Archives for posts with tag: Preposition

I’ve blogged before about how a preposition can make an enormous amount of difference. None more so, I don’t think, than in this example.

‘I believe you’ seeks to assure someone that you think they’re telling the truth. It’s almost like letting them off the hook if their story or defence is flimsy and they’re clutching at straws. It’s hardly a glowing endorsement.

Contrast this with ‘I believe in you.’ This has an altogether more committed, almost spiritual tone of endorsement about it. You’re placing your trust and faith in another person, and perhaps this is the greatest compliment or statement of togetherness that you can pay  them.

It changes the verb, the sentence structure and the meaning completely.

I like prepositions. I like how they can completely change the meaning of a verb. I know, I should get out more, but that’s another story. Take the verb to give, for example. Or, I give you the word to take – sorry, I digress, more verbal plasticine.

Look at the ways that ‘give’ can be changed, depending on the language, and the country using the language:

Give in – as in to concede, or, in fact, to give up.

Give over – as in the English for stop, or to pour scorn on something. ‘Ah, give over Nancy, that’s nonsense.’

Give out – as in to distribute. Interestingly, in Irish – and not in any other English-speaking country in my experience – this can also mean to complain. ‘Stop giving out Meredith, look on the plus side for a minute.’

Give off – as in to project or issue. Also, equally interestingly to my nerdy mind – used by younger Irish people as a variant of the complaining flavour attributed to give off. ‘Dad, stop giving off, I’ve done my homework.’

Now that I think about it some more, these are not true prepositions, since they don’t indicate location or position, as in ‘on the house, in the house, to the house, from the house.’ Need to ponder this one some more.

One of the joys of having studied Latin and Greek at school and college is that sometimes you know what a word is even though you’ve never seen or heard it before, even if it’s on its own with no guiding context.

The example I always used to give was ‘autobiography’, composed of 3 Greek words: auto, meaning self; bio, meaning life; and graphy, meaning write. That’s an easy one though! Prepositions can give excellent clues as to what sense to make of compound words. To digress for one moment: the word preposition itself, somewhat deliciously, also contains a preposition. Anyway, take a Latin word like fero, meaning carry. It gives you all manner of compound words like infer, transfer, offer, differ and so on.

There must be a hundred prepositions in use; they’re jolly handy. Most of them give obvious clues, like inter of international – between, trans of translate – across, with the juicy bonus of the ‘late’ part being from the same root word as fero, and tele of television – also across.

I thought I’d share a few others with you that are perhaps less obvious and more obscure.

Epi (Greek for on as in on top of), which helps with the words epitaph, epigram, epidermis.

Peri (Greek for around), giving us the fabulous peripatetic, periphrastic and – unlucky for some usually in this context – peridontal. See how the second half of the word stays with the Greek and uses dontal for tooth, rather than the Latin dental? Cool isn’t it?

Ante (Latin for before, not to be confused with Anti which is against), giving us antediluvian, antecedents and anteater – just kidding about the last one…

Cata (Greek for down), hints at the meaning of catalogue, catastrophe and, somewhat uncomfortably I would imagine, catheter.

Cum (Latin for with), giving us a host of words beginning with co-, like collusion, convention, composition, colloquial and so on.

Ultra (Latin for beyond), leading to ultrasonic and loads of aspirational business product and service names like ultraflex.

The classical scholars among you will have noted that many ancient prepositions have multiple meanings in English. I have, for this post however, tried to stay with the main meanings. You could also make the argument, and be on pretty solid ground, that for every example I’ve given there are as many others where the preposition means something else.

It’s simply a guide. The only way is to immerse yourself in the language(s) and you’ll be the richer for it :-).

As our beloved written and spoken languages evolve and become – dare I say it – a little more relaxed, we don’t seem to mind committing the formerly heinous crime of ending a sentence with a preposition. Back in the day – which itself is an odd idiomatic phrase – people used to get pretty worked up about grammar and syntax.

This was the one rule which caused the well known Churchillian reaction:  “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

They say that language neither progresses nor decays, it simply changes. Whatever it does, I think it serves us all better to be more flexible and less rigid. A great example of this is in poetry and songs, where ending a line with a preposition can help the writer out and make the line scan more elegantly. Who could forget the famous double preposition of Wings’ Live and Let Die: “…this world in which we live in…”?

More recently, but already a classic, is the Jay Z and Alicia Keys song Empire State of Mind with its line “concrete jungle where dreams are made of”.

Prepositions are handy little nodes connecting elements of a sentence together, so let’s continue to allow them to roam free, for which our language will be the better :-).