Going 'postal' after a conflict

At this point, I'm the only one I know of who's worried about this, but prepositional phrases seem to be under attack.

Everywhere I turn, I find they have morphed into adjectives. "Children at risk," for instance, is becoming "at-risk children." A straight-ahead prepositional phrase (the preposition "at" plus the object "risk," a noun) that would have been perfectly happy trailing the noun it modifies ("children") gets turned into an adjective tucked in front of the noun.

With "at-risk" before the noun, the emphasis is on "children" (as well it should be, right-minded people everywhere will concur). In the phrase "children at risk," the emphasis - I mean here the natural emphasis we put on words when we speak - is on "risk," which makes it all the more obvious that the question, "at risk of what?" is being avoided.

The preposition that seems especially under pressure is "after." It keeps getting crowded by compounds formed with "post." "After lunch, we'll go for a walk in the park." Sounds lovely, doesn't it, even on a day when our forecast here in Boston is for three inches of sleet? But when Robert Weiner, a birdwatcher at George Washington University, went out to Roosevelt Island in Washington, D.C., a few years ago, he called his perambulation a "post-lunch walk."

True confession: "Post-lunch walk" was originally a fun example invented to illustrate a point, but when I Googled "post-lunch," I got 28,400 hits, admittedly not all of them direct substitutes for "after lunch." Last year when all of India took the afternoon off to watch an important cricket match against Pakistan, The Times of India called it a "post-lunch holiday."

After the Democratic National Convention last summer (or post-DNC, as we might say), John Kerry experienced a slight post-convention bounce, but not big enough for him to claim, postelection, actual victory.

Any number of "postal" compounds are quite useful. World War II was such a bold black line of demarcation in modern history that we have all gotten our money's worth out of the adjective "postwar." It's a useful shorthand for the period beginning in 1945.

But I had a "click" moment of realization one day several weeks ago when I reviewed a story in which a junior editor had felt a need to specify "post-World-War-II."

My own instinct would have been to say "postwar" because "anyone" would know this really meant "since 1945." Hmm, well, maybe not. Maybe "post which war?" is a fair question nowadays. Lately, we've had Iraq and Afghanistan, and before that the Gulf War.

And then, since not all wars are unequivocally "wars," and might be just disturbances of the peace in some way, the international policy wonks are making liberal use of the more general term "conflict," which in turn has its "post" phase.

This gives us "post-conflict," or "postconflict," as we say at the Monitor, since we like to "close up" compounds involving "post" when we can. Thus we have "post-conflict societies," places that have been through war. We even get "postconflict periods," which end up in prepositional phrases after all. Thus we get, as in a recent World Health Organization publication, the phrase "in the post-conflict period" - or, as we used to say, "after the war."

More recently one of my colleagues came up with "posthostilities" as an adverb to mean "after this war [whichever one it was] is over." The word gets an angry red squiggly underline even as I write it in Word, and the copy desk had to insist that this particular coinage wouldn't fly. It sounded too much like a breakfast cereal that was very high in fiber but would take forever to chew.

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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