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Prepositions are funny – but not random

‘Prepositions are funny’, concluded the author of The Economist’s language blog in a recent post. You can see what he means, and any teacher (or learner) of English will sympathise. Choosing the ‘right’ preposition (or more broadly, the right particle) can be a challenge, and for some, the whole business seems so arbitrary that the only solution is to learn every combination one by one.

But one of our guiding principles at Macmillan Dictionaries is that language is never random, and that almost every aspect of it is ‘rule-governed’. The same point came up a few days back in Rachael Singh’s post for our ‘class English’ series. Discussing William Labov’s research with young African-Americans in New York City in the 1960s, Rachael notes how Labov demonstrated that their particular dialect of English (‘Black English Vernacular’) was ‘subject to its own strict rules of grammar that every speaker … obeyed’. It’s important to be clear what we mean by ‘rules’ in this context. We’re not talking about a set of instructions handed down by experts telling us what’s right and wrong, but what John Sinclair called ‘regularities’: recurrent features of language behaviour which we can identify by studying what people actually do when they communicate. By observing the language behaviour of one specific group, Labov was able to identify underlying ‘systems’ in the way they used words. And this is what linguists and lexicographers do at a more general level: analysing large amounts of corpus data to discover the systematic features of language.

Some language systems are easier to work out than others. English morphology, for example, is pretty straightforward: we know that you add –s to pluralise a noun or –ed to indicate a past tense, and although there are exceptions, even these have their own rules. Phrasal verbs, on the other hand, are a good example of a language feature where it seems as if there is no system at all. But when people make up new phrasal verbs, fluent speakers have no problem understanding them – and this tells us that everyone involved (the inventor and the audience) know what the rules are, even if they might have trouble explaining them. Several years ago, British celebrity chef Delia Smith announced that, after writing dozens of cookbooks, she was now ‘reciped out’. Although no one had ever used this verb before, everyone understood what she meant. If, conversely, she had been about to start writing a new cookbook and said she was ‘all reciped up’, we’d have understood that too.

How do we do this? Firstly, we understand new words by analogy with ones we already know: there are many other phrasal verbs using ‘out’ that express the idea of being exhausted or ‘having nothing left’: people can be worn out or burned out, for example, and a concert is sold out if all the tickets have gone. From here, we get newer expressions like ‘partied out’ (when you don’t feel like going to any more parties) – and ‘reciped out’.

But at a deeper level – following ‘rules’ which we don’t yet fully understand – there are reasons why ‘out’ (rather than ‘in’ or ‘up’, say) is the right particle for expressing this meaning. The key is metaphor, and its role in allowing us to generate new (often abstract) meanings from a ‘core’ meaning which is typically concrete. You can see this process at work not only with general vocabulary, but with prepositions and particles too. One of the common ways we use ‘out’ is to express the idea of removing something from the place where it is (as in ‘take it out of the box’ or ‘I’m throwing these newspapers out’). From here, we get the idea of getting rid of things so that there is less than before (which appears in phrasal verbs like weed out, filter out, or strip out), or so that nothing is left at all, as in empty out, wipe out – or recipe out.

In our phrasal verbs dictionary, we have used diagrams to explore the metaphorical behaviour of the 12 most common English particles (you can see the one for away here) and each diagram comes with a chart showing many of the phrasal verbs that embody the ideas in the diagram. These explanations are far from perfect – this is an area where more research is needed – but they do suggest that, even if prepositions are ‘funny’, they’re by no means random.

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Michael Rundell

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