consideration of other players do not enter the court until your time to play.” I think this should be “out of consideration for” since “in consideration of” means “in view of” “on account of” (common in legal jargon). “In consideration to others” is also wrong. The American usage “oblivious to” (rather than of in Britspeak) is probably modelled on “indifferent to,” though the distinction between “oblivious of” and “indifferent to” is surely worth retaining.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

The Quick and Dirty Tips Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.