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  Writing for Business and Pleasure
  Copyright by
Stephen Wilbers

First published February 9, 2009

Are you out of prepositions to focus in on?

by Stephen Wilbers

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, what next?

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 in between.

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?