Prepositional Shifts

I am a big girl.  I know language changes–particularly the English language, which seems determined to zig when you expect it to zag on all occasions.  And yet.  When I hear my own kith and kin (that would be my 16-year-old), who gets livid when she hears certain grammatical errors perpetrated by her peers, say “I’m so excited for the weekend,” it brings me to the point of maternal snark.  “That’s nice, dear.  What is happening to the weekend that makes you so happy on its behalf?”

Which gets me no points, of course.

Is it just my imagination, or has the use of prepositions gone to hell in a handbag?  Some of it one can blame on Our Friend the Internet–when you see a blog ad headed “Share This to All Parents!” you know you’re in for trouble.   In my universe, the headline should read “Share This with All Parents!”  Just as my daughter’s enthusiasm for the upcoming weekend should be voiced as “I’m so excited about the weekend,” or perhaps “I can’t wait for the weekend.”

I asked, elsewhere, for other prepositional uglies, and got a nice representational handful:

  • “He did that on accident.”
  • “Standing on line.”  (That one is a regionalism of long-standing, I think.  In NYC we said “in line”, but I’ve heard people from elsewhere insist that “on line” is correct.)
  • “I’m really bored of this book series now.”

When my kids were little they’d say these things and I’d correct them, but some just do not go away (hence the excited for thing).  I know kids are taught about prepositions comma the proper use of, because I remember drilling both of them on prepositions for quizzes.  The Household Daughter’s teacher insisted that she memorize some number of prepositions (47, I think, like Heinz’s pickles), which she did–although I also attended a somewhat riotous pre-reading dinner where the reader (Laurie R. King, whose books I commend to you heartily) and the rest of us began listing prepositions and prepositional phrases and were well into the 90s when our burgers came and we had to stop writing on the table cloth.  The internet, which contains all things, suggests that there are well over 100 prepositions all told.  So much for the nine prepositions I had to memorize as a kid.

But even with 100+ prepositions, why can’t folks use them correctly?

Some errors are over-corrections.  The speaker uses a preposition, feels a little wobbly about it, and swaps in another one in the hope that it might be correct.  Think this is far fetched? Here’s an example: I used to mis-spell “receive.”  I know this, so I type it, then correct it.  Unfortunately, I now spell “receive” more reliably, which means I frequently type it correctly, then “correct” it the wrong way (as “recieve”).  I think this happens a lot with many people, to the point where people get tangled up trying to outsmart a language they’ve spoken all their lives.  Look at all the officials who will not say “he” or “she” or even “person,” but have adopted “individual” in their stead (“we apprehended this individual in possession of an orangutan, two ounces of cocaine, and a cattle-prod…”).  Insecurity makes people correct things that don’t need any correction.

And once those mis-corrections are made, they settle in, make themselves comfortable, put down roots.  And you get kids saying “I’m getting really bored of grammar lessons.”

Am I fighting a losing battle here?  Probably.  Like William F. Buckley, I find myself wanting to stand athwart grammatical shifts yelling ‘Stop!’ And like Buckley, I probably haven’t got a prayer of holding back the tide for long.

I suppose I should be excited for the future of language.



About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Prepositional Shifts — 7 Comments

  1. Strange, a lot of the prepositional errors you mention I just corrected in a short story that had been written in Croatian then translated hastily into English. According to my source who speaks Serbian, which is a first cousin of Croatian, both languages are quite logical and systematic, unlike English.

    Is the current generation of mis-speakers trying to take the language back to something that is so logical and systematic it makes no sense…

  2. The only people I know who stand on line are from NYC. Everyone else in the U.S. stands in line. When I hear it, I always look around for a painted line I’m supposed to be standing on. But that’s a regionalism, and I like regionalisms.

    After reading the descriptivist linguists on Language Log over the past few years, I’ve become a lot more laid back about grammar. I can’t think of any preposition errors that irritate me. The only grammar thing that really bothers me at the moment is the use of a comma instead of a period to divide two sentences.

  3. Hmmm? You do remember that Communism really did fall — history did stop, in the eyes of so many and the meaning that Buckley gave it.

  4. One that used to puzzle me was when a couple of my daughter’s friends said “on accident” instead of “by accident.” Couldn’t figure how how that one evolved until I saw the logic. On accident is the flipside of on purpose.