Samuel Johnson famously said that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. This is sometimes misquoted as “when a man is bored with London, he is bored with life” (and sometimes wrongly attributed to Oscar Wilde, but that’s another story). But what the great lexicographer definitely didn’t say was “when a man is bored of London, he is bored of life”.
Look in any dictionary and you will find that the “correct” preposition to use with bored is with. No one mentions bored of (not even hot-off-the-press books like the 2009 edition of Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English). Yet, whatever purists may think about it, our language data shows that, in 2009, more people say bored of than bored with. How has this happened?
For many years, the best electronic resource for observing English in use was the British National Corpus (BNC) – a digital collection of books, newspapers, recorded conversations, and much else, covering the widest possible range of subject matter in both “imaginative” (fictional) and “informative” media. When it launched in 1993, the BNC – with 100 million words of text – was at the cutting edge of language technology. Though still an excellent corpus, the BNC has been overtaken in sheer scale by the corpora we use now (typically containing about 2 billion words) and of course by the Web itself – an almost infinite reservoir of language data. This means we can analyse, in great detail, what people actually write and say when they communicate with one another (as opposed to asking them what they think they say or telling them what we think they should say).
And what does this data tell us? In the BNC (whose texts span the period roughly from 1975 to 1992), there are 246 instances of bored with, and just 10 hits for bored of. The sources are revealing, too: about half the bored of citations come from informal conversations, like this excerpt:
I reckon they should do tea here, I’m getting really bored of coffee I tell you.
The rest are from magazines like The Face (now sadly defunct) and the New Musical Express – texts aimed at a young readership, and often a good place to look for emerging language trends. So as recently as 1993, bored of was a rarity. As it happens, I touched on all this in an article written back in 2003, and noted there some figures from a Google search (Google, remember, was still in its infancy at that point): Google found 112,000 instances of bored of, but bored with still held a comfortable lead with about 340,000. Not so today: try a Googlefight pitting bored of against bored with and bored of is now narrowly in front.
There’s a possible distractor here in the phrase “Bored of the Rings”, which surfaces in various parodies of Tolkien’s well-known trilogy – there is a book of this name, a movie, a fansite and even an entry in Wikipedia. So let’s try a search that rules this out: bored of it vs. bored with it. This time the version using “with” maintains a slender lead, but this is unlikely to last. If you listen out, you’ll hear that most people under 35 say bored of – presumably by analogy with tired of – and it can’t be denied that this is, phonologically speaking, less hard work: bored of trips off the tongue more easily. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for “of” to be recognised, first as an acceptable alternative to “with”, and (eventually, no doubt) as the standard preposition to use in these circumstances.Email this Post