Susan Mihalic

Susan Mihalic
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August 05
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Writer & editor. Passionate about freedom of expression. Liberal, aspiring to be pointy-headed. Follow me on Twitter: @susanmihalic.

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JANUARY 6, 2013 4:20PM

I Have a Preposition for You

Rate: 13 Flag

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. 

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Grammar rant. It happens.
Wouldn't  "... by my incorrect use ..." work just as well? R
Trudge164, yes, "by" would be fine, too. We have options, so I don't know why so many people pick one that doesn't work.
my significant other edits not only my written work, but also my syntax during arguments. O' love.
Oh, a friend reminded me of the unnecessary preposition at the end of a sentence, and those are objectionable: "Where are you at? Where did you go to?" They flail around out there like they're waiting for someone to throw them a lifesaver and reel 'em in.
Much appreciated.

Every writer needs a good editor. EVERY WRITER. Let me say it again. EVERY WRITER. Had a discussion the other day with someone who had just written a book WHO DID NOT SEE THE VALUE IN AN EDITOR.
Hahaha, Chuck! Sounds like something I'd do.
i refuse to say lay/lie/lay!!

to this day, my brain wont take in what a preposition is. i abhor that stuff. but i do know how to write properly, when i need to.

nice rant, susan. i do enjoy people who love words enough to care.
Love this rant. I've also noticed an increase in the use of the wrong preposition. In the last week alone, I witnessed this in an online magazine and heard someone on the Today show use the wrong preposition. I kept thinking I must have heard wrong, but thanks to modern technology, I was able to rewind and, just as I thought, wrong preposition! Drove me crazy.
I totally get this, Susan. Great rant!
Amy, I think so, too. I've read a couple of books recently by notable writers, though, who I think might have had the lay/lie error edited into their work, and that concerns me. Editors need editing, too.

daisyjane, thank you.
Any family member: "Where are the ____ at?"
My parents, all of my life: "Behind the A and on top of the T"
Unbreakable, thank you.
Blue Roses, my mother had a similar reply: "Between the A and the T."
english is evolving, it may survive, if english speakers find it suits their purposes. or they may throw it away and get a better one. 'devolving' is a value judgement, either you don't like modern usage or neologisms, or don't realize that a diminishing/changing vocabulary simply represents current usage.

i am hopeful the government will be successful in replacing english with the more appropriate and functional 'newspeak.' labor-units should not be burdened with wasting productive years acquiring the absurdly convoluted language that has resulted from serial invasions of britain. best of all, use of newspeak will allow rapid re-training of language pedants.
First, let me say how great it is to read something with your name on it!! I love words. I have appreciated every editor I've ever had, (friend or professional) who has read my writing and made it so much better.
I always mix up my to's ( is that even right does the to belong to itself) and I hate that I don't always get it right. I know too means also and two means 2 but then that pesky to comes along and I lose my place...
al, thank you for reading and commenting.

Joan, thank you. It's taking forever for comments to post, but it's promising that OS is working at all.

LL2, I like your writing--and writing is harder than editing. There's always someone who can clean up the little stuff.
Great piece, Susan. I love the Michener quote. If I didn't teach writing, I would probably have given up on grammar by now. I noticed the incorrect usage of prepositions (among other grammar rules such as constant random capitalization) in my students' work about three years ago. Now it's an epidemic and I see it everywhere. People don't go to school, they go "at" school, or "on" school. They aren't close to someone, they are close "with" someone. Etcetera, etc., etc.
emma peel 2, that random capitalization is rampant. I always think it's very Germanic. I'd never heard "to go at school" or "to go on school." Things are worse than I thought!
I bang my head against the wall about the misuse of "its" and "it's" and don't be in my vicinity when I read an improper 's as in "Charles Dicken's". I admit, however, that I struggle to keep "lie" and "lay" straight, and always Google the rule by using them.
I meant: Google the rule BEFORE using them.
Thanks for the fabulous rant, Susan. As a long-time editor myself, I not only relate and agree with what you've written here (smiling and nodding all the way through), but I have to add that whether a particular word's time has come or not, my heart cracked a little when I saw that "OMG" is listed in the New Oxford American Dictionary. (sigh) I don't "e-speak" or "text speak", and am old-old school when it comes to grammar and composition. Shoot, I still think diagramming sentences is fun!

Anyway ~ I appreciate the addition of relativity to the bigger picture. Sometimes it really is the little things ~

~R~
This is simply beautiful. Other than an original idea or a wonderful thought, I also crave for fine style. Anything less than impeccable grammar distorts a style. For beginners, I always recommend short sentences in the present tense as much as possible. It proves to be an excellent exercise.
Cranky, oh, yes. Those are the classics. This preposition thing has caught my ear recently. We're witnessing the unfortunate birth of the latest inexplicable imprecision.

eyespye, thank you. I like diagramming sentences, too. I hear that's no longer taught, which is too bad. Diagramming gave students a physical representation of sentence structure--great for visual learners.
Thoth, thank you so much.
Thank you for this delightful post. It reminds how much I miss James Kilpatrick (for his grammar column).
Susan,

Someone had to lie down the law on the use of prepositions. I'm so exhausted from thinking about this that I'm looking for a spot to lay down at. :0
Margaret, I appreciate that. I've posted the link in a couple of places where it's received feedback that makes me realize how touchy people are about grammar. Who'd've thunk it?

Hopeful Starving Student, hahaha! You just put a big smile on my face.
Oh, boy, just received an email with a weird prepositional phrase: "We're concerned of what might happen." Ack!
Maybe we should oughta have some kindly of a contest two see who can post a blog with the most mistakes of grammar. Of.

(I appreciate this post. In my experience work with editors always makes my work better. Humility and the willingness to work with editors are the hallmarks of a pro.) With.
Thom, I've always thought that everyone needs an editor; even editors need editors. I would be dismayed if people froze up and didn't write at all because they were afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes are part of the experience, too. I'm sure the use of weird prepositions will make it into the written language (and in a big way), but right now I'm hearing them more than I'm reading them.
Actually, the rule about not ending a sentence in prepositions is important, and ignoring it leads to words like forwards, as opposed to forward, because when you end a sentence, or phrase, in a preposition, you end up having to change words to make the sentence sound correct.

The exception to this rule, as you somewhat pointed out above, is when using an idiom. Idioms, by their nature, need to be recited uniformly each time they are recited, so when ending in an idiom which ends in a preposition, you can throw the rules out.

Otherwise, do the right thing and don't end in a preposition. Doing so gives us words like besides.

Prepositions don't have tense, nor are they able to be pluralized. As such, why do we have recognized words like backwards, sideways (or sideway, depending on which one is correct) and so on?

Ons? Fors? Arounds?

Why not just starting an ess to all of them?

Ah...fuck it. Never mind.
That was supposed to say, "start adding an ess to the end of all of them..."

Or not...it's kinda funnier, and more poignant, with the messed up typo/poor proofreading.
MalcolmXY, I'm not sure I follow. How does ending a sentence in a preposition lead to changing "backward" to "backwards," for example? I'm not in favor of an unnecessary preposition at the end of a sentence ("Where are you going to?") but I'm not in favor of tortured construction, either (e.g., "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put," commonly attributed to Churchill).