Some changing uses of ‘grammar’ words: are you across ‘across’?

Posted by on May 09, 2012

Gill Francis is a freelance language consultant and writer of resources for teachers and learners of English.  Her latest project is Skylight, an easy-to-use online corpus access tool (for login details, email gillian.francis@blueyonder.co.uk).

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When someone says ‘preposition’ and ‘language change’ in the same breath, you would be forgiven if your eyes glaze over. Prepositions are ‘grammar’ words, and grammar doesn’t change much, surely – or at least not in interesting ways.

If that was your first reaction, it may be because you were taught that prepositions, like pronouns, conjunctions, and determiners, are ‘closed classes’ whose members are definitively listed in grammar books (preferably unopened). Prepositions seem uninteresting because they mean very little out of context; they have uses rather than meanings, to put it simply. In context, their changing ways can be fascinating.

True, new grammar words don’t burst onto the stage with all guns blazing, like some ‘lexical’ words do. So-called ‘open-class’ words – particularly nouns and adjectives – are often coined or dug up by journalists when the situation demands it, like omnishambles in the aftermath of the last UK budget. Omnishambles may make its way into the dictionary, or more probably it will sink into oblivion once the narrative that spawned it is forgotten. In general, new ‘lexical’ words and compounds are coined as and when needed, to name new objects and concepts. For example, not long ago we might have been mystified by this supermarket product description: fairly traded party size instant barbecue (printed without any hyphens), which now causes only fleeting puzzlement.

New uses of ‘grammar’ words enter the language more gradually and without attracting much attention. This may be because the words themselves are not newly-minted or revived; instead, the same familiar little items are being drafted into new areas, annexing part of the territory of other members of their set.

Look at the preposition across in the next example, from The Archers, a UK radio soap. Two characters are discussing an upcoming event at a local venue (May 2011):

Elizabeth: The models arrive at about 4.30.
Roy: And … they’ll need refreshments?
Elizabeth: Yeah, but Hugh’s across all that.

Only a few days later, another Archers character, unable to access the website of a secondary school to which he considers entrusting the education of his offspring, grumbles:

“It doesn’t bode well if the school’s not even across basic technology.”

This sense of across is equivalent to the more formal conversant with, au fait with, aware of, familiar with, etc. More informally, we say things like I’ve got the hang of it or I’m clued up on this; we choose the level of formality according to the situation.

The ‘new’ use often occurs in the broadcast media and in conversation, but it does not (yet?) appear in any dictionary of Standard English (as far as I know). And I have found no evidence in large recently-compiled corpora, perhaps because there simply is no evidence, or because I haven’t spotted it amongst the hundreds of thousands of matches for this very common word.

Further support for this use of across is that has acquired its own unique collocations and phraseology. For example, it co-occurs with the modifiers very and absolutely, as in the next examples. (In the more usual senses of across, these modifiers are not used; we don’t say very across the road.)

He’s very across all the issues in international development… (Lenny Henry, BAFTA Awards ceremony, May 2011)
He would be absolutely across everything we have today. (Mark Gatiss on Sherlock Holmes, Radio 5, June 2011)

Finally Snowmail (an internet preview of Channel 4 News) informed its readers (April 2012) that Simon Israel is astride the latest on a particular controversy – a jokily inventive variant of across that sounds uneasily physical in the light of astride’s usual collocates in the domains of horse-riding, cycling and motorcycling.

Across is just one example of the ways in which prepositions are straying into new territory. Further investigation is needed into developing senses, the pragmatic information you need about them, and the detectable trends that link them together in their uncertain journey towards the dictionary.

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Comments (12)
  • Great post and I agree, far more interesting than all the trendy new lexical coinages.

    I have to admit, it felt like quite a familiar usage to me and I was surprised to hear you couldn’t find corpus evidence for it. Gauntlet thrown down, I couldn’t resist looking for myself (isn’t the internet so wonderfully distracting?). I just searched one corpus and found at least 16 examples. After an initial search that was far too wide, I looked for ‘be’+’across’. Quite a few examples seem to come from politics – “be across the issues”, “be across your brief”, etc.

    Then, still surprised it hadn’t been picked up on before, I checked the Oxford Dictionary of English and it has it in as a phrase: “be (get) across something – fully understand all the details of an issue or situation”.

    Now I’m feeling a bit of a saddo for getting caught up in a single usage of a single little word for more than half an hour, but I guess that’s what’s so great about language!

    Posted by Julie Moore on 9th May, 2012
  • Sorry, it’s in Collins too under the preposition:
    “fully informed about; dealing with – we are across this problem”
    http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/across

    Posted by Julie Moore on 9th May, 2012
  • Fascinating stuff. I have never heard this use of “across” in the US. Instead, we say, “all over it.” Example: “Helen, we forgot the fairly traded party sized instant barbecue for the party!” “Oh, no worries, I’m all over it.” (Meaning that the second speaker is on her way to the store as she speaks.)

    Posted by Diane Farr on 9th May, 2012
  • As a Canadian, I’d be more likely to say “he’s all over that issue” or “she’s got it covered”. This would seem to be a similar concept.

    Posted by Kevin Peckham on 9th May, 2012
  • I think this has long been an ongoing tendency in the English language to use prepositions this way. This tendency just grabs more and more prepositions. This demonstarates the language development, and in a way its tendency to shortened utterances. Well, prepositions are perfect for that.

    Posted by Alexander Shibaev on 10th May, 2012
  • That’s very interesting Gill, thank you. I’ve only occasionally heard ‘across’ used like that, maybe they’ve slipped me by, but I’ll keep tuned for them and other similars. I get a very physical image with these: being ‘all over’ and ‘around’ issues comes to me with an enfolding encompassing feel, it’s like giving the issue a big hug and saying ‘there there I’m looking after you’; ‘across’ shows a bit more mastery, and ‘astride’ is complete dominance (aptly illustrated by the bike rider). Such nuance in the little words.

    Posted by Andrew Dickinson on 10th May, 2012
  • Thanks for the comments about ‘all over it’, etc. Watch this space!

    Julie: Thanks for your comments, and congratulations on finding corpus evidence for ‘be across’ – which corpus was it? I looked at ukWac (1.3 billion words), WebCorp, and several smaller corpora. Obviously I didn’t look hard enough! I bet there are some lines in ukWaC somewhere, lurking. I should have found the Collins definition though – mea culpa.

    Posted by Gill Francis on 10th May, 2012
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  • Thanks for your post of “across”. I am now across usual words in unusual ways (context).

    Posted by Hoang Le on 16th May, 2012
  • Let me get it across to you that I intend to be across it later. I can manage because being across to something is to imply that not only am I totally spread-eagled but can catch it too.
    “I’m across it now.”, sounds to me like I’m over it, but I’m not so sure. I appear to becoming dizzy.

    Ceorl

    Posted by Russell on 17th May, 2012
  • I’d never heard this until it came up in an e-mail a few weeks ago in the office. Several of us laughed quite a lot over it. Now we mainly use “across this” in order to denote someone who uses too much trendy management-speak, or ironically to denote the fact that we don’t know anything about something but want to bamboozle people with newspeak (as in “quantum mechanics? Oh yeah, I’m so like totally across that”).

    Posted by Jon S on 15th April, 2014
  • Jon S: Thank you – this made me laugh. We fancy that so long as we are somehow language-aware, we can use ‘across’ or ‘a heads down’ or ‘as a team, going forward’ as productive in-jokes. Someone told me recently that she can say ‘let’s diarise that’ with impunity, because she does it with the appropriate degree of post-modernist irony. And why not? ‘Corporate speak’ is fun to subvert, precisely because some people use it with deadly seriousness..

    Posted by gill francis on 16th April, 2014
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