Interesting prepositions

Something odd is happening to the way that prepositions are used in English, and I think I may be the only person noticing it.

Prepositions are small words that add nuance, usually by modifying the verb or adjective that comes before them, or else by modifying the noun that comes after. It is simplest to give you examples. Please consider the differences between:

  • gone to seed
  • gone with the wind
  • gone down hill
  • gone up in the world
  • gone off with the milkman
  • gone along with the idea
  • gone by Saturday
  • gone across to France
  • gone over it again and again
  • gone off in the heat
  • gone over to the dark side
  • gone in a jiffy
  • gone on the train
  • gone for good
  • gone off white wine
  • gone off of the edge of the cliff (hmmm)
  • gone out of control (as demonstrated)

I hope this list shows what prepositions are, and how powerfully they do their job. These examples are unusual because most words that need a preposition are associated with just one or two and not with a myriad of the buggers.

However I have become increasingly aware of prepositions being chosen seemingly at random. I find the whole thing interesting, so I decided to make a space where I could keep a list of odd prepositional usage out there in the wild. It says something depressing about my listening habits that so many examples come from Radio 4: I guess I could print this out in green ink and post it to the BBC.  Or start listening to podcasts again.  I add more to the top of the list as I hear them.

What they said Who said it What I expected Comment
All sharps boxes must be returned to the pharmacy where patient picked them up from My local GP’s surgery, July 2007 … where patients picked them up Oddly I quite like this – “where patients picked them up” is so much better than “where they were dispensed” or any of the other horrors which could have been inflicted on us.  All that’s wrong with this is the extra “from” on the end.
… please keep [your belongings] with you while on or around the station Train announcer, East Coast Mainline, July 2007 in the station Nothing really wrong with this, he just said the same thing twice.  To my ear, “in” sounds more purposeful than “around” which sounds as if you are just hanging out with da boyz.
… that has the potential to be absolutely transformative of this area David Cairns MPthe World this Weekend, 08/07/2008 … that has the potential to absolutely transform this area Actually I think that the problem is the choice of ‘transformative’.  I’ve no idea what preposition I’d expect with that.
… we made a promise with her … Radio Wave Morning Show, Sunday 08/07/2008 … we made a promise to her …. or …. we promised her that … I rather like the usage here. I’ve used ‘talk with’ in preference to ‘talk to’ for a couple of decades and I hope it hasn’t made me sound insincere. It very rapidly became habitual.
… in anticipation to Michael Simkins in A Good Read, 01/07/08 … in anticipation of One would expect Simkins to have a good ear for language because he is an actor and author so this example in particular suggests that this is about language shifting and not a matter of education.
Your character, Lucy, how different is she in this film than she was from the first film? Natalie Barrass, Go for it, 29/06/08 I was taught that something was ‘opposite to’ and ‘different from’ but I’ve certainly heard ‘different than’ before. And of course I was expecting ‘in this film …. in the first film’. Barrass seemed unaware of just how difficult it was to start a question with the words ‘Your character, Lucy…’.  She’d have been better with a simpler formation altogether: ‘how different is Lucy in the two films?’ or ‘how much does Lucy change between the two films?’  It is interesting to hear someone using two completely different usages within seconds: ‘in this film / from the first film’.
There’s a real apathy to this kind of thing My boss Amazing work Aphra; have a pay rise Nah, just kidding. I expected ‘a real apathy about this kind of thing’.
I am absolutely fascinated in British behaviour … I am still fascinated by [it] Lee Campbell, Midweek 25/06/08 … fascinated by Again, it is interesting to hear someone using different prepositions in the same context within about 15 seconds – did Campbell genuinely not know which one to use, or was the second time a correction?  Incidentally, Campbell’s an artist rather than a writer.
… I have no intention to do so David Benioff, Front Row 25/06/08 … I have no intention of doing so Presumably a corruption of ‘I don’t intend to do so’.  Benioff is a playwright, and one would expect him to be aware of the language he’s using.
Point of Inquiry is … recorded from St Louis, Missouri D J Grothe, Point of Inquiry, 21/06/08 … recorded inor
… recorded at
Possibly a confusion based on ‘broadcast from’?. Interestingly, Grothe said ‘Point of Inquiry is produced from‘ in another edition.
since many years I have not seen a rifle in your hand… Abba – Fernando – This is a little unfair, because Bjorn and Bennie were not writing in their first language. Apart from the fact you hold a rifle in two hands? Either: … for many years I have not seen …. or … it’s been many years since I’ve seen …. For some reason since/for is a common mix-up for speakers of English as a second language, and one you hear from a wide variety of people with a wide variety of mainly European first languages.  I guess the since/for choice is confusing.

Let me stress again that I’m not saying these usages are wrong, I have a distressingly post-modernist view that language is by definition local and that it’s ok to say just about anything so long as it works.  It’s also noticeable that all these examples come from unscripted conversations.

But am I the only one who finds these usages odd? If you find this sort of thing odd too, then please add your examples.


13 responses to “Interesting prepositions

  1. While ‘different than’ isn’t what I prefer, it’s just about as old as ‘different from’ and ‘different to’. Grammarians tried in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to get ‘different from’ accepted as the only right option, but it’s never really stuck.

    Overall, as an editor, it seems to me that people use the wrong preposition more when they’re trying to sound impressive. There seems to be a feeling that if the sentence sounds stilted it must be more formal. Idiots!

  2. I find the usages all odd and grating to the ear, but it makes me realise what a twit I must sound speaking German, because I’m sure my prepositions are all wrong in that language.

  3. Hmmmm, can’t say these examples particular grate. It’s interesting how in some of them the nuance subtly changes: “I have no intention to do so” sounds more assertive than “I have no intention of doing so”, and “I have ABSOLUTELY not intention of doing so” sounds more equivalent (although the more I repeat it the more it begins to sound jaw-breakingly wrong); “apathy to” sounds different to “apathy about”, I suppose the former makes the apathy sound endemic.

    However, while admiring at your powers of observation I have to agree with your approach to language … Tee hee.

  4. I meant, of course, “I have ABSOLUTELY no intention of doing so” sounds more equivalent.

    More equivalent? What is the language coming to.

  5. Umm, yes, many bad usages drive me mad, but particularly “off of”.

    And don’t get me started on apostrophes!

    Shall you forgive me for starting a sentence with “And”?

  6. Lovely post. Good research. And good point by Maire, no.1. commenter, about people doing odd things with language when wanting to sound more impressive. This happens a lot – extra/different words are deemed to add gravitas.

    On a slightly different level, where words have become so closely related that you barely see them apart, it becomes almost impossible to split them without making them sound completely feeble. For example, how often have you seen an establishment advertise ‘a bar’ rather than ‘a licensed bar’ or, more commonly, ‘a fully-licensed bar’ recently? Or seen a decorator offering just ‘a quote’ rather than a ‘complimentary quote’? (I’ve never been charged for a quote in my life so ‘complimentary’ or ‘free’ must have just stuck.) Similarly, many advisors style themselves as ‘totally independent’ or give advice that is ‘completely free’.

    The problem with this kind of false escalation of language (often based on qualifying something whose meaning cannot be changed by further qualification – a safe way to add extra words that may add some weight but are ultimately meaningless) is that when you are trying to write something simple, straightforward and accurate, the words can feel a little flat and deflated. Hence, as you can see, I have got into the habit of writing extra, unnecessary, additional words to lend the point I’m making some substance.

  7. And Elaine, I agree about ‘off of’ – it makes me cringe.

    But starting a sentence with ‘And’ should offend no-one (unless it’s crap usage anyway).

  8. I think there’s a distiction between prepositions that have a meaning in themselves, like prepositions of movement or place (go up the stairs/ in the box) ones which are fixed but not attached to another word like prepositions of time (in July/ at 6pm) and the dependant prepositions (good at/ and phrasal verbs (wake up/ etc) with prepositions as particles where the whole meaning is carried by the adjective or the verb, and the preposition is just there and has to be learnt as part of a fixed phrase. I’ve never really found any logic to the choice of prepositions there, and while you’d expect native speakers to have them stored in proper chunks, most of those are just slips, I reckon.

    Except for ‘different from’, which is personal choice.

    The reason why the slip has been made is more interesting because it tells us a lot about real spoken language ie that it is messy because it’s usually unprepared: like the fact that the chap who said ‘intention to do’ has probably done a handbreak turn from intending to say ‘intend to do’ as you say, and the one who said ‘fascinated in’ was possibly thinking ‘interested in’ and the ‘recorded from’ person could be thinking ‘coming to us from’. Or they could just be random errors. The prepositions here don’t actually matter for meaning.

    If you want an example of things which native speakers screw up massively on it’s comparatives. There are rules about when to say ‘more’ or add ‘er’ or ‘ier’ to adjectives to compare things, but native speakers get them wildy wrong all them time. Mind you, once you start noticing it, it will drive you nuts. Mwwhaaaa. Ha ha. Ha ha ha ha.

  9. Hi Aphra,
    Firstly – I feel oddly honoured to be included in this list (and proud that you listen to far too much Radio 4!)
    However, secondly – I’m slightly embarrassed by my rather awkward question structure you picked up on in my recent package. (My boyfriend will find it particularly hilarious as i tend to be overcritical at times of his spelling and sentence structure…)

    All i can say in my defence is that in general conversation (and particularly in an interview situation) your brain can sometimes be so preoccupied with the next question, the last answer, the audio recording levels, the press officer glaring at you to hurry up and you yourself generally staying chipper that things sometimes don’t come out quite so perfectly. Add to that the stiffness that can come across when you ask a word perfect question read from a piece of paper then i hope you can see my point and accept my apologies.

    However, now that i know you’re so keenly listening, i may have to drop in the odd preposition just to keep you on your toes!


  10. Aphra Benn,
    What meticulous research!
    People tend to replace a specific verb with a less specific verb plus a noun or adjective or gerund. So you might say “people have a tendency to replace …”. This often leads to awkward construction, sometimes including a wayward preposition. In your examples, “I have no intention … ” might have been “I do not intend ..” “Transformative” results from such construction. These things are often understandable in spoken language where we make many slips, although professional users of language might be more adept than they are.
    One preposition I have become sensitised to is “within”. I first came across it when reading arts/cultural writing. Now I find psychiatric nurses using it – “I am writing to update you on this girl’s progress within the Young Persons’ Unit”. It seems like a mannerism, picked up from seniors or peers “within” the same profession, and it seems to convey something meaningless, but I can’t be sure quite what.
    Is someone going to start a discussion about conjunctions? or adverbs? Shall I?

  11. Hi Marie – I think you are right that wrong prepositions in writing are probably adown to people trying to impress, but I think that the spoken language is just so quick that the pesky little blighters just creep in, and in fairness most of these were from speech.

    Charlotte – you are speaking it and making yourself understood and really that is what matters. I am very envious of you for that.

    Laphroaig, I find the nuances interesting, and if anything were to worry me about these random acts of preposition then it’s that. It’s always a shame to loose distinctions in language. On the other hand, what happens if a reader or auditor sensitively picks up a nuance that the writer or speaker didn’t intend to put there? (That’s a question I’m asking myself really).

    Elaine, to my shame I hear myself saying “off of” at times. And I’ve decided to simply give way with apostrophes. The apostrophied possessive is a made up thing anyway and shouldn’t really exist in English any more than it exists in German which is where the -s and -es possessives come from.

    Scribbler, I completely agree: I like conjunctions at the start of a sentence. Sentences are just functions of the written language and have very little to do with English as She is Spoke.

    Interesting distinction, Sol, and one that makes a lot of sense. I always thought that the rule with comparatives was that one or two sylable adjectives took -er or -ier while polysylables took ‘more’. It makes freer queer but other than that it works. I’ll have to keep an ear out for it now. Grrr.

    Hi Natalie. I do feel embarrased to have picked you out and named you like that – listening to the episode you were obviously juggling several things at once. I have no idea how broadcasters can listen to something in one ear, something else in another and say a third thing altogether. Thanks for dropping by.

    Wilf, the research wasn’t so great. It’s not the hearing them, it’s the remembering the pesky things long enough to write them down. Interesting about “within”. I suspect that’s another example of wilful pomposity. I’ll start listening out for that too.

    Thanks all for reading and commenting


  12. You’re right about the rules for comparatives, more or less, but it’s amazing how many ‘moderner’ or ‘more new’ or even ‘more beautifuller’s you’ll hear in all the best mouths.

  13. I wonder if “on or around the station” makes sense to a station master. The station is a platform, so you can be on it, but he wants to make sure you behave while in some other part of the facility, i.e., around but not necessarily on the platform. So, on or around.

    Anyway, thanks for this post, I was heading in this direction myself and now I have a course I can from examples with.

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