My seventh grade English
teacher told me not to write, "Where’s the library at?"
These days I hear people
talk about focusing in on something, placing something outside
of the door, or leaving something inside of the room.
What’s up with our use of
prepositions? Up with? Are we so enamored of these little
connecting words that we feel compelled to sprinkle them everywhere in our
speech and writing, even when they serve no purpose?
One of the generous
sponsors of our fabulous City of Lakes Loppet advertised a special: "30%
off of all race skis and boots." Off of. Wow. I would have been
delighted with 30% off the regular price.
You’ve no doubt heard of
the Great Vowel Shift, a change in pronunciation from 1200 to 1600 that
separated Middle English from Modern English. Well according to Bill
Bryson, there was a great shift of a different sort in American English.
In the 19th century we began prepositionalizing our language.
The habit continues today.
Maybe we love our
prepositions because of their guttural, emphatic sound. Does I gotta
get out of here sound more emphatic, perhaps livelier, than I must
depart? Does finish up suggest an act more complete than
finish? I wonder.
But if we’re willing to
trade elegance for emphasis, are we willing to trade precision? And if so,
Don’t get me wrong. I’m
no purist. I believe the vitality of our language is in part due to the
way it evolves to reflect the spirit and needs of our time. There’s a
place for simple, straightforward, direct communication, but there’s also
a place for artful, nuanced, elegant communication.
I’m not proposing we
attempt to reverse a pattern of speech that has long been with us, one
that both reflects and shapes the way we think. But let’s avoid excess.
Let’s settle for single
prepositions, as long as they serve a purpose.
The at in "Where’s
the library at?" serves no purpose, so let’s drop it. "To get away with"
might not be elegant, but its meaning is perfectly clear, it sounds
natural and idiomatic, so let’s keep it.
But let’s not be too
quick to accept common usage. At least some of the time we may want to
investigate or examine rather than look into. Likewise,
we may want to consider or recognize rather than take
into account. Do you agree? Are you with me on that?
As for double
prepositions, let’s draw the line. Rather than focus in on, let’s
focus on, rather than outside of the door, let’s place it
outside the door, and rather than inside of the room, let’s
leave it inside the room. The same with in front of (before)
and in back of (behind), as well as
So if you send me a
message with a preposition that serves no function, be prepared for me to
ask you: Why did you send that message for me to delete that preposition
from out of for?