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Verbal Energy

Modulating our opposition to new prepositions

A 'new' preposition, borrowed from the world of math, is a reminder of how closely language allies with logic.

By Ruth Walker / August 31, 2012



Sometimes life really is a bowl of cherries. I really mean that. It's been a wonderful summer for fruit. The melon that I thought I'd left too long the other day proved to be a miracle of sweetness and juice. Even the supermarket peaches have been beautiful. So have the blueberries. And such abundance! Their little tubs in the fridge seem to be multiplying in the dark.

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And while we're on the subject of things increasing in number when you're not paying attention: One of my favorite early warning systems of language change, the Johnson blog at The Economist, has just reported on a "new" preposition.

The significance of this is that prepositions are "function words," and there are far fewer of those than there are of "content words," such as nouns and verbs.

New nouns and new verbs are, well, nothing new, and they switch roles all the time. That's one of the ways we get new nouns and verbs. Most of us know this in the abstract but are not above getting ruffled by individual instances of this phenomenon. "Now that the Olympics are over, can we please stop using 'medal' as a verb?" was the plaint from some quarters after the torch was extinguished in London.

And someone was on my case the other day about contact used as a verb, for heaven's sake. I pointed out that people use it that way because it lets them get across in one word the idea of "drop by or write a letter or call on the telephone or send an e-mail message or send an instant message or send a text message or leave a voice-mail message or post a comment on our website or maybe tuck a message into flowers you order delivered from your smart phone." In fact, contact has been a time- and space-saver since the days when all it covered was "phone or write or wire."

But I digress. The new preposition is – brace yourself, Reader – modulo.

I've found it in a couple of mainstream dictionaries – the American Heritage, and Merriam-Webster, which traces it back to 1897.

It has a mathematical definition, "with respect to a modulus," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which goes on to explain modulus thus: "If two numbers a and b leave the same remainder when divided by a third number c, they are said to be congruent with respect to the modulus c."

No wonder Johnson called this "the nerdiest preposition ever."

Here's a more general definition, though, from the American Heritage Dictionary: "Correcting or adjusting for something, as by leaving something out of account: 'This proposal is the best so far, modulo the fact that parts of it need modification.' "

A reader who sees this usage in print is likely to figure it out; I'm not so sure I would expect a (non-nerd) listener to catch it on the fly.

But reviewing a list of English prepositions, I'm struck by how many are verbal expressions of mathematical operators (plus, minus) or other key concepts of logic.

Prepositions articulate the relationships of objects in space ("The book is on the shelf") and time ("The train to Portland left a few minutes before the train to New York"). And along with conjunctions (and, or, but, while, and so on) prepositions articulate logical relationships. They help us make sense of our world, which is part of what language does in general. And language articulates illogical relationships, too – explains what the problem seems to be – and that's a help, too.

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