And other troublesome prepositions.
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.