Tag Archives: prepositions

Prepositions, ductape, and beer coasters

My latest article for TheWeek.com takes a look at prepositions – their many and often somewhat arbitrary uses.

Prepositions: The super-handy and horribly confusing widgets of language

To, from, of, by: The little linguistic bits that we use to fit in gaps and hold things together or keep them apart. But it’s all rather arbitrary.


A word such as by is really too basic and multifarious to do a tasting of the usual sort on it. Instead, I present a poem – another from Songs of Love and Grammar.

Joined by fate by April

Last fall I was hit by a stop sign
by a truck that failed to stop;
the driver was caught by a red light
and sent off to jail by a cop.
I was taken away by an ambulance
and laid by a nurse in a bed
in a hospital built by a river
and by morning was back from the dead.
I was kept in a room by the river
by the nurse to heal and stay.
I was seen by my bed by the window
by the nurse twice every day.
I was healed by the power of beauty:
I was struck by the nurse’s face
and blown away by her lovely lips
by the time I left that place.
The nurse was known by April
by friends and by people about
and, by George, she was called by the next month
by me to ask her out.
By April she had been courted
by me for half a year
and by then it was time for a ring
to be given by me to my dear.
We were wed by a tree by a lake
by a hill by the moon by a priest
and the joining by God was feted
by the stars by our friends by a feast.
Now I’m joined in my life by April
and by fate we will never be parted,
and my wall is bedecked by the stop sign
by which this all was started.
By the wall a cradle’s been placed,
and by April all will know why:
by and large, my April’s grown pregnant,
and we’ll have a child by and by.

How possessive should you be?

A colleague has asked about whether it’s better to use, for example,

a close friend of Jack’s and Diane’s


a close friend of Jack and Diane

She notes that the first one looks a bit funny, but that you’d use possessive (genitive) with the pronoun:

a close friend of theirs

In fact, both are actually correct. With pronouns, we use the genitive (but see below); this is a holdover from when English had a more thoroughgoing use of case (and indeed in German, which kept the inflections, you would use just the genitive and no preposition: ein enger Freund Jacks und Dianas). We used to match case variably to prepositions; this is why we can see from whence in old texts as normal.  But we have moved away from heavily inflecting nouns in general, and we no longer generally vary case according to preposition, which is why those who “stop and think about it” sometimes declare that from whence is redundant — we think of case as a paraphrase of preposition plus noun, or vice versa, which it isn’t really. To return to the issue at hand, in Modern English, as a standard rule (to which the genitive pronoun structure shown above is an exception), the complement of a preposition is structurally in the accusative case (though non-pronouns don’t manifest a difference morphologically between nominative and accusative), and so the non-’s version works.

There is a distinction that can be made in some contexts: compare

that criticism of his


that criticism of him

We use the possessive (genitive) in cases where there is a sense of belonging or attachment; we use the accusative where the of is functioning not as a genitive but as another kind of relation. In theory we can make the same distinction with regular nouns, and it works in some cases:

that criticism of John’s

that criticism of John

But in the case of a word such as friend there is no important distinction to be made. And in fact we can get away with the accusative even on the pronoun:

a close friend of them

It’s not quite as nice as

a close friend of theirs

but it is acceptable. When you go over to the actual nouns, however, it tends to be more natural the other way. Adding the ’s on the names might give a greater sense of belonging or attachment (and without it of a greater unidirectionality), or it might not; your results will vary.

Chez what?

A colleague who works on French and English texts was musing lately on French place names such as “Chez Pierre” and how in English we would deal with a place name starting with a preposition – her example was “At Pete’s Place.” Could we say “The party is at At Pete’s Place”?

Part of the issue, of course, is that in English we don’t normally use that kind of prepositional construction in place names. But a parallel could be found in a synopsis of Of Human Bondage or perhaps if you looked into Into the Woods or cast your eyes on On the Waterfront, and perhaps glanced at At Fault (by Kate Chopin)…

You can’t get away from the fact that At is part of the name. If you don’t like the at-at, then rewrite! But short of going out with a chainsaw and cutting the At off the sign (as one colleague suggested), you can’t change the name of the place – articles (a, the) may be dispensable, but articles are specifiers on noun phrase heads, whereas prepositions are heads of prepositional phrases, and you can’t cut off heads so glibly. (An argument may be made as to the role of the prepositional phrase as a case proxy for its complement noun phrase, but we can’t avoid the overt syntactic realization and its entailments.)

And anyway, heads though they be, prepositions are usually unstressed except at the beginning of a name, so it’s not quite so awkward, as we have seen above.

under the sea

Dear Word Sommelier: I was just watching The Little Mermaid and I was struck by the song “Under the Sea.” The sea is the water, right? All the creatures are in the water; only the sea bed is under it. So shouldn’t it be “in the sea”? Or is this one of those idiomatic things? If I wanted to write about the beauty of sea life, should I write about the colours in the sea or the colours under the sea?

Oh, prepositions are bedeviling. Which preposition goes with what is one of the least predictable things about any language. But I’m not going to wave this off with “It’s idiomatic” (which might be read as “It’s idiotic, Ma”). In this case you have two usable options, depending on your choice of schema for the sea: as container or voluminous body, or as surface with or without depth: without, like a boardwalk (“under the boardwalk, down by the sea”), or with, like a blanket of snow.

Under the sea uses the “surface” schema; it means below the surface of the sea, and – giving the sense that it’s a surface with depth – usually towards the bottom; the fact that it’s actually in the seawater doesn’t change the “under” relationship to the surface and to all the water on top of whatever is under the sea. Jules Verne’s book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is something that often hovers in the mind when one speaks of being under the sea, as does the Beatles’ “I’d like to be under the sea, in an octopus’s garden in the shade.” Another phrase that makes use of the same schema is beneath the sea – or, perhaps more commonly, as in “Octopus’s Garden,” beneath the waves (do remember that waves are more than just a pure surface phenomenon in reality). We must remember, too, the very common word and image underwater (and its counterpart underground).

In the sea, on the other hand, uses the “container” or “voluminous body” schema (that’s two different schemata, not two names for the same one). It presents an image of being in the water, surrounded by it or as part of it or using it as a medium. It can even involve being partly out of the sea (e.g., swimming, which you do not do “on the sea”).

There’s also the question of vantage point. If you’re looking at the colours in the sea, you’re most likely looking at them from outside, perhaps on a boat looking down into it. To see all the colours under the sea, you’d more likely have an undersea perspective yourself – if not in a submarine or scuba diving, then at least snorkeling or in a glass-bottom boat. Also, colours in the sea could imply or at least include the colours of the water itself, which colours under the sea would less likely do – though it might imply the colour of the light coming down through the water.

There’s also the phonaesthetic angle, which is a little fuzzier: under has that depth of sound, that hollow central vowel with the resonant nasal-stop /nd/ and the echo syllabic /r/, just like thunder (and also, of course, blunder, chunder, plunder, and wonder). Anyone who has had their head under water and heard hard things bonking together in the water (even if it’s just your shampoo bottle falling into the tub) will have some sense of that hollow sound. In, on the other hand, has a high front vowel into a simple nasal. It’s short, direct, less resonant, less capable of evocativeness. One might say it’s a jackknife dive to under’s cannonball, but it’s not really amenable to even that much flourish.

In a song like “Under the Sea,” of course, the rhythm is an important part of it. But for other uses, you may also want to consider the sound and the rhythm along with the image. Oh, and less-common usages tend to have a certain dearness compared to more-common ones… and under the sea is and (indications are) has always been somewhat less common than in the sea.

Just as a parting shot, ask yourself whether you would use under the ocean. I suspect most people would find it less idiomatic. Sea, an English word as long as there has been an English, has more native idioms and a greater literary accretion. Ocean is a loan from Greek (via Latin and French, arriving in English in the 13th century) and, like many such, is a little more technical and precise, and a little less flexible.

Thanks to Gael Spivak and several other editorial colleagues for input and inspiration.

Questions for the word sommelier are always welcome!

Grammar Girl is not where it’s at

One of the problems that I and other linguistically trained, open-minded writers run up against in building an audience is that people really seem to want someone to just tell them “Do this and don’t do that.” And they want nice, simple explanations. So they turn to people like Strunk and White, Lynne Truss, and Mignon Fogarty – the Grammar Girl* – who give them nice, reasonably simple answers and guidelines to live by.

Folks, if you want nice and simple, speak Esperanto. English is fun precisely because it’s, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy. English is not like one of those old ’70s video games with one level of play. English has more variations and levels of play, more nuances and negotiations, more little subtleties and twists and turns, than any computer game anyone’s ever devised. By orders of magnitude.

Yes, there is a version of English that is standard. (Actually, within that standard, there are quite a lot of variations.) Yes, that standard is generally susceptible to description – though, in fact, some of its structures are still subject to argument and further research even at the highest levels of linguistic enquiry. No, that standard does not involve nothing but simple, clear, consistent, one-way-for-all-times rules. Some rules are consistent. Some are not. There is no great merit in imposing rules that add complications without benefit or that restrict the expressive potential without adding some other virtue (other than defining an in-group of self-appointed cognoscenti).

I write this because I was just looking at Grammar Girl’s site because someone had sent me a link to an article of hers. Among her top 5 tips is one on ending a sentence with a preposition. To her credit, she starts off by saying that, contrary to popular belief, there is no firm rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. This is true: the supposed proscription on sentence-ending prepositions is nothing but a grammatical superstition, a mumpsimus, an invention that adds nothing to the expressive potential of the language.

She also says that you should not add a preposition on the end of a sentence when you could leave it off and it wouldn’t change the meaning. “Really,” she says, “I can’t believe anyone would make such a silly mistake!” Oh, indeed. Why use any more words than you absolutely have to? Other than for reasons of flow, sound, expression, emphasis, you know…

Then she notes that someone has called her out for saying “That’s where it’s at” on one of her episodes. She immediately goes into mea culpa mode. Does she say, “Oh, actually, there’s more to the expressive value of a sentence than just the denotative value of the words?” Nope. She completely disregards or forgets any motivation she might have had for saying it that way and declares, “But if I did say, ‘That’s where it’s at.’ I’m so sorry—the horror—because that is one of the instances where it’s not OK to end a sentence with a preposition! . . . The problem is that the sentence That’s where it’s at doesn’t need the preposition. If you open the contraction ‘it-apostrophe-s’ and say ‘That’s where it is,’ it means the same thing as That’s where it’s at. So the at is unnecessary.”

Nope. Continue reading

To be a preposition or not to be a preposition

So… is the to before an infinitive a preposition? If you have a sentence, e.g., “He decided to write a blog post on the topic,” is the to a preposition, or is it just a part of the infinitive?

It’s a tricky question, is the short answer. The detailed answer starts with Continue reading

When an “error” isn’t

This is the text of a presentation I made to the Toronto branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada, Sept. 24, 2007. Certain parts were sung; you can guess which.

It ain’t necessarily so, no,
it ain’t necessarily so,
the things Strunk and White
want to tell you are right,
it just ain’t necessarily so.

Getting pissed off about grammatical errors is a favourite activity of a surprisingly large portion of English speakers. Continue reading