I haven’t given up on lie/lay, although sometimes I feel as if I’m waging a losing battle (take note: I plan to win the war), supposably is not a word (nor will it ever be), and I’m confounded by anyone’s ability to confuse then and than, but those grammatical tics aren’t what’s on my mind today. Today I have just one question: What’s happening to our prepositional phrases, people?
Before you point out that I’m nitpicky, let me assure you that yes, indeed, I am. Nitpickiness is a valuable trait in an editor. Don’t underestimate it.
I have a friend who insists that communication is more important than usage. I’d say if we have to choose between the two, she’s right. It’s more important to communicate that there’s a fire than it is to worry about how we express that there’s a fire. Very often less is more, so if there is a fire, you yell, “Fire!” Good enough.
However, grammar is seldom an emergency, so we have the luxury of learning and employing correct usage—and beyond correctness, some of us find joy and magic in what James Michener called “the swirl and swing of words.” Writers shape worlds out of using the right words and phrases. The words themselves are as important as the stories they tell.
Language is a living, vital thing. New words come into use all the time, wonderful words that express a concept exactly when no other word could; take, for example, website. Concise, descriptive, perfect. You may not remember the resistance to making website one word and lowercasing it, but I do, and website, as one word, lowercased, makes sense. It was a word whose time had come.
The evolution of language is one thing; the devolution is another, and that brings me back to this question: What’s happening to our prepositional phrases?
The only rule about prepositions (don’t end a sentence in one) is a holdover from Latin grammar, which we can also thank for “don’t split an infinitive.” If you were to end a Latin sentence in a preposition, you would change the meaning of the foregoing verb. That doesn’t hold true in English, but if you care to torture your sentence structure to conform to this archaic rule, knock yourself out. Or knock out yourself. See the problem?
So, we have a rule we don’t need, and we lack a rule that there’s an increasing need for, governing which preposition we use. Using the wrong preposition is a relatively recent phenomenon—and in the absence of a rule, who am I to say any preposition is wrong? I’ll tell you who I am: I’m someone who can detect clunkers such as the following, which fall on my ears like cinderblocks.
“I’m excited for my riding lesson this afternoon.” Really? You’re excited on behalf of your riding lesson? No, you’re excited about your riding lesson. (On the other hand, you can be excited for your friend who’s taking riding lessons, because you’re excited on her behalf.)
“I’m bored of this book.” No, you’re bored with this book, and you should probably set it aside and pick up anything by Ian McEwan so you can see how elegant and powerful language and storytelling can be.
“I’m embarrassed of my incorrect use of prepositions.” Ah-ha! Trick example! Yes, you should be embarrassed, but about your incorrect use, not of it.
We wouldn’t say, “I’m tired with this attitude” or “I believe around the future,” would we? Appallingly enough, we might, unless we tune our ears—and our brains—more finely.
Compared to truly heinous events taking place in this country and across the world, crimes against language and usage aren’t important at all, but if you distill the importance of everything into life or death, then nothing else matters. We wouldn’t write or read or sing or act or paint or engage in any other creative pursuit. We’d merely be scrambling for physical survival.
Language isn’t our only means of communication, but it’s our richest, our most exacting, and our broadest. We can say it. We can sing it. We can write it. We can send it across the planet and into outer space and back again. Don’t impoverish it with sloppy, careless usage.