Prepositional ambiguity and tricky relationships

A cri du coeur comes from some junior colleagues: Help! Prepositional phrases are getting weird! We can't tell which preposition to use anymore. Maybe "on" and "in," however wonderfully brief, aren't always the best choices, even in a tight space; maybe they aren't infinitely interchangeable with "about" or even "throughout."

Hmm. One of my English teachers told us of someone who thought that the best way to teach parts of speech – the basic classification of words according to their functions in context – was to start with prepositions and prepositional phrases.

This sounded strange at the time, but this person may have had a point: Prepositional phrases tend to be add-ons, modifiers; trim them away and deal with them first, and you'll recognize what's left over as the bones of the sentence. "He walked through the town with his pack on his back, in search of a room for the night." Strip away the prepositional phrases and that reduces to "He walked."

"Preposition" – like the other words for parts of speech, it comes from Latin – means roughly "that which is placed before." Thus "through" comes before "town," "with" before "pack," and so on. Prepositions are largely about relationships – where the pack was relative to "his back" – "on" it, for instance. And we all know how challenging relationships can be.

Nouns and verbs are like the big pieces of the system that travel home from the computer store encased in plastic foam within their cardboard cartons. Prepositions are like the little extras – albeit critical ones – you think of at the checkout: "Oh, gosh! We need an extra USB cable so we can attach the camera! Can you grab one for me from Aisle 7?"

Idioms involving prepositions can be among the toughest parts of learning a foreign language. And they can be surprisingly hard in one's native language. I know by ear (at least I think I do) that it's "forbidden to do this" but "prohibited from doing that" – but I can't always count on the dictionary for help with such nuances.

In English, the use of prepositions is often a regional marker: Copy editors in the United States fight the battle over different from/different than, but outside the US, "different to" is an established usage – "different to what you'd expect," for instance. It's sometimes a giveaway for a stealth Canadian in southern California, I've found.

I learned "wait on" as the idiom for how a salesclerk helps a customer, and "wait for" as the idiom for what I did to the school bus in the morning. But when our family moved to the South, we heard "waiting on" when my ear was expecting "waiting for," as in "He's not ready to go yet, and I guess we'll just have to wait on him."

In journalism, especially broadcast journalism, prepositional phrases are often pressed into service to provide a kind of stretchable verbal connective tissue that sometimes gets stretched too far, and snaps.

Thus: "In other news today, the president received the visiting prime minister of Lower Slobovia." Not quite true; the president received the prime minister in the East Room or the Oval Office or wherever. He didn't receive him "in other news."

Print can rely on certain typographical conventions – a section headline of "World News Briefs," for instance, to warn the reader of a coming jumble of little bits from all over – to provide context (literally that which is woven in with something else) for the main narrative line of a news item, however brief.

Broadcasting, however, often has to rely on the single silken thread of a newsreader's voice to tie a bundle of disparate items together. No wonder the president sometimes finds himself "in other news."

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

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