Prepositions And Other Things
Conversation between two passengers, A and B, during a train journey.
A. Excuse me, but now that you seem to have finished using your mobile telephone, perhaps we could have a word.
B. About what?
A. Your use of language.
B. So you’ve been earwigging, have you?
A. I think eavesdropping expresses your meaning less colloquially, but I could hardly avoid hearing what you said. You were speaking loudly enough to obviate the need for a telephone on your part.
B. Never mind that. What’s wrong with the way I talk?
A. Among other things, I think you should consider the way you deal with prepositions.
B . Explain.
A. You mentioned to your contact that you were on the train, that you would later be on the bus, and that you had been working on your laptop. At another point you asked him to slow up a bit.
A. It would have been more accurate to say that you were in the train, that you would later be in the bus and that you had been working at your laptop, or perhaps with it. As for the speed, one slows down, not up.
B. Would you care to go through all that again, and make it a bit clearer?
A. Certainly. You could hardly be on the train, bus or laptop. It would be very difficult for you to get onto the train or bus unless you had a ladder. You would get into those vehicles. Also you could not use your laptop if you were on it. Finally, you would never speak of speeding down, so slowing up should be avoided.
B. That’s just the way most people talk.
A. No doubt, but it is careless.
B. What about the Internet. Will you allow me to be on that?
A. Because it can be regarded as somewhat analogous to other infrastructure systems, such as roads or railways. It’s perfectly all right to be on them.
B. Very kind of you to give permission. Anything else?
A. Yes. At one stage in your discussion, you said that you had met up with Simon.
B. That’s right. Something you don’t like about that as well, is there?
A. I was disturbed by the pleonasm.
B. Meaning what?
A. Redundancy of words. It would have been sufficient to say that you met Simon. The ‘up’ and ‘with’ are unnecessary.
A. Have you finished?
A. Not quite. You also said that on hearing the result of a football match, you were literally over the Moon.
B. And you find something amiss with that too, right?
A. Yes. Unless you were a NASA astronaut involved in the Apollo missions, which your accent and apparent age indicate is unlikely, you could not have been literally over the Moon.
B. Pardon me, Mr Faultfinder, but I happen to know that the Oxford English Dictionary accepts that word in the sense in which I used it. I believe the term is figurative.
A. I’m aware of that, and I think the OED has something to answer for the manner in which it embraces that kind of usage. It all started when the compliers began work on it in 1857.
B. You look as though you might have been around at the time. What did they do that displeases you?
A. They decided at the outset that their dictionary would be descriptive, not prescriptive.
B. Would you like to enlarge on that?
A. By all means. The lexicographers concerned agreed that they would not instruct people in the use of the language, but would instead record how it was used. They did not wish to emulate certain other countries by setting up an academy. The rot set in there and then and it has led to a great deal of confusion and sloppiness.
B. That gets up your nose, does it?
A. A colourful expression, but appropriate. We in the Anglosphere have given the rest of our world an excellent method of communication, namely the English language. I think we must accept that we are custodians of it and that we should act accordingly.
B. Look, I agree that we’ve provided the world with a great tool, but we can’t give other people orders about the way they handle it. They’ll do as they like, and there’s nothing a busybody like you can do to change that. You’ve just said that the original OED experts didn’t aim to make rules, so don’t set yourself above them. You’re just a fogey, completely out of touch with modern practice.
A. Perhaps you’re right. If so, that is regrettable It’s depressing to live through a period of declining standards. However, I’m sorry to say that we can’t continue this conversation.
B. You mean your lecture. You’re a funny old buzzard. Anyway, why can’t we keep talking?
A. Because the train is slowing down and I live near the next stop, so I must get off.
B. Hah, gotcha!
B. You gave me an earful about my being in the train, not on it. Well, you’re in it too, so you’ll have to get out of it, not off it, or you could alight from it. And you reckon you’re an expert on prepositions?
A. Drat! Hoist with my own petard.
B. I probably shouldn’t ask, but where did you dig that one up and could you put it in plain English?
A. It’s from Hamlet and it means blown up by one’s own bomb. To use a more modern expression, I’ve shot myself in the foot, and perhaps undone some of the good work I did during our brief exchange, but now I must go.
B. Not a moment too soon. By the way, what’s the name of this place we’re approaching? Nitpickingham, is it?
A. Oh, well guessed. You came very close. It’s Punctiliousford. Goodbye, whippersnapper.
B. Toodle-oo, fossil.
* * *