AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: prepositions for the perplexed.
RS: The other day, our colleague Julie Taboh told us about a friend of
hers, a non-native English speaker. It seems he once tried to tell
someone that the person should expect to hear from him again. But
instead of saying "I'll get back to you," he said "I'll get back at
you." The wrong preposition sent the wrong message. To get back at
someone means to take revenge.
AA: Julie had no idea that
we had just gotten off the phone with a retired English professor in
Canada. David Thatcher has written a book called "Saving Our
Prepositions: A Guide for the Perplexed." Actually it's an e-book which
you can download free of charge at savingourprepositions.com.
RS: David Thatcher says he thinks the misuse of prepositions is an
increasing problem, but it's a problem with a long history.
THATCHER: "I think it's been pointed out by grammarians for about two
hundred years that people don't know how to use them properly."
RS: "Well, what are they?"
THATCHER: "They're a part of speech. Let me give you some examples
first and perhaps make it easier for you: around, at, before, past,
upward, up, in, on. And their job in a sentence is to link or relate
one part of a sentence to another. And so you can see them as the
connective tissue of language. If you say 'I went the cinema my friend
the evening the twenty-fifth,' it resembles a pile of loose bricks."
AA: "It sounds like a text message, actually."
THATCHER: "That's right, for brevity. But when the prepositions are
added -- 'I went to the cinema with my friend on the evening of the
twenty-fifth' -- the bricks are fastened together."
RS: "Why have they been such a problem?"
THATCHER: "I think people, perhaps they don't read as much or they are
careless about their use. Let me take an example that you've probably
heard of. People now say bored of."
AA: "Instead of?"
THATCHER: "Instead of bored -- the older prepositions were bored by or
bored with. You see, what will happen is that bored of will probably
get established. To people of my generation it sounds wrong, it sounds
RS: "How do you go about learning the correct use of prepositions?"
DAVID THATCHER: "I think one way might be to read the good writers, who will rarely make an error of this kind.
And a bad way is to listen to interviews with athletes and sports
people or even sports commentators. They are very careless about the
way they use these terms. And people just simply copy what they hear."
"Now for people learning English, prepositions create a sort of a
special challenge because of phrasal verbs and the fact that a term,
let's say, like to set up, set down, set aside, all mean completely
DAVID THATCHER: "That's right. You just have
to learn what the speakers use. The phrasal verb might be to fall out
with somebody, which means to quarrel or to disagree. 'I would put up
with that' means to tolerate. Or to stand up to somebody is to resist
somebody and so on. To turn something down is to refuse. All these have
to be learned independently without any rules to guide you."
AA: "And then there's also context, because these phrasal verbs tend to be more informal, more casual -- "
THATCHER: "Yes, I think so. And I think one should make the distinction
between written and spoken English, so that what would be unacceptable
in written English would be perfectly allowable in speaking."
AA: "In a meeting or in a ... "
THATCHER: "A meeting, that's right, or off the cuff. I mean, many of
these mistakes occur -- and perhaps I'm being too strict sometimes
because people make these mistakes when they're speaking off the cuff,
without preparation and so on. But if they're writing, they should have
time to think about what they're putting down on paper and to revise
it, or to show it to somebody else for a second opinion, and so on and
so forth. So there should be ways of eliminating mistakes of this kind.
"Can I ask you a question? Do you say you congratulate somebody on something, or do you congratulate them for something?"
AA: "I say on -- yeah. 'Congratulations on your promotion'? I mean, that sounds ... "
RS: "Congratulations for your promotion?"
AA: "I'd say on."
THATCHER: "What you will hear a lot is congratulations for. For is one
of these cuckoo prepositions that come in and disturb all the other
birds in the nest and knock them away."
AA: "Wait, so what do you say?"
DAVID THATCHER: "I would say that on is the standard way, but there's no doubt that for is elbowing its way
in and might replace on in the course of time. So only time will tell
whether on will disappear. And that happens many times, that words that
were acceptable at one time have ceased to be so."
Thatcher in British Columbia, Canada, has written "Saving Our
Prepositions: A Guide for the Perplexed." It's a free book that can be
downloaded at savingourprepositions.com.
RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week -- archived at voanews.com/wordmaster. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.