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Prepositions on the up

March 16, 2005

Hello. My name is Patricia Dean and I'm editor-in-chief at ESL Employment. I guess that gives me the right to sound off on a few things so here's my first beef!

When I trained English language teachers I used to tell them that prepositions were words of little meaning. They functioned as syntactic cement, holding more meaningful words together in a coherent fashion. In keeping with their lowly role, they are only stressed in the spoken language for the purposes of contrast. Thus if I say he drove out, the preposition is stressed because someone thinks he drove in and I need to put the record straight. Unfortunately such meaningful aspects of what the linguists like to call suprasegmental pronunciation seem to have been lost in the mists of time. Listen to newscasters reading ploddingly from their autocues. They think no word is ever as important as a preposition, so we are told nightly about our correspondent in Baghdad, reports from Washington, accidents on the roads.

Now it seems everyone prefers to double up prepositons if given the chance: outside of the studio; off of the train. I suppose I saw this puffing up of humble prepositions beyond their pay grade some time ago. Perfectly adequate verbs started gaining unnecesary prepositions: listen up, park up. It seems that up is definitely in. In the UK, TV cookery programs are very popular and the chefs are fond of seasoning their sentences with extra helpings of prepositions: roast off, cook down. Of course the phenomenon isn't entirely new; several prepositions have been lexicalised: to up the ante; to down a pint, to out someone. Well, I know language is never static but I mourn the passing, even so, of those who heard the music in our language and knew how to play it.

Patricia.

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