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 firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.Email this Post