Tag Archives: to

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.

Are you deranged?

As people who read Sesquiotica know, I’m not in the business of coming up with inflexible rules for people to slave under. But I am in the business of making observations and occasional suggestions. And sometimes asking questions.

Well, today I have a question for you: Are you deranged?

Actually, that would be better put as Is your prose deranged?

Here’s what I’m getting at. How do you normally express a range in English? You know, from 1 to 20 or from ultraviolet to infrared?

The way I just did, naturally: from…to.

And when people write ad or marketing or expository copy wanting to talk about all the options available in this or that place or from this or that person or business, they very often like to use this form to give a sense of a full range. In fact, two items often don’t suffice to express the ambit of offerings: you’ll get

from Iqaluit to Toronto and from Victoria to St. John’s

or you’ll get

from drama and dance to engineering and physics

and sometimes you’ll even get a string of to‘s.

But what you much too often will not get is an actual range. The from…to construction is grabbed as a convenient way to convey the idea of a a diverse offering, like a sweep of the arms. But too often it lacks clarity, it lacks sharpness, it lacks punch, because it doesn’t express a real range. It’s de-ranged.

Consider a sentence such as

From its beautiful waterfront to its exciting dining options to its lively theatre scene to its lush parks, Toronto has a lot to offer.

Diagram that out if you can. Does that really express a contrast between endpoints or extremes? It’s four different things, but it’s not like

from Bonavista to Vancouver Island, from the Arctic Circle to the great lake waters

It’s more like

from your elbow to a poodle to your nose to pineapples

As I’ve discussed elsewhere (“Sharpening and vowel shifts” and “chiaroscuro“), contrasts appeal. Make a strong statement. Give it some flavour if you can. Go for something like

From Napoleons to beef Wellington, if it has pastry, we make it.

If you don’t have a sharp contrast, don’t pretend you do. But you can probably find one if you look – rather than just being lazy and relying on a usage that seems to suggest contrast. You’ll get more contrast from

Treat yourself to our one-inch micro-whoopie pie. Or to our twenty-inch monster cake. Or maybe just a nice warm muffin.

than you will from

From cookies to cakes to muffins, we have the full complement of baked goods.

This isn’t a rule; this is advice: don’t be de-ranged. Don’t be lazy or sloppy. Don’t rely on clichéd syntax. Stop for a moment and think about the truly vivid images available. You’ll produce much better results if you do.

What would you need in order to know if this is right?

A colleague asked about a sentence such as “What additional information would you need in order to determine if XYZ will actually happen?” Should the will also be would?

The answer is that it depends. Is the possibility of XYZ happening also contingent or hypothetical? If it’s something that may or may not happen regardless of whether you make a determination in advance, then “will” is preferable:

If you were a weatherman, what information would you need in order to determine whether it will be cloudy tomorrow?

On the other hand, if XYZ’s occurrence is hypothetical, then “would” is correct:

If you were obsessed with a star, what information would you need to determine if he/she would accept your proposal of marriage?

It’s possible to have a hypothetical with bearing on a real event, so we can’t insist on concord between the conditionals without looking at the sense.

Incidentally, some people will insist that you should always shorten in order to to plain to. In fact, while there are places where the shortening can be accomplished to good effect, there are others where bare to would be ambiguous:

These are the dishes I need in order to cook. [Without these casseroles and plates, I can’t cook.]

These are the dishes I need to cook. [I need to cook these dishes.]

And how about if versus whether?  While whether is more formal and has no possible ambiguity, if is very well established in such usage, and has been used by far better authors than the ones who will tut-tut you for using it. Again, consider tone and clarity.

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