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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Are you out of prepositions to focus in on?

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere



My seventh grade English teacher told me not to write, "Whereís 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.

Whatís 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.

Youíve 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 weíre willing to trade elegance for emphasis, are we willing to trade precision? And if so, what next?

Donít get me wrong. Iím 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. Thereís a place for simple, straightforward, direct communication, but thereís also a place for artful, nuanced, elegant communication.

Iím 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 letís avoid excess.

Letís settle for single prepositions, as long as they serve a purpose.

The at in "Whereís the library at?" serves no purpose, so letís drop it. "To get away with" might not be elegant, but its meaning is perfectly clear, it sounds natural and idiomatic, so letís keep it.

But letís 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, letís draw the line. Rather than focus in on, letís focus on, rather than outside of the door, letís place it outside the door, and rather than inside of the room, letís 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?




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