Preposition choice is hard

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Today's Cul de Sac:


  1. Jimbino said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 10:29 am

    Right. Reminds me of the inability of Amerikans to say:

    enamored of [not enamored with]
    advocate a cause [not advocate for a cause]
    at risk of [not at risk for]
    he caved in [not he caved]
    the whole comprises the parts [not he whole is comprised of the parts].

    [(myl) This comment suggests that Mr. Jimbino is immmune to evidence — for a long discussion of his invented peeve about "at risk for" see "At risk", 4/27/2011). But for anyone who might otherwise be taken in by similar confident assertions of falsehoods about usage, here is a sample from the OED of the despised "Amerikan" uses of enamored with, transitive advocate, and comprised of:

    1582   R. Mulcaster 1st Pt. Elementarie Peroration 253   Peple of Rome hauing platted their gouernment, much what like the Athenian, for their common pleas, became enamored with their eloquence.
    1579   Spenser Shepheardes Cal. May 276   He was so enamored with the newell, That nought he deemed deare for the jewell.

    c1529   S. Gardiner Let. in H. Ellis Orig. Lett. Eng. Hist. (1846) 3rd Ser. II. clxxviii. 157   In case the Pope..shulde aduocate the said cause.
    1666   S. Pepys Diary 1 Dec. (1972) VII. 393 part with all his estate in these difficult times to advocate the King's service.

    1874   Art of Paper-Making ii. 10   Thirds, or Mixed, are comprised of either or both of the above.
    1928   Daily Tel. 17 July 10/7   The voluntary boards of management, comprised..of very zealous and able laymen.
    1964   E. Palmer tr. A. Martinet Elem. Gen. Ling. i. 28   Many of these words are comprised of monemes.
    1970   Nature 27 June 1206/2   Internally, the chloroplast is comprised of a system of flattened membrane sacs.


  2. Colibri said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 10:31 am

    I've had a version of this conversation several times with my daughter. I say I want her to get in bed; she says, "I am" when it's still made and she's lying on top of the covers. I say she's on her bed in that case.

  3. MonkeyBoy said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 11:14 am

    The prototypical chair seems to have arms that enclose you.

    A stool (by definition armless) doesn't and nobody "sits in a stool".

    Since "in" with chairs is used to designate the prototypical human sitting function, "on" can be a marker to say that human sitting is not taking place.

    I would guess (without a corpus search) that when an inanimate object, such as a hat, is located at a chair "on" is preferably used even though the arms of the chair may be seen as enclosing it, because "in" is for humans using the chair as intended.

  4. Chris Waigl said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 11:19 am

    My mother and I fought every Saturday afternoon after the weekly grocery shopping whether you had to go/cycle up or down the road to get from the city center to the Italian ice cream parlour.

  5. Simon K said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 11:35 am

    Chris, I sometimes have the same sort of discussions with my wife, who doesn't accept that that topology is important in this, and that if a road slopes downwards, however gently, there's no way that I'm walking up it.

  6. melanie gonzalez said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    My husband first language is not English and we have lots of fun teasing him. He's a good sport. My favorite is when we pull up in front of the house – as he is a gentleman and lets me and the kids out, then goes to park – he says," Get off." Meaning get out of the car :)

    [(myl) Though just to make it more confusing, we do "get off" (of) buses, trains, elevators, and so on.]

  7. Andrew Deacon said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

    Chris and Simon,
    If you want a really confusing terminology look at British railways where,in double tracked lines, the London bound track is "Up" and the line away from London is "Down"-where ever in Britain the line is. This can become very confusing with 3 or more tracks whne you get such things as "Up relief" or "Down slow". When lines were named by long defunct Rail Companies or do not go to London it can be really interesting( for some values of interesting.)

  8. DavidO said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

    George Carlin: "'Get on the plane, get on the plane.' F*ck you, I'm getting IN the plane!"

  9. MonkeyBoy said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

    he says," Get off." Meaning get out of the car

    The peculiarities of vehicle prepositions have been understood for a while. When the vehicles are functioning as vehicles for a big one "on" marks that you can walk around inside while "in" doesn't. For small vehicles which are essentially mobile seats (horses, bicycles) or platforms (skate boards) which you mount from outside, "on" again takes over.

    Essentially "in" means you are enclosed but can't walk.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    In the wonderful From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (whose author E.L. Konigsburg died earlier this month), the older sister peeves about her younger brother's choices of preposition, especially his using constructions that double up ("hide out in" and "run away to"). Prefiguring Hartman's law or some variant thereof, he catches her a few lines later unselfconsciously using one of the constructions she has just deprecated.

  11. JS said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

    Might 'in the car' (as opposed to 'on the bus/plane/train') speak to a sense of relatively immediate containment? I've had cause to consider this in reference to Mandarin, where shang4 'get/be on' is preferred in these contexts (though one can imagine the use of li3 'in' for vehicles, and also for chairs, in the case of some specialized emphasis).

  12. Rachael said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

    This strip is very reminiscent of my 2-year-old. She's quite pedantic about prepositions. If we ask her to "do a wee on the potty" she'll say "IN the potty!" She also has strong opinions about whether she sits in or on a chair, and whether boats are on or in the river, but I can never remember which way round it is.

  13. MattF said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

    Uh, wait a minute… is Cul de Sac being published again? I thought it ended due to Thompson's Parkinson's disease.

  14. Faldone said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 1:27 pm

    They've been rerunning old Cul de Sacs.

  15. chris said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

    Though just to make it more confusing, we do "get off" (of) buses, trains, elevators, and so on.

    Possibly by analogy with ships, where you are equally "on" the ship whether you are above or below decks.

    I don't think I've ever heard of anyone getting on/off an elevator, though — only in/out. Maybe a regional thing?

    Following MonkeyBoy's distinction, although you *can* walk in an elevator, you can't walk far or to much purpose, which would suggest "in/out" would be preferred over "on/off".

    On the other hand, you get "on" a roller coaster, on which you can't leave your seat (and are usually locked in by a safety harness that you can't even unlock yourself). Perhaps because there often isn't a complete enclosure? But I think I would probably say "on" of a Ferris wheel in which all the passengers are in closed compartments, too.

  16. Ray Girvan said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

    We ran into the regionalism here (East Devon) where you go "up" to any larger conurbation. I find it slightly weird when people talk about going up to Plymouth, which is roughly south-west of us.

  17. Adam said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

    Cf this classic Sesame Street skit featuring Grover.

  18. Rubrick said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 4:00 pm

    This is all elucidated in my upcoming self-published treastise, "Prepositions Are a Big Chaotic Mess (Just Give Up Now)".

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

    How does the British up/down usage for railway lines square with going "up" to Oxford/Cambridge to matriculate and being "sent down" if things don't work out well at university? (Although for all I know that usage is now archaic?)

    For the U.S., at least, one could do a massive corpus search for instances of "up here," "down here," "out here," "back here" and maybe others I'm not thinking of (all ways of indicating the speaker's location, typically while talking to someone who hails from elsewhere), code them for geographical location of utterance, and map the hits to see if regional patterns emerge. You could then do the same with "up there," "down there" etc. (where the location being indicated is *not* where the speaker is and you would be coding for that distant-to-the-speaker location), and see if the two maps do or don't match up. In a very loose macro sense I would think the U.S. default associations are "up North," "down South," "out West," and "back East," but more finegrained data might either contradict that or show interesting local counterpatterns that emerge when you zoom in.

  20. Rod Johnson said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

    Huh, Jimbino has been trolling with "Amerikan" since back before he was banned from the Straight Dope boards. Some things just never get old, apparently.

  21. Sili said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 5:51 pm

    Simon K

    Chris, I sometimes have the same sort of discussions with my wife, who doesn't accept that that topology is important in this, and that if a road slopes downwards, however gently, there's no way that I'm walking up it.

    You'll really hate the mentioned "going up to Cambridge" usage, then.

  22. Dennis said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

    Jimbino's use of "Amerikan" makes me wonder when replacing c's with k's gives a pejorative or negative term, e.g., muzak.

  23. Ø said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 6:35 pm

    @Simon K: Topology or topography?

  24. Rod Johnson said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

    Simon: Team Topology
    Simon's wife: Team Topography

  25. isaiah said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 8:39 pm

    My wife thinks the shower curtain is open when it is spread out, I think it's open when it is pushed to the side and bunched up.

    Not a preposition issue, I realize, but it seemed to fit here.

  26. Carl Offner said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 8:40 pm

    "Topology" versus "topography" is probably not so uncommon. When I was teaching junior high school quite a few years ago, the administration refused to give me credit on the salary schedule for my graduate studies in mathematics. (They claimed they wanted the university to change their system of reporting credits to one they could understand.) The grievance went to arbitration, and at that point the then assistant superintendent (shortly thereafter promoted to superintendent) was brought in by the School Committee lawyer to prove that I must have been lying. He had, it seems, called up the university, and discovered that one of the courses I had taken had been "Topics in Topography and Continuous Groups", which I hadn't mentioned. It took me a minute or so to realize that he meant "topology", at which point I was able to point to the course in the transcript; and he lost that grievance, as he did virtually every other one he was involved in. But I digress.

  27. Gou Tongzhi said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 10:26 pm


    I have never heard anyone say get in/out of an elevator. Only on or off the elevator. Leading of course to the delightful "What floor go you get off on?"

  28. uebergeek said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 10:40 pm

    I'm always fascinated by the difference in preposition use between languages. Of course, many parts of speech and even basic concepts like is/am can be different. But the fact that different languages approach prepositions differently somehow makes me wonder how we can all navigate the same basic concepts of time and space, while getting to meetings at the right time and without falling on the way For example, "bis" in German seems to translate in English to "until, by, before." (I don't speak German.) But these are different concepts in English. German speakers will often say in English, "I have to do so-and-so until 3 o'clock" when an English speaker would say "I have to do so-and-so by 3 o'clock" – which means something different. Occasionally the difference has been enough that I've misunderstood what someone meant. But somehow "bis" is not confusing among German speakers. I've asked a few German speakers to explain how this works, but of course since it's not confusing to them they have no idea what I'm talking about and look at me like I'm crazy. They may be right about my being crazy – still I find I find prepositional differences very curious. I like the cartoon in this post because it reminds me that even native speakers of the same language can approach prepositions differently (though of course the kid did end up falling off the chair!)

  29. Bob Wright said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 10:43 pm

    I get irritated at our local newscast saying "on line" instead of "in line" when referring to queuing.

  30. David Morris said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

    The son wanted the father to read him a bedtime story, but not out of *that* book. The father took the book upstairs anyway. The son said "What did you bring that book I don't want to be read to out of up for?"

  31. uebergeek said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

    And since some people have brought up geography – I grew up in the Philly area with the famous expression, "going down the shore." I know why it's "shore" instead of "beach." But I've never known whether "down" referred to the fact that most of the shore towns we went to were to the south, or to their altitude. Does anybody know which it is?

  32. bks said,

    April 29, 2013 @ 11:03 pm

    For 40 years people have been telling me that meetings have been moved up, back, or forward and I still have no idea what they mean until they give me the new date and time.


  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 12:20 am

    chris: Speaking of prepositions, your post contains an example of the rise of prefer over in place of prefer to.

    @bks: You said a mouthful.

  34. Nick Lamb said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 6:18 am

    To further expand on railway prepositions, it's not just lines the words "up" and "down" always mean towards or away from an agreed datum (precise location) on the railway which is usually London (e.g. the railway to Weymouth has its datum at Waterloo station in London). All mile posts and distance markings on particular railways are relative to their datum too, so a bridge labelled "84m 6ch" is 84 miles and 6 chains (an otherwise obsolete unit of distance retained on the railways due to long use) "down" from London.

    The origin is supposedly that railways were used mainly in and around mines. The prototypical railway ran from a mine entrance to a nearby port, which would always be a downward slope. So if the port towns served by the railway are "down" obviously the far end must be "up" even if that far end is London which is practically at sea level.

    It probably doesn't hurt that one would also use phrases like "going up to town" in respect of London with town here in opposition to "country" rather than as a type of settlement so that it would be perfectly normal to say one was "going up to town" meaning London when one was already in a town, or even a city, other than London.

  35. Bob Lieblich said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 6:50 am

    Many years ago our family took a river trip down the Nile — which was, of course, north from Aswan to the Mediterranean. Our children were at the age where things have to make sense, and both could read maps. So it was "up the Nile" to them and "down the Nile" to their parents. We never decided who was right, and I like to think it doesn't matter.

  36. BlueLoom said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 7:25 am

    @ J.W. Brewer:

    Ahh, but you forget "down east," that well-known reference to the farthest northeast US state of Maine, whose residents are, of course, "down-easters." (Or maybe it's one word, without the hyphen, or perhaps two words.)

    I've always assumed that "back east" derived from terms used by the early European settlers to the US west, who would be referring to "back [where I originally came from]"

    [(myl) I was always told that "down east" was "down" because points east, across the gulf of Maine, are downwind relative to the prevailing westerly winds. (And Maine is "east" because a course from e.g. Gloucester MA to Mt. Desert Rock would be only a little bit north of magnetic east, which is about -16° relative to true east in that region.)]

  37. haamu said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 9:21 am

    An expression you'll hear from time to time here in Minneapolis is "over south," referencing neighborhoods vaguely on the south side of the city — as in: "I used to live over south."

  38. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 9:42 am

    Yes, "Down East" is a good example of how there isn't going to be one simple pattern that explains all the data. I recall as a fairly young boy (perhaps about the same age as Bob Lieblich's kids in his anecdote) reading books-for-children about ancient history and being repeatedly confused as to why "Upper Egypt" was at the bottom of the map but "Lower Egypt" was at the top. In the U.S. there are fairly few major rivers where downstream is northerly, so one doesn't have (assuming maps with north at the top, which is obviously not a convention that has been followed by all cultures at all times) that conflict of frames of reference. So e.g. in Delaware County, Pa., near where I grew up, Upper Darby is north of Darby and Upper Providence is north of Nether Providence, and in both cases probably also uphill and/or upstream. And the part of my native state of Delaware variously referred to as "Downstate," "Below the Canal," and "Lower (jocularly Slower) Delaware" is the southern piece, which is also farther downstream along the river from which the state took its name. (What is now the entire state was in the early 18th century clumsily referred to for governmental purposes as "The Three Lower Counties on the Delaware River," because it was at the time a semi-autonomous part of the Pennsylvania colony that was both south of and downstream from Philadelphia.)

    On the other hand, Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen) is mostly north of regular old and/or "Upper" Saxony, which probably makes sense in terms of river direction and/or altitude above sea level. Lower Austria is more or less due east of Upper Austria, where east = downstream the way the Danube flows in that stretch of its course. The only North American parallel I can immediately think of, now largely obsolete, would be how "Lower Canada" (approximately Quebec) is northeast (= downstream along the St. Lawrence) of "Upper Canada" (approximately Ontario).

  39. Lazar said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

    @JW Brewer: Yeah, the southward flow of the Mississippi system and the Savannah gives rise to notions of an Upper and Lower (or Deep) South that correspond with north and south, so the concepts might be conflated in people's minds. Of course, while southward-flowing rivers give us a convenient upper north and lower south, they also give us an eastern left bank and western right bank – for example, I always do a double take when I think about Left-Bank (eastern) and Right-Bank (western) Ukraine, defined by the Dnieper.

  40. Joe said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

    "Simon: Team Topology
    Simon's wife: Team Topography"

    The distinction doesn't seem to be confused. For Team Topology, the path between 2 points is the same regardless of the difference in elevation. For Team Topography, walking up a slope is different than walking down the slope even if the slope is traversing the same path. I imagine that Team Topology prefer cars while Team Topography prefer hiking or biking.

  41. Gou Tongzhi said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 9:46 pm

    @David Morris

    That's a good one. I shall try to tell it myself later.

  42. Charlie Clingen said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 8:28 am

    @David Morris: 5 -> 6
    "What did you bring that book I don't want to be read to out of up for?" -> "What did you bring that book I don't want to be read to FROM out of up for?"

  43. Mark P said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 8:46 am

    I had a German geology instructor who laughed at the Americans term "out West."

    Another counter example for MonkeyBoy: one gets in and rides in a motorhome, and it's certainly possible to walk around in a motorhome.

  44. Mr Punch said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 9:41 am

    My understanding of "down east" is the same as myl's; I'd add that in the early days of the republic, when population was concentrated along the Atlantic seaboard, New England was often referred to as "the eastern states." Even today the region's joint "state fair," held each September in West Springfield, Massachusetts, is called the Eastern States Exposition.

  45. Jason said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 1:09 pm


    The serious trolls spell 'American' with three ks.

  46. Jimbino said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

    Right, Jason, and I'll reconsider spelling our country "Amerika" once we stop torturing folks at Guantanamo. I'm a Latino who takes Amerikan aggression seriously.


  47. Oliver said,

    May 2, 2013 @ 11:38 am

    "But somehow "bis" is not confusing among German speakers. I've asked a few German speakers to explain how this works, but of course since it's not confusing to them they have no idea what I'm talking about and look at me like I'm crazy. They may be right about my being crazy – still I find I find prepositional differences very curious."

    If context doesn't do the job. Either tense is used:

    Ich muss das bis 3 Uhr tun – until
    Ich muss das bis 3 Uhr getan haben – by (infinitive of the past)

    or adverbs:

    fertig, ganz – by
    weiter – until

    In German one does not keep doing, but one "does further"

  48. Michael said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 10:39 pm

    @Guo Tongzhi Interestingly if memory serves one usually says "get out a lift" but "got off at the first floor" in BrE. Even within one dialect, let alone between them, it seems that prepositions are a right sod.

  49. Pia said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 1:44 am

    @MonkeyBoy beautiful explanation, thank you.
    I love semantics. Investigating the inner meaning of words is just fascinating, and investigating what prepostions really mean and why we use them only in certain collocations is, sadly, underestimated. They tell a lot about a certain culture. I.e. I've always had fun when analyzing german prepositions!

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