The case of the wandering preposition

Just as viruses mutate, so does language. Have you noticed how rapidly the use of the preposition is changing in Australian English?

Some changes have already become accepted usage. Everyone now uses the preposition ‘around’ when they might once have said ‘about’. So, there are issues ‘around’ (say) social housing, rather than social housing issues or issues about or concerning social housing.

Is this an advance or a retreat? The general test of any language change is whether it adds to expressive capability or accuracy. ‘Around’ is more expansive than ‘about’, and has a more inclusive air to it. On the other hand, if using ‘around’ means we never have to think about the underlying problem, maybe we have lost an important bit of critical perspective. Or perhaps the issue is the word ‘issue’ itself – handy, but vague., too

There is also something happening to ‘of’.  While watching the Australian Open on TV (how long ago that seems now!), I noted, amidst the deluge of statistical information, one observation denoting ‘Proportion of serves landing two metres of the baseline’. I suppose it meant landing ‘two metres or less from the baseline’ but it sounded strange.

A few weeks back, in the local paper, another example: an elderly (but miraculously well-preserved) figure-skater ‘has no plans of slowing down’. ‘Of’ is certainly the imperialist preposition, taking over more and more terrain – just the other day, I learned that a would-be criminal was ‘disarmed of his weapon’.

I recently invited my niece, a charming lass just turned twenty-one, to come and have lunch with me at a local restaurant. I sent her a text, a very convenient way of communicating, as it is both informal but also puts things in writing. (It is a curious aspect of modern communication that, where we would once have ‘rung someone up’, we now write things down.) In accepting my invitation she added ‘I am very excited for it’.

Of course, I knew what she meant, although it sounded a bit odd. Where did ‘about’ get to? Then again, maybe ‘for’ in this context actually adds a new shade of meaning, above and beyond ‘about’.

Language expresses thinking, but the converse is also true: thinking expresses language. We cannot think without language, and the language we speak most naturally and easily, usually the one we learned as children, surrounds us with the collective mental world it represents. Our first language is truly the gift that keeps on giving, although its effects may be constraining, too.

There is a constant tension between the liveliness of everyday usage, and the need for regularity.  If you read Captain Cook’s journal from the late 18th century there is home-made spelling everywhere, although as you would expect of a sailor, there is much precision about where he was and what he did.

Shakespeare took great advantage of the fluidity of the English of his day. By today’s standards, he was astonishingly free with language, moulding it to his purposes as he wrote. Word order was more flexible back then, enabling him to generate iambic pentameters more easily than would otherwise be the case. He also word-smithed a good deal of vocabulary, giving voice to the exuberance and growing confidence of the society around him.

And this, surely, is the point of writers, or at least the greatest of them. Their words and thought-worlds expand our collective linguistic reach. But to make the most of that achievement, we have to read, listen and learn.

Could it be that the digital world, with its weird compulsions and fragmented attention-spans is undermining teachers’ best efforts to teach us how to use words well? It is ironic that the computer languages that support this communicative plethora must be parsed reasonably precisely, or the technology will not do as it is supposed to.

Whatever we can routinise, we can program, so perhaps we can leave it to the computers to iron it all out. We already have spell checkers which offer grammatical correction and (sometimes presumptuous) syntax advice. Computers can already do a fair job of reproducing formulaic fiction: there seems to be nothing a well-trained machine cannot do.  Soon, perhaps we will have robotic personal assistants who will respond to our wishes before we have even enunciated them.

All this would seem to take a lot of the bother out of being a person, really. But what is left over? When books held most of our wisdom, there was a real need to hold a good deal of knowledge in our heads, simply because, while the facts could be validated if need be, accessing them via encyclopedias and texts of various kinds, took a degree of effort. Why memorise when you can Google? If machines can do everything that we do, better than we can ourselves, what is the actual role of human beings? I guess we are about to find out.

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