Archive for prepositions

McCrum's 100 best ways to ruin the 4th of July

The many Americans in the University of Edinburgh's community of language and information scientists had to celebrate the glorious 4th on the 3rd this year, because the 4th is an ordinary working Monday. I attended a Sunday-afternoon gathering kindly hosted by the Head of the School of Informatics, Johanna Moore. We barbecued steadfastly in the drizzle despite classic Scottish indecisive summer weather: it was cloudy, well under 60°F. Twice we all had to flee inside indoors when the rain became heavier. No matter: we chatted together and enjoyed ourselves. (I swore in 2007 that one thing I was not going to do was spend my time in this bracing intellectual environment grumbling about how the weather in Santa Cruz had been better. I'm here for the linguistic science, not the weather.) So it was a happy Fourth of July for me. Until this morning, the actual 4th, when people started emailing me (thanks, you sadistic bastards) to note that Robert McCrum had chosen America's independence day to make his choice for the 23rd in a series called "The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time," in the British newspaper The Observer. He chooses The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. For crying out loud!

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Economist sticklers trying to bug me

My favorite magazine is deliberately trying to annoy me. In the August 22 issue of The Economist there's a feature article about the composition of the universe (dark matter, dark energy, and all that, with a beautiful diagram showing the astoundingly tiny fraction of the material in the cosmos that includes non-dark non-hydrogen non-helium entities like us), and the sub-hed line above the title (on page 66) is this:

Of what is the universe really made?

Come on! Nobody who knows how to write natural English preposes the preposition when talking about what X is made of.

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Because come on

Philip Bump's article about the initiative aimed at splitting Caifornia into six new states contains a cute example of a new playful extension of the use of because:

Happily, in this instance the federal government would have to sign off on the idea, which it will never do, because, come on.

It's not a real extension of the syntax that allows because to take imperative clause complements, of course; it's just a humorous way to dismiss the idea of federal approval, taking its structure from the kind of changes of plan that happen in casual talk. Here the plan for a preposition phrase with because is just abandoned, and the idiomatic "come on" injunction to get real is substituted. But it works very nicely.

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The promiscuity of prepositions

Some Language Log readers may have noticed that Gretchen McCulloch, at All Things Linguistic (see her post here), claims that certain peculiar restrictions on complements of because argue against its being a preposition even in the new use that caused it to become the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year for 2013: "the new 'because' isn't a preposition (but is actually cooler)," she claims. (As a result, Daniel Ezra Johnson even tweeted that the new use of because may be the first Word of the Year with the strange property that even the linguists who voted for it can't figure out how to analyze it.)

I have maintained, to the contrary, that because not only is a preposition now (since the rise of the because reasons construction over the past few years) but in fact always has been one, despite every dictionary on the market denying it (see my "Because syntax").

Who is right? All Things Linguistic, or Language Log? I won't toy with you; I won't leave you dangling, unable to decide. I will tell you the answer.

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Because syntax

Many people will be somewhat surprised that the American Dialect Society's "Word of the Year" choice was because in its use with a noun phrase (NP) complement (though the Megan Garber's Atlantic Monthly article on it nearly two months ago should perhaps have been a tip-off). It seems to be unprecedented for a word in a minor category like preposition to be chosen rather than some emergent or fashionable word in one of the major lexical categories: recent winners have included 2012's hashtag (noun), 2011's occupy (verb), 2010's app (noun), 2009's tweet (noun and verb), 2008's bailout (noun), 2007's subprime (adjective), 2006's plutoed (past participle of verb meaning "downgrade in status"), and 2005's truthiness (noun). And it also seems to be unique in representing a new syntactically defined word use within a given category rather than a new (or newly trending) word. The syntax of because calls for a little discussion, I think, given that Megan Garber thinks the word has become a preposition for the first time, and every dictionary on the market is wrong in the part-of-speech information it gives about the word (write to me if you can find a dictionary of which this is not true: I'd love to see one).

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At Cologne

"Welcome at Cologne Airport," said the co-pilot of my flight as we taxied in to the gate and my current visit to Germany began. And of course what he said is ungrammatical.

"Arrived safely at Cologne Airport," said my email to my partner a few minutes later; and of course what I wrote is grammatical.

Aren't languages unfair?

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PP attachment is hard

Alex Williams, "Creating Hipsturbia", NYT 2/15/2013:

“When we checked towns out,” Ms. Miziolek recalled, “I saw some moms out in Hastings with their kids with tattoos. A little glimmer of Williamsburg!”

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Last night, with some diffidence, for the first time since Barbara's death, I made an attempt at cooking the excellent mushroom risotto that she used to do. I knew how to do it in broad outline. But through a careless fumble when adding more olive oil to the pan at the sauteeing stage, I put way too much olive oil in — like about half a cup too much. Barbara (mistress of delicious low-fat cooking) would have thrown the whole mess in the bin. I made a different decision. I decided to reconceptualize. This was not going to be Barbara's mushroom risotto at all; this was an olive oil risotto with mushrooms. Qua mushroom risotto it would not have ranked highly, but qua olive oil risotto it wasn't too bad.

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Lady Bracknell strands even adjunct prepositions

Lady Bracknell, in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, is one of the most terrifyingly pedantic and correctly spoken characters in all of English theater ("a monster," Jack Worthing says of her, "without being a myth, which is rather unfair"). And I have mentioned her usage in lectures on numerous occasions to point out, when talking about preposition stranding, that she does strand prepositions. But as I watched Mark Thomson's wonderful production of the play at Edinburgh's Lyceum Theatre last Friday night (get tickets now, readers in eastern Scotland), I suddenly noticed something new about what she says when Jack Worthing gives his age:

LADY BRACKNELL: … How old are you?
JACK: Twenty-nine.
LADY BRACKNELL: A very good age to be married at.

A preposition phrase (PP) like at the age of 29 is very clearly an temporal adjunct, not a complement. So Lady Bracknell is prepared to strand a preposition even in a temporal adjunct PP!

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Boring preposition jokes: new termination policy

Every time a post or comment on Language Log mentions, in any context, the prescriptive disapproval of preposition stranding (where a preposition is separated from its logically associated complement, as in What are you looking at?), e.g. in this post, we get commenters (who, incidentally, seem never to have read the site before) tussling with each other to be the first to inscribe two routinized types of comment.

One type says "I think a preposition is a fine thing to end a sentence with!", or words very much to that effect (unaware that instances of this lame "look-I'm-violating-the-rule" joke have been going on since at least the 1700s). The other type says, "This is nonsense up with which I shall not put!" (invariably thinking that they are quoting Sir Winston Churchill, though Ben Zimmer definitively refuted that misattribution years ago in a post that Mark and I subsequently included in our book, and it is enormously annoying to us that still no one is aware of Ben's discovery).

Unable to bear any longer the tedious work of seeking out all the instances of these two comment types so I can delete them, I have decided that from now on I will hunt down the relevant commenters and kill them.

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You can get preposition stranding right to start with

John McIntyre notes on his blog You Don't Say that a man named Rod Gelatt, a retired professor of journalism who taught at the Missouri School of Journalism, writes in a letter to the Columbia Missourian newspaper (responding to an article calling for more attention to correcting grammar errors in online content):

in the announcement of the invitation for us to become grammar police, I found two errors: "….who wants to generously point out…" (splitting an infinitive) and "Spell check won't help you when you have the wrong word to start with" (ending sentence with preposition).

I ignore the first point (split infinitives have always been grammatically correct in English; see for example this page). And as for the second, stranded prepositions have also always been grammatical in general, of course; but with respect to Mr Gelatt's example, I wonder what he thought the "correction" would be? The common phrases to start with and to begin with are among the (numerous) cases where stranding the preposition at the end of the phrase is not just permitted in Standard English, it's obligatory.

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With whom he was speaking with

Matt Bauer sent in a specimen of preposition doubling from a recent Chicago news story ("Man stabbed in head with screwdriver in Joliet", WGN/Chicago Tribune, 12/20/2009):

A Joliet man was stabbed in the head with a screwdriver by the husband of a woman with whom he was speaking with at a local bar, police said.

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Ditransitive prepositions?

In "On beyond personal datives" (11/5/2009), we discussed examples like "I nearly stepped on me a dog", which can be construed with the "personal dative" me following what Larry Horn plausibly describes as a "complex transitive verb". This analysis doesn't work quite as gracefully for some of the other examples from the same post, such as  "I'm going to the mall to shop for me a dress".

But still, you can (sort of) passivize the object of "shop for", as in the following web examples: "Is there a switch to more goods that are shopped for and purchased in a more price-conscious manner?"; "Clothing was shopped for out of catalogs, people rode on trains instead of in cars, and letters were written instead of text messages sent". And thus you can assimilate examples like "I'm going to the mall to shop for me a dress" to the canonical pattern of "I bought me a truck", where a personal pronoun in the ditransitive structure VERB PRONOUN NOUNPHRASE is interpreted as something in the affinity-group of constructions known as "datives of interest"; "personal", “ethical”, “free”, or “affected” datives; and so on.

But this morning's mail brings another report from Daniel Mahaffey, this time from a gathering over Thanksgiving. As with his earlier examples, the speaker is from Georgia:

When someone went to get a glass of water for another, they set them at ease with the sentence, "I'll be back with you some water."

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