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
6-minute read
Episode #452

People add a redundant on to the verb “continue” because they transpose it from a verb of similar meaning, like “carry on.” They say and write “yearn after” (instead of “yearn for”) because at the back of their minds they hear the “after” in “hanker after.” “In respect of” gets entangled with “with respect to” to produce the ungrammatical “in respect of.” The conflation of “ten years hence” and “in ten years’ time” produces the ungainly hybrid “in ten years hence.” A TV newscaster’s mind juggles with two competing phrases, “give a wide berth to” and “keep away from,” and his tongue responds by saying the highly unidiomatic “keep a wide berth from.” A football commentator will say that “the weather is likely to play a factor” (rather than “be a factor” or “play a role”), and point out that “home advantage will play into a team’s favor” (perhaps an echo of “play into someone’s hands”) rather than “be in a team’s favour.” A defender is described as “cutting the ball down,” as if it were a tree, instead of “cutting the ball off.”

To veer away from prepositions for a moment, it’s worth noting new words get invented by this act of transposition: “roisterous” is a hybrid of “roistering” and “boisterous,” and “heart-wrenching” a mismatch of “heart-rending” and “gut-wrenching” (Jenkins 68-69). Likewise, “disenheartened” is the result of “disheartened” and “disenchanted” overlapping or being unwittingly superimposed.

I say “unwittingly” because this kind of error seems to be made without the speaker being aware of what is going on. Getting wires crossed is most likely to occur when someone is under stress (speaking in public, for example, or being interviewed on television): sentences get themselves started and then lose a sense of where they are going. There is a momentary loss of direction and control. All speakers have a right to change their minds about what to say and how to say it, but when they are caught in two minds in the middle of a sentence they are heading for deep trouble. The politician who wanted to say that his opponent had “strong leanings towards communism” decided that “connections” might be better than “leanings” so out popped “strong connection towards communism.” The commentator at a tennis match wanted to say that a young player’s parents were “proudly looking on” but got sidetracked into saying “proudly watching on.” Defending a coworker who had just been fired, a woman said: “She was a loyal employee to the company.” But it’s “loyal to,” “employee of.” A way round this problem might be to rearrange the word order, i.e., “she was an employee loyal to the company.” Due allowances can and should be made when mistakes of his kind occur, particularly in people’s unrehearsed speech. 

Mishearings account for a few mistakes. “By and large” gets spoken and written as “by in large” (just as “would have” gets spoken and written as “would of,” “out of as “outta,” and the Parliamentary sign of approval “Hear, hear!” gets transcribed as the doggy “Here, here!”

As E.B. White has acknowledged, “English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment, and education—sometimes it’s just sheer luck, like getting across the street. 

That was an excerpt from David Thatcher’s book Saving Our Prepositions, which appears here with permission from the author. The chapter continues with an interesting list of prepositions and their use and common misuse. 


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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