Archive for prepositions

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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Recently, we've been talking, here and here, about the choice of preposition to go with the adjective bored: the older with (or by) or the innovative (and now spreading) of. Commenters added some other choices of of where another preposition might have been expected: with the adjectives concerned, embarrassed, and fed up; and with verbs in appreciate of and succumb of. There are several possible routes to these usages — analogy with P choice for semantically similar words (bored of on analogy with tired of), blending (bored of = bored with x tired of), and reversion to of as the default P in English — but the cases are at least superficially similar (though they are probably not related at a deeper level; people with one of these usages can't be expected to have any, or all, of the others).

And then a commenter (on the first of these postings) moved to a very different case; dw asked about off of, adding, "It drives me nuts". The only thing that this case — of what some handbooks term "intrusive" of in combination with certain prepositions — has to do with things like bored of is that the word of is involved. Still, people like dw, and a great many usage critics as well, are inclined to "bundle" disparate phenomena under a single heading for no reason beyond the involvement of a particular word. As I said recently, people are inclined to "blame it on a word".

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V + P~Ø (the handout)

Back in February I posted the abstract for my 2009 Stanford Semantics Fest paper, on alternations between direct and oblique marking of objects in English (flee the scene, flee from the scene). An expanded version of the handout is now available on my website, here.

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A new preposition is born

People seem to imagine the prepositions, like other so-called "function words", belong to a fixed and fairly small list that is handed down to us unchanging over the centuries: at, by, for, from, in, into, of, off, on, to, under, with, within, without, a few others, and that's it for our lifetime. But it's not like that. Not only is the list of prepositions longer than people think (probably over 200 items in all), it is growing. New prepositions pop up from time to time, some borrowed from other languages and others derived from various sources within English. Brett Reynolds and Rodney Huddleston have discovered a new one. Brett heard somebody say (about a water contamination in Walkerton, Ontario): "How is the water, post Walkerton?" And he suspected this meant post had to be a preposition, so he mailed Huddleston about it. Huddleston had already collected an example of the same kind: Post the wash-out from the credit crunch, most assets globally were overpriced (The Weekend Australian, 26-27 April 2008, page 39). And then just today he got a piece of mail including the sentence Post the entitlement offer, the only remaining bank facility is with ABN AMRO Bank. That's three. Get used to it, folks: we have a new preposition amongst us. Post is already in most dictionaries as a prefix. Expect the dictionaries to add "prep" to the entry in… oh, about fifty years or so would be my guess (dictionaries don't exactly work like greased lightning when it comes down to new usages like this: the new words they add every year or two are mostly new nouns).

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V + P~Ø

March approaches, and just before the Ides of March (on the 13th and 14th, specifically) comes the Stanford Semantics Festival. This is the 10th; a program, with abstracts, will soon be up on the Stanford Linguistics site.  As usual, I'm giving a paper (I'm not actually a semanticist, but I play one annually at SemFest), this year on verbs taking either direct or oblique objects — with extensive references to postings on Language Log and ADS-L. The paper is a follow-up to my paper from last year's SemFest, on "diathesis alternations".

The abstract is below. (Remember that this is just an abstract, not the whole paper. It's much compressed and also lacks most of the references.)

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Grouch v. Ernestine

Yesterday in the New York Times, Stanley Fish got his peeve on with some representatives of my former employer, AT&T ("Return of the Old Grouch", 12/28/2008). Although the real problem seems to have been the difficulty of arranging for voice mail to be turned on, he focused on a linguistic irritant:

… finally, after pressing a number of zeros, I was rewarded with the voice of a live person who said, "With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?"

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Asking questions to the prepositional meme pool

With respect to a piece of political spam from John McCain that included the sentence "You will also have an exclusive opportunity to … ask questions to one of my top advisors", Graham commented

Is "ask questions TO somebody" good American English? It reads very oddly to this Brit.

Well, "ask questions to somebody" sounds odd to me as well. And this morning's Breakfast Experiment™ will confirm that oddity quantitatively, as well as suggesting some further research into the population genetics of prepositions.

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Beyond Barking

Adrian Morgan pointed out to me a Usenet comment in which someone says of some course of action that it "can hardly be a sane policy for anyone who is not evincing signs of heading distinctly dagenham". In this context dagenham is apparently to be taken as a synonym for "insane", by a rather devious etymological route. Dagenham is a town in Essex, England. On the District Line of the London Underground, Dagenham is three stops beyond the town of Barking (after Barking are Upney, Becontree, Dagenham Heathway, and Dagenham East). To be barking mad is to be crazy; and being dagenham is therefore being three steps beyond barking. The allegation of being beyond barking was leveled at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, according to this page at And this list of British idioms says a parallel use is made of the place name Becontree (two stops beyond Barking on the District Line).

So much for the etymology. Now for the syntax. Is it actually grammatical to say someone is "heading dagenham" (whether distinctly or not), under that interpretation of what dagenham means? I would agree with Adrian that it is not quite grammatical. Not too far out there beyond the boundary of the normal, but definitely somewhere out there. But why?

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