Real Grammar Quiz, Question 3: Bored with it, or Bored of it?

Posted by on November 19, 2014

Macmillan Dictionary – Real GrammarReal Grammar isn’t about the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people try to make us follow. As we said in the introduction to this new series from Macmillan Dictionary, Real Grammar is based on the evidence of language in use.

In the coming months, we’ll be bringing you blog posts and videos that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about grammar and usage. There’s even a Real Grammar quiz for you to try.

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The third question in our Real Grammar quiz was whether it’s better to say “I’m bored with it” or “I’m bored of it”? Based on what the language data tells us, our conclusion was that both are acceptable. But we also need to be aware that bored of is a more recent development, and some people may still regard it as “wrong”.

Many words can be followed by a preposition, and a good dictionary will tell you which prepositions are most frequent (and therefore most natural). In some cases, an added preposition indicates a shift in meaning. Unhappy usually means sad or upset, but adding “with” signals a different meaning (sense 2 in the Macmillan Dictionary): if you are unhappy with a decision or with the service in a restaurant, you are not so much sad about it as annoyed and dissatisfied.

On the whole, these choices are quite stable but – as with any aspect of language – the norms can change over time. In the British National Corpus – now almost 25 years old – the word issues is frequently followed by “concerning”, in sentences like this

Many social surveys of older people have focused on issues concerning social contact and social isolation.

Nowadays, a writer is far more likely to choose “issues around”. Though rare in the BNC, “around” is now enormously frequent when following issues (in fact, several hundred times more frequent than “concerning”, in the latest corpus data), and this change is so striking that we have discussed it in the blog.

We looked at the case of bored more than five years ago, in one of the very first posts on the Macmillan Dictionary blog. It was noted there that bored of was still rare in the BNC, outnumbered about 25 to 1 by bored with. It looked likely that this was a generational difference, as the BNC’s few examples of bored of appeared in casual conversations or in youth-oriented magazines.  Later evidence seemed to back this up, and in a follow-up post last year, we observed a strong trend towards bored of. The evidence for current usage is a little uneven. In our data for 2013, the string bored of it occurs about 1400 times, against about 2500 instances of bored with it. A search today using Googlefight suggests that the two versions are used with more or less equal frequency. Whichever source is closer to the truth, we can say with confidence that  – even if bored with remains the preferred choice for many – bored of is used increasingly often.

Why does this matter? Our old friend Gwynne’s Grammar, a recent addition to the prescriptivist literature, has a whole chapter listing “Prepositions needed by particular words”. The list is introduced by a paragraph explaining how important it is to choose the right preposition, because “to give the wrong preposition is illiterate, as ‘different to something’ is wrong and ‘different from something’ is correct”. One of his examples is the noun “exception”, which he insists should be followed by from and not by to. The evidence for exception from is so weak (about 300 instances, against almost 10,000 for exception to) that we don’t even show it as an option at our entry for exception. So in this case, if we follow the prescriptivist line, we would have to conclude that over 97% of English speakers are “illiterate”. (The writer does not appear even to be aware that many people say bored of, and he would no doubt be horrified by the idea.) Nevertheless, Macmillan’s entry for bored does include a usage note, with a warning that, although “of” is increasingly the preposition of choice, some people still regard it as incorrect. This seems like a reasonable compromise: though there is no objective basis for describing the newer usage as “wrong”, we can’t ignore the fact that some speakers – and these may include people who mark exams – may react negatively to it. For now, at least…

To read more about Real Grammar, keep a close eye on our Real Grammar page. You can catch up with the videos on our YouTube channel, where the fourth video in the series is now live. You can also follow this topic using #realgrammar on Twitter and remember that you can find all our earlier blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realgrammar”.

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