And other troublesome prepositions.
In today's show, we cover whether you should say you talked to someone or talked with someone.
In an e-mail message, Kevin B. wrote, “I always hear talk show hosts say ‘It was nice talking to you....’ This (to me) sounds wrong, as if the person the host was speaking with was sitting there.... Shouldn’t it be ‘It was nice talking with you...’?. The use of the word ‘to’ instead of ‘with’ sounds directional, but the conversation was bi-directional.”
It’s true that the phrase “talk with someone” clearly refers to a two-way (or many-way) conversation. Still, “talk to someone” doesn’t rule out a two-way conversation. Any number of things could be happening while you’re “talking to” someone that you don’t mention, including that the person might be talking back to you. A Google search turns up many hits for strings like “I talked with them and they said”, but it also does for strings like “I talked to them and they said”, which indicates that many writers don’t interpret “talk to” to exclude a two-way conversation.
The Maxim of Quantity
But are all those writers and talk show hosts simply wrong? Let’s consider the position. Why might “talk to” be a mistake when it refers to an interactive conversation? One could argue that since there is an equally simple expression that is more specific than “talk to,” you should use it if it’s truthful. Linguists call this principle the Maxim of Quantity. A speaker who respects this principle will give as much information as possible. For example, if you had a son and two daughters, and someone asked you if you had children, and you answered, “I have a son,” you would be violating Quantity because you left out something important. You would risk being labeled as sneaky and uncooperative.
The Maxim of Relevance
In response to the Quantity-based argument that you should use “talk with” for two-sided conversations because it gives more information, one could argue in defense of “talk to” based on another principle, called the Maxim of Relevance, which states that a cooperative speaker will not mention irrelevant facts. To illustrate with the son-and-two-daughters example, you could satisfy Quantity and Relevance by saying, “A son and two daughters.” If you went on to give a five-minute biography for each child, you’d still be respecting Quantity, but you might be violating Relevance. In other words, you droned on and on about things that aren't relevant.
Returning to the issue of “talk with” versus “talk to,” you could argue that most people understand that if you’re talking to someone, he or she will also be talking to you, barring unusual circumstances. Therefore, there’s no reason to avoid “talk to” as a general rule. If the conversation is one-sided, you can say you “lectured” someone instead, or even “talked at” people if the audience wasn't paying attention. If the conversation is two-sided, but you have some reason to highlight that fact, then you can use “talked with,” or to really drive it home, “had a conversation with.”
Other Preposition Problems
So our advice on “talk with” versus “talk to” is to use whichever one you want. Even if there is a possible meaning difference between the two, it’s a weak one, and not one that you can count on your readers sharing. With that specific question out of the way, however, I want to talk about preposition choice in general. In episode 63, I wrote:
Some of the most difficult questions I get are from non-native English speakers who want to know why we use a particular preposition in a specific phrase. Why do we say I’m in bed instead of I’m on bed? Do people suffer from a disease or suffer with a disease? Are we in a restaurant or at a restaurant?
In cases like these, there isn’t even a weak meaning difference between the alternatives. What’s the difference between being “crazy about you” (as I might say); “crazy for you” (as Madonna once sang); and “crazy over you” (from a song written by Sean Combs)? Or between “by accident” and “on accident” (the subject of episode 63)?
Language is invented on the fly, by people trying to put into words meanings that they might not have heard expressed before, and with thousands of speakers doing this, sometimes you end up with more than one expression referring to the same kind of situation.
Often, these expressions take hold in different regions. For example, in episode 65 on regionalisms, I wrote about how speakers in an area including New York City and parts of nearby states will talk about “standing on line,” whereas most other American English speakers say “standing in line.”
Of course, these differences aren’t limited just to prepositions. Instead of “standing in line,” British speakers will say “standing in queue.” Lynne Murphy, an American linguist living in England, writes about differences like these in her blog “Separated by a Common Language.” Several of her posts deal with preposition choice, such as British English “in protest at” versus American English “in protest of”; “cater for” versus “cater to”; and “take-out” food versus “take-away” food.
Even Linguists Can't Agree
When these variations are used in the same population, people ask questions. There’s a tendency to want a given meaning to be expressed by only one word or expression. In its strongest form, it’s a rule that linguist Arnold Zwicky has given the name One Right Way. Under this rule, if a distinction can’t be found or created, then one of the expressions must be incorrect.
It doesn’t have to be that way! When you encounter different expressions with the same meaning, and neither one is obviously ungrammatical, you don’t have to ask “Which is correct?” It could well be that they both are.
Literal Minded and Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing
This article was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs at Literal Minded. The article was edited and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of the New York Times bestseller Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.