That crashing sound you hear is of people tripping over prepositions at the end of verbs.
Idiom requires that we get the prepositions right in order to be understood. We learn from example; we don’t learn on example, or at example. We wish for a happy ending; we don’t wish in, at or with a happy ending.
Most of us learn these constructions gradually. It’s not always easy, and those who learn English as a second or third language must curse a tongue with so many combinations to memorize.
It’s even harder with a true idiom, the literal meaning of which has no bearing on its real meaning. We take on work (add it to our schedule), take off from the tarmac (fly away in an airplane), take up tennis (learn to play the game), take in a movie (watch the film) and take out food (buy it from the supplier and eat it elsewhere).
Alas, even the simplest matches seem increasingly to be giving people trouble. In May, reader Wendy Cecil said she was frequently encountering “excited for” instead of “excited about” in such constructions as “I am excited for the graduation party” and “I am excited for being a grandmother.”
To be excited about (or by) something is to be excited at the thought of something or at the prospect of something. To be excited for someone is to be thrilled on that person’s behalf: I am excited for you that you won the prize. The idioms aren’t interchangeable. To say you are excited for a gift suggests you are delighted that the gift has come into an enormous fortune.
This week, Cecil returned to the hunt. She pointed out an Aug. 1 headline: “New chief planner excited for the challenge.” Her comment: “Oh dear! Do you think you can put a stop to this?”
There are definitely days when I wish the role of language columnist came with a superpower or two – the power to add “n’t” to “could care less,” for instance, or to adjust misspellings on signs from a safe distance. Alas, my chief superpower is scrunching up my face in distress.
“I hope I’m not the only one to care about prepositions,” Cecil continued. “I know they are very small, and many people don’t even think about them (obviously), but they do deserve to have their dignity protected by being used correctly.”
She supplied further examples. “Under a photo in the newspaper, I recently read ‘as the car arrives TO the palace.’ On a recorded customer-service voice message last week, I heard, ‘If you are interested OF having more information, please push 1… In a brief conversation with a young woman at the table beside me in a restaurant, she apologized and told me she was ‘embarrassed of spilling the water on the table and floor.’”
Arrives at. Interested in. Embarrassed about.
Again, nobody would pretend that this is easy, let alone fair. Word maven Otto Jespersen, writing in 1909, referred to “that tyrannical, capricious, utterly incalculable thing, idiomatic usage.”
The trouble comes when an accepted idiomatic construction is mangled by someone who should know better but doesn’t care, or who resorts to the old line that language is evolving daily and nothing is set in stone, so what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that correct English – including idiomatic English – helps with communication and impresses those whom the writer or speaker might have a stake in impressing. “I’d like to start working to your company about public relations.” “Uh, I see. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”
And, since you may be wondering, it is true. Idiom and idiot derive from the same source: the ancient Greek idios, meaning private, own, peculiar. Something to think in. Sorry, with. No, about.
Follow us on Twitter: