Thursday, May 12, 2016

Indecent Prepositions

Are you excited for this post?

If so, you're probably a lot younger than me.

To baby boomers and our elders, "excited for" was something you said about a person. I was excited for my sister when she landed her first job.

Just recently, I was excited for my gay and lesbian friends when their marriages finally, finally became recognized all over the United States.  They are people, and they matter to me.

But I was excited about the decision that made their marriages legal. It was an event!

All prepositions are not created equal

Words like "about" and "for" are prepositions. They're the useful little signposts that point out relationships. Not the "Is Ben going to get back together with Jennifer?" kind of relationship, but the kind of relationship between words in a phrase or sentence.

But prepositions do have one thing in common with romance: if you put the wrong couple together, they are not going to get along. People observing these mismatched pairs may wonder "What are those two doing together?"

Or, they may even appear to have a different relationship than they do, and that causes confusion. Watch a guy flirting with a woman he thinks is single, and how his face falls when her husband shows up. Using the wrong preposition with the phrase can confuse people just as badly.

What's wrong, and what's just different?

"Excited for" is not wrong. I recognize that. Language changes. Meaning shifts. This particular way of saying things is so popular that I see people older than me online saying they're "excited for" an upcoming event. And nobody has trouble figuring out what it means, when they see it in a context.

(Yes, "excited for" still gives me pause, and I have to remind myself that the person saying it isn't an airhead. But that's my prejudice. It's up to me to handle.)

Similarly, language changes from one place to another. I grew up in Pittsburgh, where, when we're waiting to pay for our groceries, we stand in line. My wife grew up in New York, and she gets impatient about standing on line. She's not wrong--at least about her preposition--even though "buying something online" means something totally different today! 

Which words go together?

Sometimes, though, I see prepositions being used in phrases where they just don't belong. The person writing is just fumbling with the words, as if they were interchangeable. To my mind, there's something squalid about it.

Here are some actual examples. I am not giving the sources to avoid embarrassing the writers.
  • "It wasn't IQ that was separating successful students to the ones who struggled." No, it wasn't. You don't separate to. You separate one thing from another.
  • "Antisemitism is discriminating people just because they're Jewish." No, it's discrimination against Jews. You need the preposition!
  • "Sexual harassment is the right of every American...." That sentence appeared in an otherwise very good student essay. What the writer meant, of course, was "Freedom from sexual harassment is the right of every American."
There are other cases where the preposition you choose expresses a slightly different shade of meaning. "Arguing with" someone is not "arguing against" them. The first might be a private conversation. The second is probably a public debate.

If you choose the wrong preposition, other people may still understand you--or they may misunderstand you completely. Either way, you're making them do all the work. And you're putting yourself at the mercy of their ability to understand. Respect yourself: make the effort to learn and use the word that says what you mean.