Closer, my ex, of you

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The most recent xkcd:

For me, at least, it should be "closer to", not "closer of". This isn't a necessary truth: "I can't get within 500 yards of you" would be perfectly fine; and in French, for example, the preposition used with "plus proche" is de, not à:

Tout ce qui est plus proche que 3 mètres ou plus éloigné que 5 mètres de vos yeux est flou.
C'est une saveur qui est plus proche du thym que de l'anis.

But in English, it seems to me, close and most of its synonyms — without or without -er and -est — should take to. Walt Whitman wrote "Come closer to me", not "Come closer of me". The old song is "Nearer, my God, to thee", not "Nearer, my God, of thee". There are more recent songs "Closer to you" and "Close to you"; as well as "Closer to me" and "Close to me". But the only pop resonance for "closer of you/me" seems to be a non-native-speaker's translation of "Un poco cerca de mi".

It's possible that Randall Munroe originally wrote, or at least thought, "I can't get within 500 yards of you", and then changed "within 500 yards" to "closer than 500 yards" without changing the preposition.

But it's also possible that this is one of the many points on which different speakers of English have different ideas.

Searching the web turns up plenty of quasi-authoritative sources who think that things like "closer than <distance> of <something>" are fine. At least, they write such things, often in a legal context:

After November 1, any resident of Talbot County may license a blind site no closer than 500 yards of the nearest licensed stationary blind or blind site.
Although Fisher was made of sand, a ship could not safely approach any closer than 950 yards of the bastion's powerful batteries, …
It is illegal to approach closer than 500 yards of any right whale (See 50 CFR 224.103, Chapter 2).
The new rule will prohibit ships from getting any closer than 200 yards of the airfields in an effort "to ensure that vessels, facilities and airports…are not used as targets of, or platforms for, terrorist attacks."
Upon overtaking an horse-drawn vehicle running upon regular schedules, automobiles must not attempt to pass or to approach closer than 150 yards of the same.
Policy recommendations place a warning not to live any closer than 200 yards of transmission lines.
Jet skis are not permitted to operate any closer than 150 yards of the shoreline between May 15 and September 15.
Lakes should be no closer than 1000 yards of the site.
For years we have been taught to be conservative when approaching a gobbling bird, and never get closer than 150 yards of a bird's position.

In fact, there seems to be a slight preference, in phrases of this type, for the variant that seems entirely ungrammatical to me: thus {"closer than 100|500|1000 yards of"} gets 563 Google hits, while {"closer than 100|500|1000 yards to"} gets 466.

So it seems entirely plausible that a restraining order would prohibit someone from coming closer than 500 yards of, rather than to, their ex. Having lived a life relatively sheltered from contact with the more imperious practices of the legal profession, I never noticed this before.

However, I'm clinging for now to the hypothesis that the people who write such prohibitions need the than-phrase to excuse the "of", and would never say "I want to get closer of you", or "New York is closer of me than Shanghai is".

[More prepositional goodness from Language Log Classic is here.]

[Note — one of my French examples, both of them cut-and-pasted from the web, was apparently grammatically questionable for a reason having nothing to do with preposition choice. It originally read

C'est une saveur qui est plus proche de thym que de l'anis

and was found in that form here. When I posted it, I noticed the inconsistency between "de thym" and "de l'anis", but figured that this was a point of variation where different choices were made in two adjacent prepositional phrases. Several readers, starting with Laurent Coustillac, have expressed the opinion that the version without the definite article is simply a mistake, and that it should definitely be "du thym".]



22 Comments

  1. Craig Russell said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 8:47 am

    My feeling is that what's going on here is that "500 yards of you" is being treated as a set expression, complete in its own right, meaning "500 yards away from you". I don't imagine this same writer would ever under any circumstances write "closer of you" by itself.

    I will try in my completely unexpert way to represent what I mean with brackets (and my apologies if there is some official linguist way of using brackets that I am clashing with here):

    He means: closer than [500 yards of you]
    not: closer than [500 yards] of you

    Now, I wouldn't use this expression myself (at least, I don't think so… at this point I've been thinking about it too much to honestly say what I would say if I weren't thinking about it); to me "500 yards of you" is something you would get at an extremely odd fabric store. But it doesn't sound so odd to me that I wouldn't understand or accept it (perhaps an explanation about an older English expression or a genitive of separation could be offered?)

  2. Adam said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 8:59 am

    To me, "closer than of " does sound like the natural choice. I'm not sure if I would say that "closer than to " sounds ungrammatical to me, but it does sound unnatural. Nonetheless I would never say something like "closer of you", without a than-phrase. Here's a hypothesis as to why some people would use "to" in the xkcd example, and others "of": I think they parse the sentence in different ways. The people who use "to" would interpret it as "[closer than 500 yards] [to you]", whereas the people who use "of" would interpret it as "[closer than] [500 yards of you]". That is, to me, "500 yards of you" seems like a certain point (or limit) beyond which I can't come. It's like saying "closer than [here]" or "closer than [this line]" or "closer than [the Moon]". Perhaps it's somewhat like saying "within 500 yards of you".

  3. Meesher said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 9:02 am

    My own reaction is that "of" and "to" are both a bit weird-sounding in these constructions; only "from" seems to work.

  4. Geraint Jennings said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 9:18 am

    Replacing "yards" with "metres/meters" gives a much clearer ghit advantage to "closer than …. to". I can't say what that might tend to prove, if anything. Others may care to speculate.

  5. Russell said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 9:56 am

    I'd never expect to see the OF-phrase before the THAN-clause, however.

    ? If it gets closer of you than 100 yards, shoot it.

    I think the comparison to WITHIN is a good one, because it is built, so to speak, to talk about ranges and locating objects in a sort of circle with the landmark as the center point. Perhaps "closer than" somehow is reanalyzed or has semantics close enough to WITHIN such than the normal complementation pattern of WITHIN is taken up. That is, distances from landmarks can be indicated with OF (which historically is from OFF, so a good indication of sources of motion). And like Adam and Craig noted, there may be good reason to let [n units of landmark] be a constituent, in some constructions:

    Anytime he is 20 yards of the Chelsea goalmouth something calamitous happens.
    it disappears after a some distance and is invisible for people farther away than 50 meters of it

    The closer-than = within hypothesis might predict that environments not comfortable with WITHIN would not like this pattern, like F(A|U)RTHER. There are far fewer search results but there are some:

    Latrines farther than 30 meters of built-up area
    stations are never farther than 500 meters of where you are or where you want to go [note "never", though]

  6. Ellen K. said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 10:46 am

    I'm with Meesher in thinking "from" sounds most natural in this constrution. Like "of" it doesn't work right after "close", but it does work in the full phrase.

  7. Mark Paris said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 10:59 am

    In the originall context, "of" definitely sounds off, but even "to" sounds a little off. I agree with Meesher that "from" sounds better.

  8. Sili said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 11:04 am

    Far as I can tell noöne's taken up this particular subject on the forums yet.

    But xichimos has sparked off a discussion of the meaning of "or".

    "Paging dr. Zwicky. Dr. Zwicky to the logical conjunction theatre."

  9. Ewan said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 11:10 am

    Some people have suggested that people are analysing the phrase as

    [closer than [500 yards of you]]

    since, maybe because of "within…", [500 yards of you] sounds like it could be a legitimate thing. Perhaps this strategy is driven by a parsing difficulty with [closer […] to], something parallel to the degradedness of center embedding. You would expect then that the more material you put in there, the weirder it gets, which is exactly what I get:

    Don't come any closer than that to me. (OK)
    Don't come any closer than 500 yards to me. (what's "500 yards to me"?)
    He's the closest person I know to you. (OK?)
    He's the closest person I know from work to you. (what's "from work to you"?)

  10. peter ramus said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 11:19 am

    For me, at least, it should be "closer to", not "closer of".

    Meesher's right. Use from, eh?

    "Wait… I can't get closer than 500 yards from you? OR more than 600 yard away?"

    It preserves the joke with no grammatical overhead!

  11. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

    I notice that now the incorrect French example has been corrected at the original location too.

  12. Aaron Davies said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

    The mention of French prepositions reminds me of an old book my mother lent me when I was studying French in high school; it was named something like Est-ce c'est à ou de?. (To any French speakers present, please forgive my probable butchering of the language in rendering my recollection of the title.)

  13. kip said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

    When I read the comic I assumed this post was going to be another one about inclusive/exclusive "or". :)

  14. Pekka Karjalainen said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

    "closer than 950 years of the bastion's powerful batteries"

    This is either from a science fiction work, a misquotation or a typo in the original.

    [myl: neither one — it was a scribal error on my part, now corrected.]

  15. John S. said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

    I think this might have something to do with regional variation. I'm from the rural Midwest (NW Ohio), and was stunned by what I perceived to be an ungrammatical notice in a Boston Green Line T trolley that said "Please stand back of white line." I would never, ever say "back of" in my own dialect and would assume someone was an L2 speaker of English who needed to review prepositions if they wrote it. I would always phrase it "Please stand behind the white line."

    Does anyone else have a reaction that this is regionally variable? (Is this actually a separate issue that I'm ignorantly thinking is similar?)

    P.S. Strangely enough, I see this same construction on Chicago public transit buses, so perhaps it's narrower than the Midwest as a whole.

  16. Adam said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

    I'm from Massachusetts and I would find that usage just as strange as you did. I'd assume it's just sloppy, abbreviated writing.

  17. Patrick CdM said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

    Good evening, I am the french author of the blog where you found this "de thym". Thank you for reading me, but it was just a typing mistake. Corrected now.

  18. Rick S said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

    Re: back of. To me this sounds like an abbreviation of "in back of", i.e. "Please stand in back of the white line." I'm not sure whether I'd have phrased the notice that way, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to find myself saying "please move back of the white line." This may be a regional variation (I'm originally from central New York), but for me "in back of" connotes location; just "back of" connotes motion.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

    I was thinking about this… "from" gramatically goes with "500 yards" whereas "to" goes with "closer". And rather than saying "closer to you than 500 yards from you" one leaves out the "to you" or the "from you", with the one left out being understood. At least that's how it works in my head, and I'd like to think I'm at least semi-normal in this. I'd use "from" as I noted before, but it seems to me the "to you" is understood.

    So, then, does "of" fit in the "from" slot, or the "to" slot? My amateur opinion would be the "from" slot, with "500 yards of you", like "500 yards from you", denoting the spot one shouldn't be closer than.

  20. Arnold Zwicky said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 10:08 am

    John S. writes about "back of", which strikes him as strange and unnacceptable; he would say "behind" instead. There's a history here.

    MWDEU, p. 159, reports 70 years of condemning both "back of" and "in back of" 'behind', mostly labeling the first as colloquial and the second as "undesirable", "childish", "a vulgarism", "an illiteracy"; some characterize both as "wordy". Both are Americanisms. The second is more recent, and is clearly analogous to (the entirely standard) "in front of".

    The OED has "back of" cites from 1694 (almost all American), "in back of" cites from 1914 (Mark Twain). including:

    1925 G. P. KRAPP Eng. Lang. in Amer. I. 77 "Back of"..has a variant form "in back of", which completes the analogy to "in front of".

    The OED has "in (the) front of" cites from 1698, at first with "the" or a possessive ("in his front" 'in front of him'); the first plain "in front of" cite is 1847 (but there's a figurative example from 1609).

    The OED has 19th-century American cites for "front of" 'in front of'.

    Wilson's Columbia Guide (1993):

    "Back of" and "in back of" are compound prepositions that seem to have originated and become Standard in American English: "We kept the boat trailer in back of [back of] the garage". Curiously, commentators have labeled both locutions Colloquial or Vulgar off and on for most of this century, although with no accuracy and little effect. The objection usually was that "behind" was preferable because briefer and more succinct.

    [AMZ: No one seems to have complained that "in front of" is a wordy version of spatial "before", though spatial "before" continues to be available in modern English – probably because "in front of" is unambiguously spatial.]

  21. Janice Huth Byer said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 8:51 am

    Could Mr. Monroe have chosen to preclude the suggestion inherent in the figurative meaning of "closer…to you"? Any pause to consider whether the ex-husband is a stalker would serve to dull the humor.

  22. Tim McKenzie said,

    April 29, 2008 @ 3:45 am

    Any comment on polarity in all your legal (and other) examples?

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