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Idiomatic Prepositional Phrases:

Something is written in a magazine, but on a Web site — and something is visible on a Web site but at a construction site. Things on paper are written in pencil, but on or with a typewriter. I'm sure there are lots of other similar examples. Oy. People who have to learn English as adults must find it nightmarish, in a Kafkaesque way.

Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
It isn't just English. German has similar struggles, with the additional fun that you have remember what case goes with which prepositions.
6.21.2007 6:36pm
Sub silentio submitter (mail):
Minor quibble: I hear people speak of writing papers on a typewriter, just as they write papers on a computer. [EV writes: Good point, I've added "on" as an option, and on reflection it seems to me even more idiomatic than my original "with."]
6.21.2007 6:37pm
Witness (mail):
Also note the differences within the same language but across different geographic regions. Some places in the US, I wait in line. Other places, I wait on line.
6.21.2007 6:39pm
Guest101:
Excellent timing for me to raise a proofreading issue that arose today-- is it correct to say that I "worked in the New York office of Law Firm, LLP," or "worked at the New York office of Law Firm, LLP"?
6.21.2007 6:49pm
SummerAssociate:
You also ride in a car but on a bus.
6.21.2007 6:49pm
Fred Beukema (mail):
Also, the construction site thing varies. I'm a structural engineer, and in my (admittedly limited) experience, "on site" and "at the site" may be used interchangeably.
6.21.2007 6:50pm
eck:
Further to Witness's observation, I note the distinction between "call me at 555-1212" -- in my experience, the more common American locution -- and "call me on 555-1212." I'd never encountered the latter until I moved to Washington, DC, so I gather it's largely limited to the Middle Atlantic as far as American usage goes.

Also: is a relevant court opinion "on point" or "in point"?
6.21.2007 6:56pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
Something can be "different than", "different from", or "different to", depending on dialect. I don't know whether there is a dialect where all are idiomatic.

"The same as" is idiomatic, but "the same like" is usually a sign of a non-native.
6.21.2007 7:03pm
M (mail):
I still feel a bit funny saying "na pochta" and "na zavod" in Russian, feeling as if I mean the roof. Russians complain abou the English but think these cases are just obvious, at least in my experience.
6.21.2007 7:06pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Hate to be pedantic, but you might want to say "na pocht'e" and "na zavod'e," since Russian requires the nouns to be inflected based on the attached preposition.
6.21.2007 7:08pm
Uncle Kenny (mail):
Not only that, but the usage changes over time. All the youngsters I work with and even my own grown children say, "it happened on accident." The correct usage is, of course by accident.

This was a mystery to me until I caught myself one day saying, "I did it on purpose."

The kids are just standardizing on one preposition in the same context. Could be a simpler way to go.
6.21.2007 7:09pm
Jacob (mail):
I call shenanigans on one of these comparisons. One writes in pencil/lead/graphite with a pencil. One writes in pen/ink with a pen. One writes in type with a typewriter. The confusion in this particular case is caused not by inconsistent prepositions but by "pencil" taking on an additional use.

Further confusion is also caused by the fact that the result of writing in pencil or pen is handwriting, but the result of writing in type is type.
6.21.2007 7:12pm
Cornellian (mail):
The beauty of English is that it is highly fault-tolerant. People who speak it as a second language and uneducated native speakers mangle their sentences all the time and are still understood.
6.21.2007 7:12pm
Federal Dog:
Every language I speak is the same way. Prepositions are just a bitch.
6.21.2007 7:12pm
Alan Gunn:
These features are pretty minor for someone learning the language, and as Clayton Cramer noted, other languages have similar oddities. We don't have grammatical gender, we don't have case except for prepositions (and Americans mostly get case wrong anyway), we don't have adjective endings, and most of our plurals are fairly regular. I've been told by Spanish-speakers who learned English as adults that it was a snap. The only thing that strikes me as tough for a new learner is spelling. Maybe vocabulary, as we seem to have both Germanic and Latin-based words for most things.

Mark Twain once said something to the effect that an intelligent person could learn English in a month, French in a year, and German only after a very long time.

Anyway, it's a lot better than having to learn Irish: instead of changing the endings of words, Irish changes the beginnings, making it almost impossible to use a dictionary. Fortunately, no one really has to learn Irish.
6.21.2007 7:15pm
Sili (mail):
Doesn't English have the pithy saying: "When God had created language, the Devil came along and invented the prepositions"? Or is that a purely Danish thing?
6.21.2007 7:17pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
You learn langauge not by assembling words into phrases but by disassembling cliches and idioms and using parts of them elsewhere. The preposition comes from something you already learned. Unless, of course, you're a foreigner learning English word by word.
6.21.2007 7:27pm
Alan Gunn:
In my above post, for "prepositions" read "pronouns." It is impossible for me to write about language without making silly errors.
6.21.2007 7:27pm
RV:
There is a method to the madness for some of these. Something is "in" a magazine because you have to open it up. "On" a magazine would be something written on the cover. A web site is on a flat screen, so there is not literal opening up of something to find the article inside. There is a difference beweeen using a writing implement ("in" pencil/pen/marker/crayon) and a machine ("on"/"with" the typewriter/computer), but I don't exactly know why the particular words are used. And I have no idea why the car/bus distinction exists; I would guess the bus version comes from riding "on" the train, but there is no clear reason for that.

I have actually never heard the "waiting on line," "in point," or "different to" examples cited. Are these regional or just poor English?
6.21.2007 7:27pm
SMatthewStolte (mail):
People who have to learn English as adults must find it nightmarish, in a Kafkaesque way.


We English speakers try accurately to represent reality.


O, the sadness!
6.21.2007 7:28pm
Guest101:
RV,
"Waiting on line" is standard usage in the New York City area; it struck me as odd when I first moved here but is quite common. I haven't heard of the others.

(If anyone would care to respond to my comment above, I really could use some advice on that one...)
6.21.2007 7:31pm
Allen G:
There was an interesting post on the Language Log apropos to this: Spatial Gender
6.21.2007 7:33pm
eck:
RV says, I have actually never heard the "waiting on line," "in point," or "different to" examples cited. Are these regional or just poor English?

"Different to" is standard in Irish English.

"In point" appears most often in the fixed phrase "case in point," which produces 1.75MM Google hits. If this be poor English, it is poor English put to use in untold numbers of judicial opinions.
6.21.2007 7:38pm
WL:
The full Twain quote is:

"My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it."
6.21.2007 7:42pm
mhenner (mail):
Articles are just as much trouble, even in the same language. So we say 'mother is in the hospital', but in England they say 'mother is in hospital' omitting 'THE'.

Why?
6.21.2007 7:46pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Thank goodness the languages that I am most interested in don't have prepositions. They have postpositions.
6.21.2007 7:47pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
"I have actually never heard the "waiting on line," "in point," or "different to" examples cited. Are these regional or just poor English?"

"Different to" is primarily BrE. Per the Bartleby article here, all are standard English.

Stats:

"Different from" - 150M Google Hits (GHits)
"Different than" - 19.3M GHits
"Different to" - 1.7M GHits

"Standing on line" is a NE US idiom (it may be more localized than that).

Stats:

"Standing in line" - 1250K GHits
"Standing on line" - 30.6K GHits

I don't recognize that usage of "in point" and can't quickly come up with a decent search.

OT: "We English speakers try accurately to represent reality."

Do you really "try accurately"?

"... try to accurately represent..." is idiomatic, clear, and perfectly grammatical.

(Sorry, pet peeve.)
6.21.2007 7:49pm
eck:
mhenner notes we say 'mother is in the hospital', but in England they say 'mother is in hospital' omitting 'THE'. Why?

In America we say "he's in college." Is that any less peculiar?
6.21.2007 7:56pm
M (mail):
"Hate to be pedantic, but you might want to say "na pocht'e" and "na zavod'e," since Russian requires the nouns to be inflected based on the attached preposition."

Yes, that's the sort of thing my wife keeps telling me too. And that my Russian teachers kept trying to tell me. Sigh. (And really, is it true that you hate to be pedantic? I must admit I'm a bit skeptical about _that_.)
6.21.2007 7:57pm
David Huberman (mail):
My favorite is a local colloqualism to NYC. In NYC, people wait "on line" at a movie theatre. In the rest of the country, people wait "in line" at a movie theatre. Bizzare!
6.21.2007 7:57pm
Bernie Shearon (mail):
Federal Dog said:

Every language I speak is the same way. Prepositions are just a bitch.

Having at least some familiarity, if not fluency in English, German, Spanish, Latin, French, Italian, and Russian, I am struck by the artificiality of prepositions. I do not know of any preposition that can be directly translated into another language all the time. The languages just slice the relationship pie into different pieces. We take the Latin "in" and divide it into "on" and "in." The French feel the need to use an entirely new word, "sur." But is "sur" (L. super, but they don't always mean the same thing) on, over, above, or the prepositional phrase on top of? The Spanish are happy most of the time with "in" for both on and in but occasionally feel the need for "sobre."

A high school English teacher of mine once said that a preposition is anything an airplane can do to a cloud. Different languages have different attitudes toward how the plane does this. And don't even get me into the highly inflected languages like Russian and Latin where the preposition is omitted and the relationship of the airplane to the cloud ins inherent in the ending of the noun/ pronoun. English still has a remnant of this in 's and s'.
6.21.2007 8:03pm
JerryW (mail):


"Waiting on line" is standard usage in the New York City area; it struck me as odd when I first moved here but is quite common.


My favorite is a local colloqualism to NYC. In NYC, people wait "on line" at a movie theatre. In the rest of the country, people wait "in line" at a movie theatre. Bizzare!



When I moved to NYC from Chicago, the waiting "on line" colloqualism got to me also. My SO and I have a friendly battle on the usage. But now when she says she is on line I inquire about what blog she is reading.
6.21.2007 8:27pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Yup, prepositions are a bitch. I seem to remember one definition of them is that they are a word that indicates some manner of relationship between other words, which is about as general as it gets.

Once read something to the effect that English may have been simplified because it evolved out of a manner of pidgin English that had to be used as common tongue between widely varying language groups -- Anglo-Saxon, basically Germanic languages, Danish in the north, and later Norman French.
6.21.2007 8:41pm
Christopher M (mail):
Perhaps an even trickier use of prepositions is in "phrasal verbs," like "to blow up," "to come down with," etc. You can't figure out what such a verb construct means by analyzing its parts; you just have to know the idiom. And the nuances are complex. Try explaining the difference between "to clean something" and "to clean something up" -- obviously there is a similar meaning at the core of both phrases, but they're used in subtly but distinctly different (though overlapping) ways.
6.21.2007 8:41pm
Jay:
I think "case in point" and a case being "on point" are just substantively different things, right? A case in point is an example, while an on-point case is one that directly speaks to the facts of your own case.

I've also always been especially aurally grated upon, for some reason, by the Canadian/British "in hospital" or "at university," although, as pointed out above, we say "in college" or "in prison." I guess I just tend to suspect anyone using Anglicized phrased of being a pretentious American rather than an actual foreigner (see, e.g., the trend, now somewhat in decline, of signing emails with "Cheers," as if the writer was about to pop down to the pub with his mates).
6.21.2007 9:05pm
David Marjanović:
Same experiences for me. With articles, too -- the articles of German, English, and French are not quite used in the same ways.

Chinese doesn't have prepositions. That is, it has words that you can often pretend are prepositions and translate as such, but actually they are verbs. (Or maybe participles. The complete lack of inflection of any kind guarantees you can't apply such distinctions.)

Try explaining the difference between "to clean something" and "to clean something up" --

In "to clean something", "something" is the thing you remove the dirt of. In "to clean something up", "something" is the dirt.

M may have meant the direction towards, and therefore the accusative. That would make "na zavod" correct, though it would require "na pochtu". Most Indo-European languages express the difference between place and direction by (...first I wanted to write "with"...) a case difference. English has lost that possibility, so the new preposition "into" was invented.
6.21.2007 9:11pm
M (mail):
Thanks for trying to help me, David, but I did mean "on" (or in, or whatever we want to say in translation). Motion towards is a bitch in Russian, too, though. That and always forgetting to distinguish properly whether I'm going by transportation or by foot are just some of the many things that make my Russian friends laugh (or cry) when I talk with them.
6.21.2007 9:28pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
eck: I wouldn't take what you hear in DC as indicative of Mid-Atlantic American accents. It depends on whom your talking to. Most people in DC aren't from DC, after all, and only slightly more are from the Mid-Atlantic states.

mhenner: The 'in hospital' v. 'in the hospital' is a vagary of Irish grammar. Gaelic (as Polish) isn't so hot on definite articles. The Irish immigrants to the US forced the change. Maybe they did it with all the spare time they had when they were told they "weren't wanted" and "need not apply!"
6.21.2007 9:28pm
Nellie:
English-speakers say "allergic to" but German-speakers say "allergic against." I think that the German convention makes more sense.
6.21.2007 9:32pm
Fub:
Sometimes the particular preposition can shade the meaning of the phrase, but still maintain a consistent general meaning. Some of the shades are more easily identified than others:

Upon questioning, Deft replied "SODDI".
or
On questioning, Deft replied "SODDI".
(Suggesting that questioning took place after some other events.)

At questioning, Deft replied "SODDI".
(Somewhat more awkward and rare, but places the questioning as an event in time.)

Under questioning, Deft replied "SODDI".
(Suggesting Deft was questioned heavily or at length at any time, and Deft made many replies to questions.)

To questioning, Deft replied "SODDI".
(Suggesting that the questioning was shorter or more cursory.)
6.21.2007 9:36pm
Syd (mail):
Christopher M (mail):
Perhaps an even trickier use of prepositions is in "phrasal verbs," like "to blow up," "to come down with," etc.


German has its own trick in this regard. Its verbs often contain the preposition as part of the infinitive and it separates when you use the verb. Wikipedia mentions mitgehen, "to go with." Gehen Sie mit Romney?
6.21.2007 9:37pm
DonBoy (mail) (www):
I've always thought that things are "on" a web site because they used to be found "on" BBS -- that is, "bulletin board" systems -- where "posted on" fits the "bulletin board" metaphor.
6.21.2007 9:38pm
Christopher M (mail):
In "to clean something", "something" is the thing you remove the dirt of. In "to clean something up", "something" is the dirt.

That's part of it, sure, but you can "clean up a room" as well as "clean up the dirt in the room." And compare "I need to clean my car" vs. "I need to clean up my car." To me, the former more likely refers to removing dirt, smudges, grime, etc. (that is, washing the car), while the latter more likely refers to removing and/or organizing stuff (that is, getting the trash out of the car, putting the coins into the coin holders, etc.).

So "clean" differs from "clean up" on at least two axes, one syntactic (both verbs can take as an object the thing/place that ends up clean, but "clean up" can also take as an object the source of the uncleanliness) and one semantic ("clean" tends to refer to removing small-scale stuff like dirt, while "clean up" tends to refer to putting something into an organized state). I bet there are other shades of meaning/usage as well.
6.21.2007 9:38pm
Laura S.:

written in pencil, but on or with a typewriter

But doesn't this make sense? "in pencil" describes the marks on the page. The letters on the page are 'in pencil'; they would not rightly be said to be 'in typewriter'.

It is weird say something was written on a typewriter at all; however, much that phrase may be used it is clearly a prepositional mistake. It would be right to say written with a typewriter--in which case typewriter is a tool which is used to do the writing. Just as we would say written with a pencil.

So there is no confusion here. Only an indelicate handling of types of things: in this case written is being used in different ways, indeed as different parts of speech.

These confusions happen because most people's mastery of language is not formal. This is why many people's definitions of words are slightly different (or wrong if you will). Word meaning is usually inferred from experience. Preposition confusion results from inferring and generalizing the wrong rule.
6.21.2007 9:40pm
Christopher M (mail):
It is weird say something was written on a typewriter at all; however, much that phrase may be used it is clearly a prepositional mistake.

No, it isn't. The preposition "on," among its many other functions, can indicate the device or system one uses as a medium to do something. "I was talking on the telephone," "I added up the numbers on my calculator," "He wrote the book on his computer."

You can't just postulate some abstract meaning of "on" and then declare illegitimate all usages that don't conform to your system. If you want to understand language, you have to start with the data about how words are actually used (with allowances for different registers, dialects, variants, etc.) and then extrapolate rules or patterns from the data. If you want to invent a new, ultra-formal language with strict abstract rules for preposition usage, that's fine, but you can't just pretend that English is such a language.

Do you think we should be saying "I spoke to him yesterday with the telephone"? I doubt it.
6.21.2007 9:58pm
jimbino (mail):
No doctors, nurses or other health care folks can seem to write, "at risk of serious illness." Instead, they write "at risk for serious illness."
6.21.2007 10:29pm
Sarah (mail) (www):
Russian native speakers should kindly remember the number of Russian prepositions that take two or three (or four!) cases and not be surprised when English -- which has first-language users native to five continents (and had over 100 years of divergent development on all five before telephones came along) has oddities like this. To say nothing of "colour" and "jumper" and how the "first" floor has a ten to fifteen foot variation in elevation when you cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Having said that (because really, guys. Four cases!) nearly all of the differences in question make sense when you think about it -- same goes for my lovely dual list of things-that-take-na and things-that-take-v items, which my last Russian instructor actually managed to justify with only ten minutes of lecture. And, at least you don't have to worry about specialized endings on top of remembering which preposition is standard for a given usage!

(Says the girl who still has the page of notes with the complicated illustration to explain the progression of a person into and around and out of their home, with separate houses for when they don't intend to come back versus when they do. All separate prepositions! Argh!)
6.21.2007 10:42pm
ys:
People who complain about prepositions/cases in German or even Russian (or Icelandic that has equivalent complexity) should think about languages like Estonian where they have 14 cases. True, those cases mostly substitute for prepositions and are more logically organized than the latter, still think about the sheer number. Plus, as has been noted, the mapping is quirky: "found in the bushes" would become "found from the bushes" in Estonian (expressed of course through one of the 14 cases). And if that is not scary enough, Georgian has only 7 cases but among them is ergative and it's quite hard for an indoeuropean speaker to wrap his brain around it. Fortunately for English speakers, even Russian has been out of fashion for a while, so it's time to relax and enjoy your German.
6.22.2007 12:41am
ys:

Sarah:
Having said that (because really, guys. Four cases!) nearly all of the differences in question make sense when you think about it -- same goes for my lovely dual list of things-that-take-na and things-that-take-v items, which my last Russian instructor actually managed to justify with only ten minutes of lecture. And, at least you don't have to worry about specialized endings on top of remembering which preposition is standard for a given usage!

That instructor was clearly fudging, probably to impress you. There are things about those Russian prepositions that don't fit into a neat schema, unless you get to a Talmudic level of interpretation, in which case the value of this schema is kind of low. And I don't even count prepositions for geographic entities. This reminds me of a story about a German who claimed that his language was so logical that the meaning of composite words could always be derived from their components, in particular for prepositions attached to verbs (incidentally, not true at all).
Overall though, I would not complain of the complexity of English too much, certainly compared to many other languages. Of the languages I am familiar with, only Scandinavian ones approach English in simplicity (Icelandic and Faroese excluded). Like in any language, a lot is done simply by drill, practice, drill, practice, and so on, including the use of prepositions.
6.22.2007 1:12am
Coby Lubliner (mail) (www):
The preposition that seems to have the oddest behavior is "on." Many people use "wait on" as synonymous with "wait for," but "wait on" has an altogether different meaning as well. One often sees "on sale" in the sense of "for sale" (as in "tickets are on sale now"), but "on sale" also has the more specific meaning of "for sale at a reduced price." Sports commentators say "he's got twenty home runs on the year" when they mean "in the course of the year." And so on, and on, and on...
6.22.2007 2:07am
Patrick S. O'Donnell (mail):
Sanskrit is a model of rationality and linguistic beauty in comparison with English. Indeed, it's interesting that linguistics finds it origins among the Grammarians (Panini, Katyayana, and Patanjali, for instance, the latter not to be confused with the author of the Yogasutras) of India and that grammar (vyakarana) was from the earliest times in India a distinct science. As it says in the Wikipedia entry on Panini: "Panini, and the later Indian linguist Bhartrihari, had a significant influence on many of the foundational ideas proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure, professor of Sanskrit, who is widely considered the father of modern structural linguistics. Noam Chomsky has always acknowledged his debt to Panini for his modern notion of an explicit generative grammar. In Optimality Theory, the hypothesis about the relation between specific and general constraints is known as "Panini's Theorem on Constraint Ranking". Paninian grammars have also been devised for non-Sanskrit languages. His work was the forerunner to modern formal language theory (mathematical linguistics) and formal grammar, and a precursor to computing. Panini's use of metarules, transformations, and recursion together make his grammar as rigorous as a modern Turing machine. The Backus-Naur form (Panini-Backus form) or BNF grammars used to describe modern programming languages have significant similarities to Panini grammar rules."
6.22.2007 2:31am
MM (mail) (www):
On my weblog I have a test on (British English) legal
prepositions
Solution: here
That comes from teaching German legal translators, so they aren't all difficult for native speakers of English.

I see Bill Poser beat me to it with the postpositions (they have those in Turkish).
6.22.2007 4:03am
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
Regarding "in line" versus "on line" -- where an astronomer (or a normal person, for that matter ;-) would say "in orbit," someone who works for NASA would say "on orbit." Go figure.
6.22.2007 4:05am
Andrew Clegg (www):
Regarding "different to" vs. "different than"... It's not just a British thing, "different to" is standard elsewhere in most of the rest of the English-speaking world too. I think "different than" is a North American anomaly.

"different to" site:.au = 1.2M GHits
"different than" site:.au = 130K GHits

"different to" site:.nz = 172K GHits
"different than" site:.nz = 28K GHits

"different to" site:.za = 75K GHits
"different than" site:.za = 15K GHits

However the American usage seems to be catching on in India's Anglophone quarters:

"different to" site:.in = 9K Ghits
"different than" site:.in = 20K Ghits

Andrew.
6.22.2007 9:18am
Pol Mordreth (mail):
MikeG in Corvalis,
I would shudder if a professional astronomer used in orbit vs on orbit. On orbit is the proper usage because 'orbit' is a specific path involving speed, trajectory, and acceleration vector.

Put it this way: in 'in line', line refers to the people around you. in 'on ine', line refers to a line (usually painted) on the ground that you are standing on. Rule of thumb with in vs on, you use on if the object of the preposition is something you physically surmount. (path, line, road, orbit). You use in if the object of the preposition surround you. (line as queue, water, earth (as burial), etc). Context and usage are preeminent in prepositions. However, most people don't particulary care to speak properly anyway, so local mis-usages spread into the general vernacular and the true meanings change over time.

FYI, growing up in the northeast we used in line to queue for things like tickets, but on line in school because when we queued for assemblies we had painted lines on the floor to stand on.

R/
Pol
6.22.2007 10:03am
Nate F (www):
The regionalized preposition usage that bothers me the most, far more so than "on line", is the Philadelphian habit of saying "down the shore" in sentences where "to the shore" would clearly be the right usage. I have even heard it on the radio and TV that way. I am a native of the suburbs, and still, to this day, refuse to say "down the shore."
6.22.2007 10:26am
Terry Collmann (mail):
How many people here log IN to their computers, and how many log ON? Personally I'd log on, but I'm in a definite minority: "log in" has 658m global Google hits, "log on" only 33.7m, a ratio of 19.5 to one. Restricted to UK searches only, the ratio of "log in" to "log on" is 20.9 to one, so even in my native Rightpondia I'm vastly outnumbered ...
6.22.2007 11:11am
Carsten:
As a not-native speaker, this issue indeed gives me headaches sometimes.
6.22.2007 11:36am
jayc (mail):
As a professional astronomer at NASA, I can say that we use "in orbit" frequently. But Pol is right that "on orbit" has a feeling of a specific orbit for a specific spacecraft. Also, I get the impression that the engineers and techs who are more concerned with getting spacecraft to space than the use of them once there use "on orbit" more frequently. "On station", I believe is a naval term for being at an assigned position.

It still feels more natural to me to say "at the Center", referring to the NASA center where I work, but all of the guys who have been here a long time say "on Center".

"On campus" contrasts with "in the field", funny since campus means field.

Someone is "in college" (in America) but "at the college/university", "at university" (in England) staying "in a college". A person could be "on the faculty", but "in the student body",
6.22.2007 11:41am
Spartacus (www):
"different to" and "different than" (except in the case of "more differnet than") both sound odd to me--I would say "different from."
6.22.2007 11:59am
old maltese:
Ask a National Forest Ranger, and he'll say that he works 'on' the [X] National Forest. Always seemed to me that he must be skimming along the tops of the trees.
6.22.2007 12:38pm
RV:
"In point" appears most often in the fixed phrase "case in point,"


Ah, of course. I missed that you were specifically referring to cases. I have just never heard "X is in point." Note to self: don't skim.
6.22.2007 12:52pm
BobH (mail):
Don't Americans say "I live on Elm Street" while Brits say "I live in Elm Street"?

Also, does one live on or in an island? I used to live in an American territory called Guam, and my recollection was that most folks there said "I live in Guam" (as I would now say "I live in California") -- not "I live on Guam," although they were of course ON the island.
6.22.2007 1:12pm
WillW (www):
As others have pointed out, prepositions may not always be used "prepositionally." Consider the sentence that ends with five "prepositions":

What did you bring that book I didn't want to be read
to out of up for?
6.22.2007 1:13pm
Spartacus (www):
What did you bring that book I didn't want to be read
to out of up for?


Why did you bring up that book out of which I did not want to be read to?

Is that any better?
6.22.2007 1:20pm
Boris:
Logging in involves entering a user name and password, even if you are already on the site. So, I would have to log in in order not to post here as a guest. Logging on is the process of getting to the site or more generally, getting connected to something. You log on to the web site by typing its url into the browser. Where both parts are present you can use it interchangeably.

However, it is also influenced by whether you are "on" or "in" something in the first place. You are "in" Windows, so you log into Windows, but you are "on" the internet, so you log onto the internet. This is secondary to the above.

So, you log on to the computer possibly just by turning it on, but when you log in to the computer only if you have it set up so that it prompts you for the username and password.
6.22.2007 2:25pm
Philip Lopez (mail):
Here's an interesting pair:

1. John was hit with a meteorite.

2. John was hit by a meteorite.

In #1, John must have been in a museum somewhere when someone got a meteorite out of a display case and hit him with it. In #2, John is walking outside, and a meteorite comes out of the sky.

Case grammar--the idea that prepositions are (among other things) the case markers in English--makes sense out of a system that otherwise seems bizzare and random (which language is NOT).

#2 is a passive sentence: A meteorite hit John--->John was hit by a meteorite. "By" is the case marker for [AGENT].

#1 is also passive: Someone hit John with a meteorite--->
John was hit with a meteorite by someone--->John was hit with a meteorite.

In #1, the [AGENT] is deleted, and "with" is the [INSTRUMENT] case marker (as in "John broke the window with a hammer.")

Some prepositions can do double duty. "With" for example, also marks the [ASSOCIATE]case: John went to the movies with his brother.

Complicated? Sure. Random? Nope.
6.22.2007 3:02pm
John Kunze:
"And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." -- Genesis 11.

So the different languages was the result of intelligent design.
6.22.2007 3:16pm
4ndyman (mail):
I have to agree with Laura S. that it sounds odd to "write on a typewriter," but for a different reason. "Write" to me has always implied doing something by hand — handwritten. There would be no confusion if I were to ask "Did he write the letter or type it?" I have the same reaction, though not quite as largely, when I hear of someone who "penned" a novel, even though it was created on a computer. There was no pen involved.

Yes, I know that "writer" is inherent in the word "typewriter," but things get misnamed all the time. Look at the English horn, which is neither!

At any rate, I tried to write this note on the computer, but my Sharpie ran out of ink. So I typed it instead.
6.22.2007 3:42pm
SeaDrive:
Partitives drove me crazy in French class. They are random in English too:

Do you want coffee?
Do you want some coffee?
Do you want a coffee?
Do you want a cup of coffee?

Replace with water, milk, soda, beer, etc. Or steak and french fries.
6.22.2007 3:44pm
CrosbyBird:
How many people here log IN to their computers, and how many log ON?

I thought about this for a good ten minutes.

I tend to use log ON when I'm thinking in a hardware/operating system perspective. I log ONto the desktop, the network, "Windows."

I tend to use log IN when I'm thinking of the application perspective. I log into my email account, my bank account, the bidding program, World of Warcraft (but ON to the specific server).

It appears that when I think of the connection as to a real-world physical construct, I use ON, and when I think of it as software, I use IN. I log into to my online banking account but I log onto a website (because the website is proxy for a physical machine).

I believe I'm fairly consistent in the usage except with the OS level. I think that's because Windows is no longer a layer distinct from the computer in the vast majority of circumstances. 15 years ago, I might log on to the computer and then log in to Windows the application. Now unless I force it to behave otherwise, there's no getting on the computer unless the OS is up and running.
6.22.2007 3:49pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
Islands:

My take is that one is "in" the political entity and "on" the physical entity. So, if you say that you are "in Hawaii", that means that you are somewhere in the state, but if you say that you are "on Hawaii", that means that you are on the island named "Hawaii" (usually referred to as the "big island"). This is complicated by the fact that when you are "on Hawaii", you are always also "in Hawaii".

In the case of Guam, there are very few cases when you could be "in Guam" and not "on Guam", since the political entity and the physical entity are of nearly the same extent. Since, by your description, "in" predominates, that indicates to me that the political is to the physical as two is to one*. 8-)

* To link two comment threads, I consider this to be allusion, not plagiarism, since I would expect the referent to be familiar to the vast majority of a literate audience.
6.22.2007 3:50pm
Karl Lembke (mail) (www):
"Why do people want to get on an airplane? I want to get in!"
6.22.2007 3:50pm
CrosbyBird:
Don't Americans say "I live on Elm Street" while Brits say "I live in Elm Street"?

I don't know what British people say, but I've never heard any American say "I live in Elm Street." Who lives "in the street"? That's where the cars are. "Don't play in the street." :)

Also, does one live on or in an island?

That's tougher. I'd like to think that I'd use on to mean the physical entity and in to mean the political borders. It's occasionally the same name which is confusing. I think a landmark being "on" Staten Island but a person living "in" Staten Island; I wonder if I'm making the physical/political distinction.
6.22.2007 4:02pm
CrosbyBird:
"Why do people want to get on an airplane? I want to get in!"

<carlin>Let Evel Knievel get on the plane!</carlin>

(Wow, illegal tag detection. Been a while since I had to use my HTML chops to get around that.)
6.22.2007 4:06pm
DeezRightWingNutz:
My Spanish professor was especially perplexed by an "alarm going off."

I think her exact words were, "Explain me that one!"

Upon reflection, I agreed it was a particularly odd prepositional idiom.

Prof. Volokh, I noticed you wrote, "on reflection." I would always use "upon," but I can't say if that's the preferred preposition (is it even idiomatic?).
6.22.2007 4:09pm
SeaDrive:
Staten Island is a borough, which you can certainly be in.
6.22.2007 4:34pm
TootsNYC (mail):
As a former Iowan transplanted years ago to NYC, I have a theory about the "in line" / "on line" usage.

In NYC, we assume that a line exists whether anyone is standing there are not. In Iowa, if everyone walks away, the line ceases to exist.

In Iowa, lines are participatory, and we all participate IN them.

In NYC, lines are virtual sites (ask a NYCer to tell you where the is for a hot-dog cart w/ no one waiting, and they can show you where it SHOULD be when the people get theree). They exists, in theory, and in our minds, whether anyone's waiting or not. Therefore, you stand "on" it. (bcs you know where, on th epavement, you'd draw the line for people to stand when they finally get there, which they will.
6.22.2007 4:36pm
Thomas Allen (mail):
"I'm on ur base killin' ur doodz" doesn't have the same panache.
6.22.2007 5:40pm
QuintCarte (mail):
I have a really hard time picturing a usage of "different to", as an American. "3 is different to 4"? Would someone in England really say this? I know "different from" is usually frowned on, but even that sounds much more natural than "different to". ("Different than" is most certainly the most natural for me).

"Log in" vs "Log on": As a software/online professional, I hear these with about equal frequency, and both sound fine to me. My comment there is that either are frequently used incorrectly - if you aren't providing a user name and password, you aren't doing either one. If you don't password protect your computer, you aren't logging in or logging on... you are turning it on (and/or perhaps booting it up). When you type a URL into the browser, you are "going to" (or "displaying" or perhaps "bringing up") the website. I've been reading The Volokh Conspiracy for the last hour, but only when posting this comment did I "log on" to it.

(Not prepositionally related, but I see the same kind of overuse of "download" as I do of "log on". Some people use "download" any time they are copying any computer data to anywhere - "I'm trying to download this program from it's CD onto my computer").
6.22.2007 7:16pm
John Rosenberg (mail) (www):
I think a linguist should research this prepositional business, first writing his research notes down in a notebook and then writing them up in an article....
6.23.2007 12:24am
deryni (mail):
I went to Indiana once, and there, if your TV or refrigerator didn't work, oeople would ask if it was plugged up.

I had always thought that a sink, or your nose, might be plugged up, but that a TV or a refrigerator, in order to function, needed to be plugged in.
6.23.2007 5:09am
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
Pol Mordreth wrote:

"I would shudder if a professional astronomer used in orbit vs on orbit."

I think you need to talk to more professional astronomers. The ones who don't talk about spacecraft all seem to use "in orbit" exclusively. An astronomer would never say, "The planet upsilon Andromedae b is on orbit around an F8 V star."

Perhaps I didn't make my intent clear: I didn't mean to imply that "on orbit" was always incorrect, only that certain NASA types used it when "in orbit" would be the logical choice. I can see using "on orbit" as a synonym for "on trajectory," or "on track," or "having achieved orbit with specific intended elements," or -- as jayc pointed out -- in an analog to "on station."

But some (mainly in the NASA manned spaceflight community) seem to fetishize the use of "on orbit," employing it for the general case of being in an orbit when the orbital elements are irrelevant to the discussion -- as in situations analogous to "in flight." For example, compare "in-flight refueling of the SR-71" to "on-orbit fueling of the Centaur stage," or "in-flight repair of the beverage cart" to "on-orbit repair of the CRM-114 unit" ... my inclination would be to use "in-orbit" instead. And I would say "the satellite is nevertheless in orbit" if it had achieved an orbit but not necessarily the desired one. I'd almost always say "the satellite is now in orbit" if it had achieved the intended orbit, too.

As for "on Center"? That one makes me shudder.
6.23.2007 6:27am
Rick S:
I was thinking that "on Center" was quite reasonable if you take it from the template "on X" where X is a quasi-military installation (base, post, ship, campus, etc.). NASA was originally populated with many Air Force officers, who surely would have brought that template with them. Civilians would then have adopted it to build esprit-de-corps.

Prepositions were once informally defined to me as words which express relationships in space or time. That definition seems to hold true for at least some meaning of each preposition, but it hardly provides a conceptual background for the way prepositions are used in situ. Sometimes the relationship is ambiguous: A lamp that is on a table is also clearly above the table. Other times there is no relationship at all: The light is simply on or off. It seems to me any attempt to semantically analyze preposition choice is going to be stymied by such considerations, so I gave up trying. But then, IANA linguist.
6.23.2007 4:28pm
markm (mail):
eck:

mhenner notes we say 'mother is in the hospital', but in England they say 'mother is in hospital' omitting 'THE'. Why?

In America we say "he's in college." Is that any less peculiar?


"The college" is a place, "in college" is a condition. A student is still "in college" while working a summer job 1,000 miles away, but a professor is not "in college" even though he is physically present in the college. I don't know, but it seems reasonable that the British idiom "in hospital" similarly reflects the difference between the status of a hospitalized patient, and all the staff, visitors, and outpatients who are present in the hospital. These idioms don't derive from the meanings of "in" and "the" that I can see, but are just conventions that have become recognized by most speakers of American and English English, respectively.

An example in another language, according to a German-speaker I once knew: Ich bin Berliner (without an article) means "I am a resident of Berlin." Ich bin ein Berliner means, "I am a jelly donut." American English has not had to make that distinction because when we form food names from city names, we keep the basic noun for the food and turn the city name into an adjective ("Philly cheesesteak", "Buffalo wings", "Boston baked beans").
6.23.2007 6:03pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Perhaps an even trickier use of prepositions is in "phrasal verbs," like "to blow up," "to come down with," etc.

I think that's a legacy of English's (partial) derivation from Germanic tongues. They attach prepositions as suffixes to verbs, to vary the verbs' meaning. We let the preposition be split off (often on the far side of the direct object), which makes reading it a bit more difficult.
6.23.2007 6:07pm
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
SeaDrive wrote:

Partitives drove me crazy in French class. They are random in English too:

Do you want coffee?
Do you want some coffee?
Do you want a coffee?
Do you want a cup of coffee?

Replace with water, milk, soda, beer, etc. Or steak and french fries.


I had a college roommate, born in Los Angeles to American-born parents, who drove me crazy by using partitives in his own random manner. For example, he once asked me, "When you go to Safeway, could you pick me up a bread?" Aaauugghh!
6.24.2007 12:57am
Andrew Clegg (www):
In response to a couple of comments: Yes, we (British) really would say "3 is different to 4" or whatever, and we're not the only ones (see Google counts above). I can't think of any justifications for "to" or "from" or "than" in this context, it seems pretty arbitrary.

But no, we probably wouldn't say "I live in Elm Street" unless Elm Street refers to an area named (confusingly) for its most prominent street, which happens occasionally -- e.g. Green Lanes in north London -- but not much. More likely "near", or "on" if one lives on the street itself.

Andrew.
6.24.2007 10:13am
Milhouse (www):
"In Elm Street" is obsolete, but it certainly was correct in the 19th century.
6.24.2007 9:10pm
Jeff W (mail):
Standing on/in line
Having grown up in New York, I thought that "standing on line" referred to the experience of waiting in a queue and "standing in line" referred to aligning oneself with others to form (or join them in) a line in order to "stand on line," like standing "in formation" (and "standing in a line" was parallel to "standing in a circle").

So you could have an exchange like:
"Can I get it immediately?"
"No, you have to stand on line."
"How? Where?"
"Stand in line over there." (like "Get into that line over there")
So "standing in line," for this former New Yorker, still does not convey the same meaning as "standing on line," even though I've learned to say it, having lived away from New York for 30 years. (I recognize that all this might be my own after-the-fact contrived and arbitrary rationalization.)

"On" Long Island
And we always said "on Long Island" (e.g., "I live on Long Island")—it's hard for me to come up with a sentence where "in Long Island" sounds right. ("The spaceship fell to Earth in Long Island"?)

About "Ich bin ein Berliner"
Here's a pretty convincing page about how Kennedy was not declaring for the ages that he was a jelly doughnut.

There seems to be a mystery as to where that story started. I seem to recall (rather distinctly) having read an account in the mid-70s—I'm fairly sure it was in Tom Burnham's Dictionary of Misinformation (1975) (or, perhaps, Peter Farb's Word Play What Happens When People Talk (1974)). It might be the source of the story or one of the earliest accounts. (I don't have the books available now so I can't verify it.)
6.24.2007 11:53pm
Joona Palaste (mail):
Finnish has two forms of location in a city, like in English "in Helsinki" or "to Stockholm" or "from London".
One form is using internal location, i.e. "Helsingissä" meaning "in Helsinki". Another form is using external location, i.e. "Tampereella" literally meaning "on/at Tampere". Note the distinction between "ssa/ssä" and "lla/llä".
The thing is, some city names are always used with the internal form, and some city names are always used with the external form, and no one in Finland has managed to come up with a rule defining which is which. These simply have to be learned in memory.
6.25.2007 6:28am