Those Pesky Prepositions

The humble preposition is easy to overlook and dismiss as unimportant. Too often people who misuse prepositions assume that once they’ve met one, they’ve met them all: in other words that prepositions are virtually interchangeable.

It’s no wonder that a preposition earns little respect, when even its standard definition is too vague and general to describe it adequately: “A preposition is a word that shows the relationship of a noun or a pronoun to some other word in the sentence.”

What does that mean? How does that differ from a conjunction?

The fact is that prepositions clarify meaning and inject nuance into our speech. Most frequently prepositions establish location, duration, and direction. Take a look at the examples below:

    • On the beach, the children gamboled in the waves. (location)

    • The storm clouds continued to gather throughout the afternoon. (duration)

    • The dog raced down the stairs toward its master. (direction)

But prepositions are equally important in telegraphing attitude. Consider the difference between with (suggesting union and connection) and from (suggesting distance and separation). In a recent news broadcast about North Korea, a radio commentator said: “We go to great lengths to separate the behavior of the regime with the behavior of the people.”

Her preposition contradicted the meaning of the statement. She wanted to indicate difference (even disagreement) between the regime and the people. She meant that while our attitude toward the regime may be unfriendly, it is not so toward the people. She could have achieved her goal simply by choosing the right preposition: from instead of with. She should, of course, have said: “We go to great lengths to separate the behavior of the regime from the behavior of the people.”

But, she is not alone among journalists. Consider other news broadcasts where the lack of clarity is caused by the misuse of prepositions:

   • It’s one of the ways we track on how the patients are doing. (Why the on?)

   • Innovation is attracting venture capital in  into our state.

   • Earlier the killer had posted a threat toward against police officers.   (Toward is friendly. Against is unfriendly.)

    • She suffers with from severe eczema.

    • Within Among conservative Republicans, Jeb Bush is an anomaly.

The little preposition deserves close attention. It’s a mighty tool for conveying meaning accurately.

Rosette Liberman, EdD                                                                                         co-author The Cooper Hill Stylebook, a guide to writing and revision