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Words, Aug. 6



Put to or shut to:

Omar Darlin writes, “People are using the wrong prepositions. Please straighten them down.”

I too have noticed this tendency. Omar and I think a lot alike.

“In the middle of a time and region not friendly to undocumented immigrant workers, the Arkansas legislature turned out just about every meaningful punitive measure aimed at that population.” Turned down would be standard here.

“With all that going for it, however – not to mention one of the greatest actors in the business on point – I just can't help to think how good it could have been had it gone a little further.” Help but, I'd say.

“He also artfully traces our culture's obsession to walking man-beasts – bigfoots, yetis, abominable snowmen – to the late 19th century anthropologists who competed to find the ‘missing link' and complete Darwin's evolutionary chain.” Obsession with, usually.

Bryan A. Garner writes in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage that “more and more writers seem to have difficulty using the right prepositions in various idioms … ‘[T]he Longhorns went on [read into] a tailspin in which they lost six of eight games' … ‘National League umpire Bruce Froemming, angered by Montreal pitcher Jeff Fassero's critical comments of [read comments about] a fellow umpire, rebutted the Expos starter's complaints Tuesday.' … ‘The military can only hope that these same children will remain ignorant to [read of] the military's history of sacrificing the long-term health of its troops for short-term political and military goals.' ”

The problem with prepositions is that there are no rules to rely on (not rely with). Making the right choice has to do with idiom, and idiom is just the generally recognized way of doing things. Dictionaries sometimes advise on the right preposition to use with a particular verb, but mostly you learn what's idiomatic by reading and listening. Idiom can change. Acting out seems to have pretty well replaced acting up. If enough people write obsession to over a long enough period of time, that will become the idiom.  


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