Sunday, February 25, 2007

More on/about/with/for prepositions

To extend the discussion of prepositions I'll make an observation from a C-SPAN panel on Covering the Bush Presidency moderated by Tony Snow. Towards the end of the conversation, April Ryan (American Urban Radio) in an exchange of comments regarding President Bush's demeanor and personality explains that the president likes to give people a hard time and she recalls one conference when she asked him not to "pick with" her. I'm pretty sure she repeated it. (How's that for scientifically collected data?)

This ties in quite snuggly with the thoughts I posted several days ago regarding prepositions. One important distinction I failed to make back then was between produced prepositional phrases and frozen phrases. This is an important distinction to make when working with the syntax and morphology of a language.

In Chaucer's English we find nouns and adjectives with a final 'e' in frozen or "petrified" forms. Moore and Marckwardt in Historical Outlines of English Sounds and Inflections identify this alternation in the phrases "out of towne" and "of the toun." Another "petrified dative" is found in the phrase "with-alle" (in which the adjective "all" is used as a noun.

When the words in some phrases lock arms and insist on working as a unit we find they resist trends that have affected other forms. Because the phrase "of towne" was very common, the dative inflection was preserved, or petrified, even though the dative was generally unused by (in? at? on?) Chaucer's time.

And of course the opposite can happen. A change in a phrase can easily take hold when the phrase is common enough to set the usage. Phrases about voting are so common every few years that any slight change can be cemented quickly. So we find the vote for/vote on alternation. (This use was probably reinforced more by the high frequency of casting votes for/on internet articles and posts.)

It seems that "pick with" has not reached the same level of usage. It looks more like an inadvertent and perhaps erratic syntactic blend. A Google™ search produces mostly results related in the phrase "a bone to pick with [X]." Ryan's use is probably a combination of "pick on" and "mess with." The meanings are almost identical and in conversation this blend is understandable.


  1. I don't know if I should be concerned or not, but it seems like your recent observations, at least on preposition use, have come from some fairly narrow fields, C-SPAN and the Grammys. Are you going to spread your net or draw it tight?


  2. I'd argue that C-SPAN itself is quite a wide net, snagging speakers from all regions in all sorts of styles and in all sorts of contexts.

    And to throw the Grammys on top of that.

    Okay so I don't have that many cable channels.


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