At risk

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In a comment on my post about the president's subordinators, "Jimbino" identified himself as an editor of medical articles, and asserted that

Of course, the most common error committed by physicians and nurses (and the NYT) is the use of "at risk for [cancer]" when they mean "at risk of [cancer]."

Challenged on this point by other commenters, he added that

A person who says, "… at risk for …" show misunderstanding of the careful use of prepositions that distinguishes persons educated in English from those who merely grew up in an English-speaking country. Your ability to catch this error will enable you to avoid docs and nurses who are incompetent and probably not careful about washing their hands.

And in response to some additional negative feedback, he explained himself further:

I am a prescriptivist who believes that "you are judged by the words you use," and who has little use for prescribing descriptivism or for those who do not take care to understand the correct use of prepositions and soap.

It's possible that "Jimbino" is a sophisticated parody, perhaps created by another instance of the same research program that produced "John Cowan"[Sorry, John, that was a bad joke...] But whether he's crank or troll, meat or bot, "Jimbino" offers a classic picture of how individual quirks can be transformed into prescriptive "rules".

And as far as I can tell, his 'at risk for/of" issue is genuinely an individual quirk. If other peevers have fixated on "at risk of" vs. "at risk for", their concerns haven't been noted in the encyclopedic Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, nor can I find any mentions of the question in other usage sites. (Perhaps some readers can spread a wider net?)

As a result, it's not clear how doctors and nurses (or New York Times writers) could become "educated in English" so as to learn this aspect of "the correct use of prepositions", other than by direct transmission of Jimbino's caprice. They certainly couldn't acquire this education by reading major journals like Science, PNAS, or PLoS One:

Science PNAS PLoS One
"at risk for" 368 339 313
"at risk of" 310 168 326
Percent "of" 46% 33% 51%

In fact, the statistics in the New York Times are somewhat more to Jimbino's taste: overall, since 1981, that publication shows 1,477 instances of "at risk for" vs. 3,725 of "at risk of", for a rate of 72% "at risk of".

What could be going on here? It's possible that Jimbino's prejudice is simply a random whim. But it's also possible that he's drawn a false conclusion from partial exposure to what seems to be a genuine difference in meaning (or at least in usage) between "at risk for" and "at risk of". (There's also "at risk from", but sufficient unto the day…)

The difference is subtle, and I'm not sure that I can define it correctly, One symptom can be seen in these statistics, comparing "extinction" and "AIDS" as things to be at risk for/or. (In the table below, the counts for Science and PNAS come from phrase search on the journals' own sites; the counts for Nature come from Google search, using the actual list of items found and returned rather than the estimate on the first page of results.)

Science Nature PNAS TOTAL
"at risk for extinction" 0 0 1 1
"at risk of extinction" 28 23 22 73
extinction: percent "of" 99%
"at risk for AIDS" 30 18 10 58
"at risk of AIDS" 0 0 1 1
AIDS: percent "of" 2%

My (unreliable, post hoc) intuition about this difference is that extinction is a process that a group participates in, whereas AIDS is an external influence that individuals suffer from. In any case, in these three journals, "cancer" swings both ways:

Science Nature PNAS TOTAL
"at risk for cancer" 10 12 3 25
"at risk of cancer" 4 13 2 19
cancer: percent "of" 43%

As for the New York Times, it behaves similarly, but the issue comes up rarely enough that we can see how hypersensitive Jimbino's peeving reflex must be on this point. Since 1981, "at risk for cancer" has appeared 8 times in the Times, while "at risk of cancer" has appeared 3 times.

So what happened to Jimbino? Assuming that he's not an initial foray by The Onion into the domain of Language Log comments, we might guess that he first became familiar with the "at risk of extinction" usage. Having over-generalized this pattern, he's left to choose between two hypotheses: either he mis-learned the English language, or everyone else did.

Then again, it may be a mistake to look for any rational or empirical basis for such peeves.

Wherever it came from, this particular peeve seems unlikely to have much memetic impact. But if Jimbino were John Dryden or William Strunk Jr., he might succeed in unsettling generations of clueless writers .

Update – it occurs to me that the choice between "at risk of" and "at risk for" might also (at least partly) reflect the influence of two different metaphors of motion.

In one case, the  individual or group is sitting "in the way of" something bad bearing down on them:  "in danger of (whatever)", "in peril of  (whatever)". In the other case, the individual or group is  in motion towards a bad end: "heading for (whatever)", "headed for (whatever)", "in line for (whatever)", "bound for (whatever)".

But as a contrary argument, observe that we also use "for" in many cases where the thematic individual is conceptually static:  "ready for (whatever)", "braced for (whatever)".

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92 Comments »

  1. Peter Howard said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 10:42 am

    I'm British, and "at risk for" sounds odd to me. My hunch (backed up by Google Ngram Viewer) is that "at risk for" is rarer in BrE than it is in AmE. So maybe Jimbino had a British English education.

    [(myl) That's possible. The BNC has overall 8% "of" (229 to 20). And a Google search with site:uk yields a roughly similar proportion. In both cases, some of the hits involve "for" that isn't expressing the complement of "risk", but still, these numbers are a long way from a categorical assignment of "at risk for" to the realm of the uneducated. And Nature is edited in the UK, after all.]

  2. richard howland-bolton said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    The tiny typo in the 8th para ('at risk for/or") is interesting.
    I wonder if you were thinking 'at risk for or of' and the slash got in the way and derailed the 'of'.

  3. Ben C said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 10:58 am

    Note to self: Do not troll Language Log.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    Here is an opinion from a columnist at The American Medical Writers Association Journal in favor of at risk of. (It also mentions one of my pet peeves, now a lost cause: diagnosed with.)

  5. Cy said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    This is totally redundant (I guess that's why Pullum always closes comments!) but, "A person who says, "… at risk for …" show misunderstanding of the careful use of prepositions that distinguishes persons educated in English from those who merely grew up in an English-speaking country." – lack of third person singular "s" (show), zero-article on the gerund "misunderstanding," and with a strict reading of his sentence, it would appear that the country itself speaks English – but that's only assuming that words Mean One Thing, and Never Change. What's the rule about Grammar rules always breaking other rules…?

  6. Shmoo-El said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:10 am

    But why do we say "at risk" but "in trouble"?

  7. Jenny Davidson said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:15 am

    I have no medical background, but I hear a different emphasis in the two usages.

    "At risk for" is often connected with an epidemiological assessment of risk: so that one might talk about different subpopulations being at more or less risk for HIV, or a particular gene putting one at a greater risk for certain kinds of cancer.

    "At risk of" is the more general sense, non-epidemiological, that might be used in certain medical contexts as well: everyone is at risk of [succumbing to] cancer, and filling in the missing verb makes it clear why your commenter believes this to be grammatically preferable, even if we all roundly disagree!

    In short, the "for" in "at risk for" is a way to be a little bit more pointed, in an epidemiological fashion, about the particularities of the risk and the individual or group subject to it.

  8. Robert Coren said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:16 am

    The idea that medical professionals who misuse prepositions are likely to be careless about washing their hands suggests parody to me.

  9. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:18 am

    Also BrE here. At risk for sounds fine to me but only, I think, in the context of medical problems – at risk for extinction sounds very marginal.

    At any rate, all of the relevant examples in the BNC are medical – though the immediate complement of for doesn't have to be a noun meaning an actual malady:

    at risk for the development of large bowel cancer
    at risk for mild deficiencies in these nutrients
    at risk for exposure to HBV

    Even a gerund-participle seems to be possible:

    at risk for developing a squamous cell carcinoma of the oesophagus

  10. Emily said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:19 am

    I think "at risk for cancer" sounds just fine, but having read the same phrases over and over in this discussion, I'm no longer sure about my own grammatical judgments because "at risk for/of" no longer look meaningful…

    What's the rule about Grammar rules always breaking other rules…?

    Muphry's Law.

  11. Keith M Ellis said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:26 am

    "…those who do not take care to understand the correct use of prepositions and soap."

    That has the whiff of parody to me. With accents of aloe and lavender.

  12. Per said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:26 am

    It's interesting that the American Medical Writers' Association writer uses, as justification for her belief that "at risk of CAD" is more correct than "at risk for CAD," the fact that you would never think it was appropriate to use the preposition "for" with "danger" or "threat" — "danger for CAD" sounds silly.

    But we ALREADY use "danger" and "threat" with different prepositions – we would never say a patient was "at danger of" anything. So it's obvious that a particular construction sounding unnatural with "danger" doesn't mean it's inappropriate with "risk," since no one's debating the validity of the "at risk" construction.

  13. Russell said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:29 am

    My impression is that an adverbial, at risk of is much better than at risk for: they entered the house at risk of/?for their lives. A few google searches for "did (so/it) at risk of/for" seem to reflect my intuition, but the numbers are small.

    (And actually, I find at risk to most idiomatic in this context.)

    [(myl) Note that the object of the preposition plays a very different semantic role in "at risk of their lives" vs. "at risk of AIDS". Specifically, "their lives" is not a medical condition that "they" run the risk of acquiring.]

  14. Anonymoose said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:30 am

    We obviously need noun-incorporation. Someone is cancer-risked.

  15. gribley said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    A data point: I'm an epidemiologist, and I do not recall any systematic difference between "risk of" and "risk for" in my training. I find "risk of" to be more familiar-sounding. While we can come up with sensible stories to attempting to cast them as having different meanings, I think these are ad hoc, and I don't see any medically relevant difference.

    As to whether Jimbino is a troll or a fool, I have not yet decided.

  16. dnvo said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    I would agree with Peter Howard that "at risk for" used in this context sounds strange to my British ears. I would find saying being "at risk for AIDS" a very unusual/unnatural formation, preferring either of or from.

    Testing this I did a quick search for "at risk for" among BrE websites (I tried BBC, the guardian and the telegraph) and the results showed examples like:
    "…they will often put themselves at risk for their baby.
    "New £450,000 home at risk for standing 39in too high"
    " Generations of gains are at risk for women's equality…"

    which are not of the type "at risk for [cancer]"

  17. kenny said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:39 am

    This is a public service announcement for people over the age of 25: THAT GUY IS A TROLL. He was so embarrassed and sorry for the so many people who took him seriously that he had to use the "soap" as a giveaway in his follow-up. You will save yourself lots of bother if you learn to recognize trolls.

    [(myl) By this analysis, given The Vocabula Review's motto ("A society is generally as lax as its language"), Robert Hartwell Fiske must be a troll. If so, he's a troll in deep cover. Ordinarily I'd agree with you, but you have to recognize that it's very difficult to parody extreme prescriptivists in a way that actually exaggerates their narcissism and pomposity.]

  18. Antariksh Bothale said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:59 am

    I am Indian, and "at risk for" sounds rather ungrammatical (at least unidiomatic) to me. That's probably because Indian English has a rather large BrE influence. Again, I won't consider it wrong if I heard it being used, but it would sound a bit weird.

  19. T.J. U. said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

    This is simply another guess, but "at risk for" seems to accompany an omitted verb more often than "at risk of."

  20. Jimbino said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

    Hey, I'm a National Merit Scholar, formally educated in Linguistics, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish and German, fluent in 4 or 5 modern languages and numerous computer languages. Though I'm a native Paraguayan and natural-born American, I may have picked up some Brit-speak from the usual Brit-English of the multi-lingual Germans to whom I taught physics in Munich.

    Descriptivism is a joke. In researching a question in math, physics, auto mechanics, cabinetmaking, film, religion or proper English, the last thing that would occur to me is to go with the results of a Google search, though I admit that such would be useful in establishing the degree of poverty in Amerikan primary and secondary education.

    Yes, I am a prescriptivist whose heroes are folks like George Will, and I take no second seat to puffed-up Pullams.

    [(myl) Geoff Pullum is an easy-going fellow, but he does generally prefer that those who insult him should spell his name correctly.]

  21. Nathan said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

    WHBT. Again.

  22. TS said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

    Mark L.: "My (unreliable, post hoc) intuition about this difference is that extinction is a process that a group participates in, whereas AIDS is an external influence that individuals suffer from"

    That does not sound right. For example, "at risk of death" does not have to refer to a group. I think some other commenters have already pointed in the right direction. It seems there are many cases where "of" is more common: "risk of injury", "at (the) risk of boring you to death", etc. (OK, not sure the second example fits.) But let me add two more guesses:

    (1) Could it be that "at risk for" is a somewhat recent usage, and that it has something to do with the use of "at risk" without any "of" or "for"? You will find many articles talking about certain groups being simply "at risk" or "at-risk groups", where the thing they are at risk for (or of) is given by the context.

    E.g, "Recent research has shown that are at risk for unemployment, alcoholism, and diabetes at rates much higher than the overall population". Once "at risk" becomes an expression that stands on its own, it becomes quite natural to use "for" to specify what they are at risk for (eh, of).

    (2) Note also "at risk for unemployment" versus "He decided to intervene on his niece's behalf at (the) risk of losing his own job". (OK, there is an extra "the" again.) In the former there is a general "risk" that just exists (someone "is" at risk for something), while in the latter a specific action results in a risk.

  23. Damon said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    It's obviously not true that you've had education in linguistics, because if you had, you would have the basic theoretical competence to understand why your reference to Google searching was such an incredibly poor comparison.

  24. Keith M Ellis said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    Jimbino has just made moot the speculation about whether he's in earnest or trolling.

    If he's trolling, it's a bit one-note. (And, really, trolling descriptivists on Language Log is sort of like trolling for Canadians, well, anywhere. It's unsporting.)

    If he's for real, then he's the sort of insufferable twit who will, sooner or later, mention his IQ–and if we're very, very unlucky, the length of his penis.

    However, as before, he does seem to be dropping hints:

    "…fluent in 4 or 5 modern languages and numerous computer languages."

    If he's proficient with Befunge…or even GW-BASIC…then I, for one, feel quite certain that his authority on all matters linguistic should be unquestioned.

  25. Not My Leg said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

    As a chemist, one would not dare observe the manner in which chemical compounds actually interact. Rather, one should simply find a book of rules about chemistry and assume that it is correct (or, in the absence of a rule, just make it up). Rest assured, any chemicals that do not follow the rules are just doing it wrong; they probably grew up around other chemicals, but were never actually educated in being a chemical.

  26. Cy said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    It is interesting that our mutual friend lists computer languages immediately after natural languages. This is like a window into a prescriptivist reference class.

    I don't get the "amerika" with a 'k' joke.

  27. Keith M Ellis said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

    "Rest assured, any chemicals that do not follow the rules are just doing it wrong; they probably grew up around other chemicals, but were never actually educated in being a chemical."

    Thank you for that. It brought mirth and joy into my life for a brief yet invigorating time.

  28. mollymooly said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    Maybe "at risk for" began as a term of art among epidemiologists. Google ngrams has it overtaking "at risk of" in AmE in 1976, but not making much headway in BrE.

    Of the 20 "at risk for" in the BNC, 12 are false positives, 6 or 7 are medical.* I only scanned the 229 "at risk of", within which there are few false positives, excluding which about half are medical, half other (politics, sociology, etc).

    *The eighth is "his notice must specifically refer to the interim payment and aggregate the two amounts if he is to put the plaintiff at risk for the total", which seems to go against the trend of myl's response to Russell

  29. Bob Oboc said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

    Obvious troll is obvious.

    Do not feed the trolls.

    [(myl) In this case, I don't really care whether "Jimbino" is a crank or a troll. His little outburst exemplified the narcissism of peevers in an interesting way, and also raised an interesting specific question about optionality in the choice of prepositions for expressing the complements of certain nouns in certain expressions.]

  30. Ben Hemmens said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    if only every troll could be given this treatment :-)

  31. Emily said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

    @Cy: See here for "Amerika". Not sure what it's meant to imply in this context, though.

  32. Ellen K. said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    Jimbino, I'm disappointed that you thus far have chosen not to give us any actual reason either why "at risk for [cancer]" and "at risk of [cancer]" mean different things, or else why "at risk for [cancer]" is incorrect (whichever of those is the case).

    Unless you are God, "because I say so" doesn't cut it. And, come to think of it, even God hasn't bothered to give himself that kind of authority over the English language.

  33. Keith M Ellis said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    "It is interesting that our mutual friend lists computer languages immediately after natural languages. This is like a window into a prescriptivist reference class."

    Isn't it obvious to all right-thinking people that Strunk & White and Kernighan & Ritchie are functionally comparable?

    When I want to become proficient in a language, I consult the designer–as I'm sure does Mr. Jimbino.

  34. Jimbino said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    Some of the comments attributed to "Jimbino" (especially the last one) are not mine! While I share the prescriptivist position with this troll, I certainly don't want to identify with George Will, misspell Pullum's name, or do anything as crass as parade my (unveriable) credentials as proof of my correctness.

  35. GeorgeW said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

    With the additional evidence in Jimbino's follow-up (at 12:24pm), I vote troll.

    Educated in linguistics but teaches physics?

    "native Paraguayan and natural-born American" What does this mean? Born in the U.S. of Paraguayan immigrants?

    A natural-born American prescriptivist who writes "Amerikan?"

    Troll.

  36. Bob Oboc said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

    To clarify, I fully agree that Jimbino's original comments brought up subjects worthy of discussion. Not feeding the troll refers to his last comment, which was clearly intended only to be inflammatory.

    With that said, is "I'm a native Paraguayan and natural-born American" a proper statement of ethnicity? I thought that "native" and "natural-born" were interchangeable in this sense, so it sounds like he is claiming both (dual-citizenship?). "Paraguayan-American" or "ethnic Paraguayan" seems much more plausible.

  37. Bob Oboc said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    GeorgeW, don't forget that he edits medical articles too ;)

  38. Jimbino said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

    Yes, I have an MS in Physics and a Doctorate of Jurisprudence. That does not mean that you sycophants should now start turning your linguistic arschlecking on me. I would not have brought that up if not for the fact that the rampant ad hominem attacks in comments on this blog need to be answered.

    For the information of those of you who have not read (it relates to the candidacy of both John McCain and George Romney) or traveled much : "native" means "born in" and "natural-born" is a legal term of art (cf. Art 2, Sec of the US Constitution) clarified by Title 8 of the U.S. Code, which fills in the gaps left by the Constitution. Section 1401 defines the following as people who are "citizens of the United States at birth:"

    Anyone born inside the United States *
    Any Indian or Eskimo born in the United States, provided being a citizen of the U.S. does not impair the person's status as a citizen of the tribe
    Any one born outside the United States, both of whose parents are citizens of the U.S., as long as one parent has lived in the U.S.
    Any one born outside the United States, if one parent is a citizen and lived in the U.S. for at least one year and the other parent is a U.S. national
    Any one born in a U.S. possession, if one parent is a citizen and lived in the U.S. for at least one year
    Any one found in the U.S. under the age of five, whose parentage cannot be determined, as long as proof of non-citizenship is not provided by age 21
    Any one born outside the United States, if one parent is an alien and as long as the other parent is a citizen of the U.S. who lived in the U.S. for at least five years (with military and diplomatic service included in this time)
    A final, historical condition: a person born before 5/24/1934 of an alien father and a U.S. citizen mother who has lived in the U.S.

  39. Cy said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

    At the risk of being on topic, it is quite interesting that people like Jimbino exist who so passionately believe things, and I think many of us have probably been in similar situations where our arguments have backed us into corners, forcing us to stake a real claim.

    But people like him, as well as Strunk and White and all the rest, have surely accelerated language change to some extent in the past. Little things change over time, existing with various frequencies, but sometimes someone like Jimbino comes along and shifts the distribution (even if only a limited corpus, like a single journal for a number of years), and suddenly the data change. Jimbino, while denigrating a Google search, has had a hand (if his edited journal is in any way searchable or spambottable or excerptable) in moving the numbers toward his hoped-for preposition utopia. If he now regrets his original proclamation (a bit awkward to admit as much now), I'm sure he can appreciate that he's just added it to Language Log and the Internet several dozen times. That's not bad work for 4-5 LL comments.

  40. Stephen Nicholson said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

    I find your derision at Google interesting. Since it's a tool to search the web, it's obviously only as good as the websites it serves up when someone is looking for information on subjects like math and science. But with linguistics, if I understand the discipline correctly, the goal of using a search engine isn't to find the rules in already written form by someone else but to see how others use the language in real life.

    The idea that how people, even uneducated people, use language is somehow interesting and useful in the study of language is a new one. But I don't think it's any less important than other shifts in scientific discovery. For example, physics and chemistry (as alluded to above) suffered years of stagnation because people weren't taking the time to make accurate observations about how things moved and how chemicals interacted.

    Doctor's don't wash their hands simply because someone told them to, that would be a poor reason, they do so because to not wash their hands would introduce infections into their patients and jeopardize the patients' lives. It's been shown scientifically.

    With linguistics, the idea behind descriptivism is that a linguist should observe how people use the language. Since the primary purpose of language is to communicate, if one person understands another's use of language, then the use of the language is a success. This makes it likely that the person will use the language again to communicate the same idea. It's positive reinforcement.

    So it makes sense to look at as many uses of language as possible because the criteria for successful use of language is whether the receiver correctly understood the language.

  41. Jason said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

    I do find prescriptivism (I personally prefer the term "Linguistic Platonism") entertaining.

    The notion that the English prepositions can even be submitted to careful use is risible. "of" has the duty of covering both the Old English/Germanic meaning of "away, away from, from," translating the myriad uses of the Latin genitive "the father of John," "a piece of cake," "a man of little intellect" and serving to render equivalents of Old French and Latin prepositions like 'de' and 'ex.' Don't even get me started on a "pair of shoes."

  42. John Cowan said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    It's possible that "Jimbino" is a sophisticated parody, perhaps created by another instance of the same research program that produced "John Cowan".

    I can confirm that. Apparently the genetic algorithms have been optimizing for snootiness lately, rather than my trademark mixture of uber-knowledge, Geek Answer Syndrome, and hard-won humility.

  43. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    @GeorgeW:

    "native Paraguayan and natural-born American" What does this mean? Born in the U.S. of Paraguayan immigrants?

    It's a bit odd, but I read it the other way: Born in Paraguay, but at least one parent was an American citizen. (Of course, it's also a reference to a recently ended American political controversy.)

  44. Jimbino said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

    I do not deride Google; I merely said that I would not "go with the results of a Google search." I was referring to the typical usage frequency searches reported on these pages. Of course I Google, but I heavily filter the results unless the search, in the case of on proper English usage, were limited to writings of "George Will," etc. The majority of Amerikans believe in flying saucers and the holy spirit, for chrissake. A descriptivist generalized Google search will turn up nonsense in most areas!

  45. linguistic arschlecking said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

    Dibs on the name. Thank you Jimbino MS JD.

  46. Jimbino said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    Breathes there no descriptivist with soul so dead who never to himself has said, "I'm going to switch off this damn TV show if they keep saying, '…between you and I…,' and 'If I was you…' and non-stop 'Absolutely!'?

  47. Jason said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

    "Chance of rain" – 32,000,000
    "Change for rain" – 600,000

    "Danger of" – 30,000,000
    "Danger for" 2,000,000

    "in danger of" 43,000,000
    "in danger for" 1,000,000 (mostly phrases like "abortion rights in danger for American women")

    "Risk of" 141,000,000
    "Risk for" 30,000,000

    "at risk for" 45,000,000
    "at risk of" 96,000,000

    Running a few similar searches, the culprit here seems to be the phrase "at risk." Typically something like "chance of rain" the "of rain" seems to be taken as modifying what kind of chance. "At risk" is used often enough by itself [At risk teens] that it registers as a single idiom and therefore severs the connections with the qualifier that would demand "of."

    Consider.

    "Chance of snow" is far more common than "Chance for snow"
    Yet "Chance for a snow day" is immensely more common than "Chance of a snow day." Because we are no longer dealing with a type of chance (Snow-chance) but a likelihood that we will be having a snow day.

    I am sure someone could phrase what I am trying to say more smoothly/logically. But there you go.

  48. Stephen Nicholson said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

    Well, the research doesn't stop at Google. If it does, it's because it's a Breakfast Experiment and the point is to take a quick look into the field and see what's up. That's not bad, the linguists here aren't trying to prove that Greys have been mutilating cattle for 30 years, they're looking to see how people use language. And Google is often a good gauge of that.

    Of course, sometimes there is a need to limit the search to a specific person or class of people. A good example is the use of first person pronouns in presidential speeches. Other times you want to limit it to artists who's use of langue is near universally revered. It depends on what you are studying.

    Of course, in law, it's a bit different. Terms of art abound, and not using them in many situations could be malpractice. Of course, the extreme is true as well. Some lawyers use archaic and unnecessary language because they fear that not using them will lead to an undesired result. Separating a genuine legal term of art from something that is archaic and unnecessary is a difficult task.

    So, my point is that I agree with you to the extent that you say that you can't use Google for everything and careful filtering of results is important. But not all fields are the same and not all questions in a field should be answered using the same methodology.

  49. Damon said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

    Breathes there no descriptivist with soul so dead who never to himself has said, "I'm going to switch off this damn TV show if they keep saying, '…between you and I…,' and 'If I was you…' and non-stop 'Absolutely!'?

    Why would anyone work themselves into a lather over something so irrelevant?

  50. davep said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

    Some commenting systems turn the source IP address into a graphic.

    An example is here:

    http://stackoverflow.com/questions/tagged/c

    It's somewhat of an indication that posters using the same name might actually be different posters.

  51. Mary Kuhner said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

    To a biologist with some ties to both the epidemiology and the conservation communities, "at risk for" means "in an at-risk group for". That is, it feels like a back formation from the adjective "at-risk". Since "at-risk" is penetrating conservation more slowly (I think) than epidemiology, this is a less natural thing to say in conservation, but as "at-risk species" becomes more frequent, "at risk for extinction" may rise too.

    To this armchair amateur linguist, the main conclusion here is that English prepositions make NO SENSE and I'm awfully glad it's my first language as I would never succeed in learning it otherwise:

    They are at risk of cancer.

    They are at risk for cancer.

    They are susceptible/vulnerable/prone to cancer.

    They risk/are risking cancer.

    They are lacking in cancer immunity! (Why on earth does this take "in"?)

  52. GeorgeW said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

    There seems to be one real Jimbino and one impostor. In any event, a discussion of prescriptive vs. descriptive prepositions is worthwhile.

  53. Rubrick said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

    I actually found Jimbino's original advice regarding doctors and linguistic/professional sloppiness quite useful!

    Similarly, I once avoided buying a box of condoms indicating they were designed "to safely enhance sexual pleasure", on the grounds that a condom manufacturer who tolerated split infinitives was surely insufficiently vigilant about things splitting in general.

  54. GeorgeW said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

    MWUD gives 20 different meanings of the preposition 'of' and 10 for the preposition 'for.'

    It seems that here are several candidate meanings of/for each in the phrase 'at risk P cancer.' As MYL demonstrates there is quite of bit of variation in usage and about evenly divided in scientific journals.

    I had never before thought about this, but they seem to be interchangeable in a number of contexts.

  55. HP said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    "At risk of" versus "at risk for" seems to me like the kind of thing that would be listed on a house stylesheet, where the goal is to impose a house voice that is consistent across multiple authors (cf, e.g., Time versus The New Yorker).

    [(myl) So far, I haven't found any publications whose stylesheet (formal or informal) includes this particular case -- if you know of any, I'd be interested in pointers.]

    I know that when I was a copyeditor, I regularly changed "information on X" to "information about X." Neither usage is wrong, but only one was supported by the house stylesheet.

    I suppose if I had a more authoritarian personality, I might confuse "inconsistent" with "wrong." But I would be wrong.

  56. Randy E said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    "To this armchair amateur linguist, the main conclusion here is that English prepositions make NO SENSE and I'm awfully glad it's my first language as I would never succeed in learning it otherwise"

    Having tried to learn French and dabbled in a couple of other languages, it
    seems to me that prepositions are confusing in any language that is not a first language.

    [(myl) Choice of prepositions (or choice of postpositions, and similarly choice of noun cases where applicable) is one of the many aspects of morpho-syntax and morpho-phonology which are regularly quasi-regular.]

  57. Bob Ladd said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

    In the context of this discussion, I find it a bit surprising that no one has picked up on Stephen Nicholson's phrase derision at Google. I'm not sure which preposition I would have used there (of? for?), but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have been at.

  58. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

    Section 1401 defines the following as people who are "citizens of the United States at birth:"

    Anyone born inside the United States *

    If anyone's is wondering what this is asterisk for or to, at this site it's

    * There is an exception in the law — the person must be "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States. This would exempt the child of a diplomat, for example, from this provision.

  59. Jimbino said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 6:14 pm

    While we're on the subject of Amerikan's abuse of English prepositions, let me mention that a person is "enamored of [something]," not "enamored with [something]."

  60. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 6:31 pm

    at risk Should be "at risk for developing cancer," not "at risk of." But: "The risk of developing cancer increases with. . ."

    From the ONS Publishing Division style guide. ONS is the Oncology Nursing Society.

  61. notrequired said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

    English is my second language and to this day I believed that "at risk of" is the only grammatical variant. Thanks.

    Jimbo is clearly a fake, though.

  62. Mark Mandel said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

    One Jimbino or another said

    While we're on the subject of Amerikan's abuse of English prepositions, let me mention that a person is "enamored of [something]," not "enamored with [something]."

    I'm certainly not going to accept prescriptivism on English grammar from someone who can't manage to punctuate a plural possessive correctly.

    "And that," said Pooh, "is that."

  63. James Wimberley said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

    Jimbino is not a troll but a pixie; a prankster, a parodist. IF you must feed the pixies, give them onions.

  64. Mark said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

    I'm enamoured by Jimbino's behaviour. Jimbino is enamored of his own opinions. Neither Jimbino nor I are likely to be enamo(u)red with each other.

    Also, "Amerikan's abuse of"? Is there a single, individual Amerikan posting here abusing language? If it is the proper noun for a group, class, or clade shouldn't it be written "Amerikans' abusing" or even "Amerikans' continued abuse of" if you must get the "of" jab in there one more time.

    All snarkiness aside, someone trained in both law and computer science just about has to be either inherently prescriptive by nature (of nature?) or seriously brainwashed into acquired prescriptism. Both careers demand, DEMAND, that you be precise with your words and both tend to violently reject "flexible" meanings.

    Given how well read he purports to be and how much contact he's had with other languages, I'd have expected that to be tempered with a bit of understanding that:
    a. Something like 1 or 2 billion "English as a second language" folks exist and their intelligence, general level of education, wisdom and cleanliness can't easily be determined with such a feeble touchstone.
    b. These linguistic divides are perennial and oft-shifting traps for the weak-minded, which category even the most well-read and well-educated can fall into. "Apes don't read philosophy." "Yes they do, Otto. They just don't understand it."
    c. People yelling "ad hominem" shouldn't also yell "Amerikan".

    Finally. The touchstone that poor use of a preposition ensures that others also have little use for cleanliness reminds me of the old joke about an untidy desk being a sign of an untidy mind. With the obvious retort "Really? My mind must really BE untidy. I can't tell if your desk is clean or merely empty."

  65. Rod Johnson said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

    Jimbino is that Schroedinger's Cat of internet controversialists, the Poe.

  66. linda seebach said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

    To Jerry at 5:19:
    Some consular official who came to meet with editorial writers at the paper I worked for said that the "subject to the jurisdiction of" for diplomats' children depended on what city the diplomat was stationed in. Sorry, I don't recall the details, and it was a while ago, too.

  67. Frank Y. Gladney said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 10:18 pm

    Jason had it right, when he wrote

    "At risk" is used often enough by itself [At risk teens] that it registers as a single idiom and therefore severs the connections with the qualifier that would demand "of."

    In a structure N P N, the P almost always is the genitive _of_, structured N [ P N ]. Likewise most cases of P N P N are similarly structured
    P [ N [ P N ] ], e.g., _at risk of cancer_. But with the first P N assuming more idiomatic unity ([ P N ]), the second P N becomes freer in choice of P, hence _for_.

  68. Chris Waters said,

    April 27, 2011 @ 11:27 pm

    Well, one thing I think we've learned here is that prescriptivists/peevers provide great templates for trolls to copy. One thing we probably haven't learned—because we presumably already knew—is that peevers are willing to complain about the quality of other people's evidence even when they, themselves, offer none!

  69. A Wagner said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 1:08 am

    Thanks for the post! I have a passing interest in linguistics, so I peruse this blog from time to time. But I'm actually a grad student in public health. Basically we're the people writing the articles saying that people are at risk for/of a disease. And guess what, I can almost assuredly say that my professors do not differentiate between "risk for" and "risk of." If anything, they say the former more often. So yes, I am the next generation of the educated public health professional, and we think these mean the same things. Science should be about effectively communicating to the scientific community and the public at all, not making up silly prepositional rules used to differentiate one from an uncouth "other."

  70. John Walden said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 3:08 am

    These kinds of arguments take place on your side of the pond much more than on ours. In other words, the descriptivist tendency seems to be more British in its thinking than the prescriptivist does. There are a rag-bag of reasons which I can't organise into any kind of coherent position, and doubtless many are probably founded on no more than another equally misguided set of prejudices about a country I have never visited, but which I feel I know. But then Americans have all seen 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' so know what Britain is like.

    A great many Americans can't have four born English-speaking grand-parents: it's as if many of you come from backgrounds where English was previously learnt, apparently sometimes with explicit rules that I have genuinely never heard of, like all that nonsense about which/that. Converts are often the most fervent worshippers. All those spelling bees in Little House on the Prairie reinforces the impression that 'correct' and even hyper-correct English was part of assimilating and belonging.

    If I can't spell fuchsia or fuschia or whatever it is, I couldn't care less.

    Is it still about feeling a lack of ownership? I don't mean that AmE looks up to BrE anymore. But it does seem to look up to something for guidance.

    I wonder how many of you had English language teachers (called Miss Jorgensen) who were not only products of the backgrounds I mention themselves but also of a Continental linguistic tradition of higher authorities for linguistic correctness, whereas I bow to no authority except my 'mind's ear'. The permissivity of BrE about 'Liverpool are' is an example. Who the hell is anybody to tell me that I'm wrong?

    The whole business of grammar mavens and running to consult style-manuals seems more alien to us, well to me. Fowler and Gower are to be treated as advice, not taken as gospel. We seem to be very insouciant and without complexes in comparison to many Americans. Though there are notable exceptions, our default setting is descriptivist and yours prescriptivist, with the descriptivists among you having to defend yourselves even on Language Log. Which I find odd.

    [(myl) The trouble with your theories, I think, is that the "fact" you're trying to explain is false. See here or here or here or here or here, among many other places.]

  71. John F said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 4:36 am

    I'm BrE native, and my BrE native English teacher at grammar school was a bit prescriptivist, at least as far as "different from" is concerned (NEVER "different than"!). I won't say that's all I remember of her teaching, but along with her love of cherry blossom, that's what sticks out in my mind.

    I also remember prepositions being slightly odd in Latin, with "Caecilius in lecto recumbit" and "Caecilius in atrio est". Is he in or on!? And that's before any mention of de.

    Finally, were the Psalms 'of David', or 'for David'?

  72. John Walden said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 7:08 am

    I'm more than happy to be wrong in my hazy and lazy perceptions of AmE. Nevertheless, in fairness, nobody says "according to Heffer" (he's a political commentator (and an oaf)) or "according to Howse" ( a commentator on religious affairs) and Lynn Truss's book was very slim indeed and far more a "loo book" than any kind of manual that people rush to consult.

    It's hard to think of authorative British equivalents of Safire, Garner or "The Usage Panel" or to find examples on the 'net like "Grammar Girl" or "Miss Grammar Lady" (not counting moonlighting British hacks trying to stir up the populace à la Truss/Heffer).

    I can't remember a weekly column anything remotely like "On Language" ever appearing in the British press.

    Perhaps British prescriptivists 'describe' their own deeply-held prejudices about rightness and wrongness, though tending less to cite authorities to back them up.

    [(myl) Well, let's not forget the Fowler brothers, still the most famous purveyors of usage advice; or John Dryden, Bishop Lowth, and the rest of the parade of distinguished English prescriptivists. But to continue with the exercise in caricature, perhaps one difference is that the stereotypical English attitude has traditionally been that rising in class is essentially impossible, from a cultural and linguistic point of view -- the only way to learn to speak and write properly is to be born into the right family and to attend the right schools. Attempts to achieve elite standards outside of these channels are essentially a form of fraud, ethically questionable at best and in any case almost certain to be detected and exposed eventually. The older British writers who took a contrary view, like Shaw in Pygmalion or Orwell more generally, were often leftist outsiders. And I presume that the angry mobs with pitchforks (who throng the comments pages of the Guardian and the Telegraph whenever they're invited to vent some "word rage") are actually middle-class social climbers who are anxious about their hard-won cultural capital.

    On this side of the Atlantic, we've stereotypically believed that anyone can aspire to elite linguistic standards. A proliferation of usage authorities, of high quality or low, is a natural result.

    But as for Mr. Jimbino -- assuming that he's not actually British to start with -- you can find a thousand copies of him in the comments sections of British newspapers today, whenever the subject of English usage comes up.]

  73. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 7:13 am

    @ John F

    Your last two examples of prepositions aren't really 'odd', they just don't map precisely onto the semantic scope of English ones. Latin in can mean in, into, on, onto, within, upon, among, at, towards, during, until, depending on the context. Hebrew -ל can mean to, for, of etc.

    But look at, say, English of in the massacres of the rebels, which can mean massacres committed against the rebels or by the rebels. Of has developed a very wide range of more and less grammaticised uses.

    Your teacher was sort of right about different than – it's at least unusual in BrE. It gets 50 hits on BNC, compared to 3278 for different from and 483 for different to (the latter being surprisingly few, to me).

  74. Steve F said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 7:44 am

    I can't be the only British reader of Language Log who would like to disassociate himself from the 'theories' expressed by John Walden above about 'British descriptivism' versus 'American prescriptivism' and the generalisations about national character that he draws. Mark's counter-examples are, I'm sure, sufficient evidence that word-rage and other varieties of peevology are just as prevalent on this side of the Atlantic. But there are, of course, differences in what people peeve about – my own impression would concur with John Walden's that the 'which/that' distinction doesn't seem to bother BrE speakers much, and it may well be true that Fowler and Gower are less often consulted than Strunk and White. But there are certainly plenty of British peevers who get hot under the collar about all sorts of words and expressions that don't bother Americans, because one of the main reasons for a Brit to complain about language use is that it is perceived as an 'Americanism'. I am even old enough to recall being told by one of my primary school teachers that one shouldn't use 'OK' because it was 'unBritish'.

    On the question of 'Liverpool are', however, John Walden is surely wrong to suggest that this is an example of BrE 'permissivity' and something on which he trusts his 'mind's ear'. It is surely a clear and established difference between the two dialects that BrE treats singular nouns for plural entities differently from AmE. The 'rule' is the same for all British speakers, not a personal choice of John Walden's mind's ear – singular nouns that stand for a group of people, such as 'the Police', or in John Walden's example (presumably) the Liverpool football team, nearly always take a plural verb. So we say 'Liverpool is a city on the River Mersey' but 'Liverpool are winning the match'. 'Liverpool is winning' is also possible, but would be much less common (5,500 Google hits as oppsed to 135,000,000).

    But to get back on topic, I have to agree with other BrE commenters that 'at risk of' sounds much more natural to my ears than 'at risk for', but that I do tend to associate the latter with medical contexts, so I think Mark's distinction is valid, but much less marked in BrE. I would never judge a doctor by his use of prepositions though.

  75. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 8:24 am

    MYL's last red-font comment goes some way towards answering something I've been wondering for a while.

    I don't agree with John Walden that us English are any less prone to prescriptivism, but what I am often surprised by is strong prescriptivism from those on the American right who also profess to revere the figure of the unrefined, plain-talking, non-metropolitan American. I would have expected them, in general, to revel in folksy, Southern, rural and non-standard dialect forms, and in thumbing their nose at centrally imposed, 'academic' rules. But my (obviously subjective) impression is of a lot of whoms, than Is etc., and correction of alternative forms, in these writers.

    The self-improvement ethic is one answer, and I guess there's also a tension within conservatism between authoritarian and anti-authoritarian aspects.

    [(myl) For some discussion of the politics of prescriptivism, see "Authoritarian rationalism is not conservatism", 12/11/2007; "James Kilpatrick, Linguistic Socialist", 3/28/2008. Or read Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 1: Rules and Order, p. 10-11:

    [Constructivist rationalism] produced a renewed propensity to ascribe the origin of all institutions of culture to invention or design. Morals, religion and law, language and writing, money and the market, were thought of as having been deliberately constructed by somebody, or at least as owing whatever perfection they possessed to such design. …

    Yet … [m]any of the institutions of society which are indisensible conditions for the successful pursuit of our conscious aims are in fact the result of customs, habits or practices which have been neither invented nor are observed with any such purpose in view. …

    Man … is successful not because he knows why he ought to observe the rules which he does observe, or is even capable of stating all these rules in words, but because his thinking and acting are governed by rules which have by a process of selection been evolved in the society in which he lives, and which are thus the product of the experience of generations.

    ]

  76. JimG said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 10:39 am

    I will run the risk of being redundant, because I think there's not much likelihood of Jimbino's point being made any other way. There is a chance of falling into the prescriptivist's inevitable self-exposing error trap, but there seems to be a potential benefit of showing a number of apt examples. At the least, this pattern seems to offer a reasonable probability of clear communication, although there is greater danger of error as more examples appear. Thus, I take the gamble that these examples offer no opportunity of using "for" instead of the selected preposition.

    @ Anonymoose: Thank you for "cancer-risked."
    It's as well that Language Log isn't so enslaved by social media conventions that it would have a "Like" button.

  77. Bloix said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

    "at risk for" began as a term of art among epidemiologists"

    I tend to think this is right. And it's not merely jargon – there's a difference in meaning between "at risk of" and "at risk for."

    My wife is an epidemiologist, and through her I've learned that "at risk" is a term of art that has a reasonably precise meaning. You have a population that is at risk "for" some condition over a given period of time (say a year) – - and then you have some number of new incidents (or "cases") of that condition that occur in your population during that time period, and the ratio of cases over population is the "incidence," which is a key measure of "risk" (much better than prevalence, which is the number of cases in the population at any one time).

    By definition, the population under consideration is "at risk for" the condition, whether or not they get it more or less often than the general population.

    So "at risk for" does not imply any elevated risk. It just implies that the condition following "for" is the condition under analysis.

    By contrast, "at risk of" does imply an elevated risk.

  78. GeorgeW said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    Atmir Ilias: If every English speaker said (and wrote), 'at risk FOR cancer,' would we all be wrong?

    More importantly, would nobody understand what is being said?

  79. Ben Hemmens said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

    @ Rod Johnson:
    a Poe? I think he's a Heisentroll.

  80. Ben Hemmens said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

    At risk of/for:

    a) Probably below the radar of most overworked editors at science journals, given the amount of much worse stuff they have to shovel out of the stables every day.

    b) Not specified in any style guides of said journals

    c) Referees can probably peeve about it if they like, and since it's something one can fix without further experiments, very unlikely any author would ever try to dispute it.

  81. bloix said,

    April 28, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

    Ok, I asked my wife the epidemiologist and she says "at risk for." And it's not an elevated risk. "Greater risk of" but "at risk for" when studying a condition or disease.

  82. a George said,

    April 29, 2011 @ 4:32 pm

    – what a lot of beautiful prose and even invective that could have been saved by George Pullum's genial device: "comments off"

  83. a George said,

    April 29, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    – oh dear, just basking in the pride of having commented, and I discovered that I had made Geoffrey Pullum into another George. No good at all, sorry!

  84. Pekka said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 3:36 am

    Careful presciptivists! If you come around here, you might get well and thoroughly described. (Not an official Language Log policy statement.)

  85. David Marjanović said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 5:11 pm

    I don't get the "amerika" with a 'k' joke.

    It's either meant to make fun of the sorry state of education in the US of A, or it's short for "ameriKKKa", or maybe both. Either way it expresses disappointment.

    a) Probably below the radar of most overworked editors at science journals, given the amount of much worse stuff they have to shovel out of the stables every day.

    b) Not specified in any style guides of said journals

    c) Referees can probably peeve about it if they like, and since it's something one can fix without further experiments, very unlikely any author would ever try to dispute it.

    d) Many authors are not native speakers. Referees and editors (in many journals, for instance Nature, there are no proofreaders; I've seen many published typos!) tend to let everything pass that they consider acceptable or at least understandable, even if it's wholly unidiomatic.

    Concerning b), most journals do not have a style guide; the instructions to authors only concern citation format and such. I was very surprised to find out that the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, to which I have recently submitted what will be my sixth publication, regulates in its instructions to authors when to use 's and when of, and even to spell forelimb as one word but hind limb as two words.

  86. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 7:22 am

    @ David Marjanović :

    Most scientific journals do indeed have editors who work on the texts; they just don't have much time for it, so they work at a kind of rough triage level. At least some publishers (e.g Elsevier) regularly farm out language editing to outside freelancers.

    The lack of a style guide in the proper sense is no guarantee of not falling foul of a referee's or editor's peeves.

    Maybe the existence of the higher-end editing scientific editing services such as Nature's own and BioEdit is based on superstition, but I think it may actually have something to do with avoiding making a bad first impression with an MS and therefore increasing the chances of even getting sent out to referees (and ultimately, accepted).

  87. The Portuguese Reader said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    Prescriptivism is present in all cultures I know of (which are not many, to be honest). The way Portuguese prescriptivism works is very similar to US and UK prescriptivism as described here.

  88. Jimbino said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 11:01 pm

    At risk of sounding pompous, I'm happy to have had the opportunity to educate y'all.

  89. P. Orbis Proszynski said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

    "I may have picked up some Brit-speak from the usual Brit-English of the multi-lingual Germans to whom I taught physics in Munich."

    Isn't the "to" in "to whom" superfluous?

    From now on, any sock account I create to troll any site shall be named "Jimbino". Jimbino does not forget. He does not forgive. He is Legion. EXPECT HIM.

  90. Saint Gasoline said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 10:52 pm

    I realize I'm late to this party, but I just wanted to briefly comment that the correction of "at risk for" to "at risk of" is the type of "correction" you'd see in a publisher's house style sheet. I work for a company that offers copyediting and proofreading services for medical texts, and this is one of the rules on our house style sheet. It's basically meant to ensure consistency, but I'd hardly venture to call either use incorrect. I'm probably one of the few people in the office who would describe himself as a descriptivist, though.

  91. Mark said,

    June 1, 2012 @ 4:00 am

    Interesting discussion, and one of the few dealing with this common problem for science editors.

    More examples:

    Is it risky for you to stand there? – Is it good for you, is it right for you, is it easy for you, is it necessary for you, is it appropriate for you, is it enough for you, is it risky for you. Pointing to external conditions.

    Is it risky of you to stand there? – is it wise of you, is it sensible of you, is it ignorant of you, is it presumptious of you, is it appropriate of you, is it bold of you, is it risky of you. Pointing to internal conditions.

    Am I at risk of developing cancer. – points inwards to me, my risk. Pointing inside people.

    What is the risk for developing cancer? This refers to the risk variable for cancer. This points to the external – the risk level for the specific disease, external of people, as something that has existence in itself.

    What is the risk for catching a cold? - emphasis is on the risk, the condition, the cold, not on the people catching it.

    What is the risk of catching a cold? - places more emphasis on the person/s in danger of catching a cold. The presence of people are implied. This is why the public will ask this question of epidemiologists, and epidemioligists will answer with the 'risk for'.

    Epidemiologists are not interested in 'people' and so perhaps lean more towards the use of 'at risk for'.

    We found an increased risk for HIV among IDUs. - Ellipsis: we found an increased [level of] risk for [the disease variable] HIV. i.e. For the HIV variable, we found an increased risk level. No mention or implied presence of people, only of a disease and a risk attached to it.

    The risk for you is too high. – cannot use 'of' here. This is because there is no control of external conditions.
    The risk of you dying is too high. – cannot use 'for' here. The 'of dying' is seperated by pronoun 'you'. This refers to an internal condition of a person, so 'of' is appropriate.

    What is the risk for women of developing cervical cancer?

    What are women's risks of developing cervical cancer?

    at risk for HIV. – For catching HIV, they are at risk (adjectival). You cannot easily say 'of catching HIV, they are at risk'. e.g. for fishing in rivers, they are perfect (adjectival).

    'At risk' can be used adjectively e.g. at risk groups. IDUs are at risk for HIV, windows are perfect for letting in light.

    Lots of examples is the only way to open up this nugget.

  92. Becky said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 11:23 am

    Super interesting post, and very helpful to me.

    I think this is a grammar issue and does not depend on the general content. I've never really thought about it before it came up in a document I am editing and I read this post for guidance so I'm not surprised the terms are interchanged all the time.

    The difference between the usage of "of" and "for" is that what comes after "of" is an action carried out directly by the subject (what is at risk), even if this is a verbal noun, such as extinction, whereas what follows "for" affects the subject but would require some other verb to explain the relationship. (Using the example provided: a population becomes extinct, but a population does not become AIDS. Another example: you can say "At risk of sounding silly" but you can't say "At risk for sounding silly.") I would argue that "at risk for" should not be used preceding a verb, and that "at risk of" should only be used before verbs or verbal nouns (not because of syntactical restrictions but because of the implied meaning described above.)

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