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Opinion

A Word, Please: The word ‘fraught’ raises questions about whether it’s being used correctly

Dictionary
Questions arise about whether it’s “fraught with” or just “fraught.”
(File photo)

Reader Janice has noticed a trend involving the word “fraught.”

“Things used to be fraught with something (danger, enmity, etc.),” she wrote. “But now they are just fraught.”

To Janice, the result is both grating and a bit confusing: “Leaves me wondering just what is being conveyed.”

I haven’t noticed the same trend, and, using a few language research tools, I can’t tell whether Janice is observing change in the works or whether it’s just her own experience.

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A Google search shows that “fraught with” was about four times as common as “fraught” alone over the past five years.

In the five years prior, “fraught with” beat out lone “fraught” by just two to one. So to whatever extent we can rely on my Google search abilities, the trend is in the direction opposite the one Janice has noticed.

Google Ngram viewer, which searches books, does show a slight uptick in “fraught” without “with” in the years leading up to 2008 (the most recent year this tool searched).

So we’re left with no clear picture of whether people are dropping the “with” after “fraught” more than they used to.

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But Janice isn’t the only person who’s seeing a trend.

“I’ve been aware of the word ‘fraught’ being solely used as part of “fraught with” (e.g., hostility, fear, etc.),” a poster on an internet message board wrote in 2012.

“Lately, I’ve heard NPR reports refer to situations being ‘fraught’ not followed by the word “with” — seeming to imply a stress-filled or contentious situation,” according to the poster.

“What was unfamiliar to me on NPR was hearing a ‘situation is fraught’ without a specific description of what it is fraught with,” another user chimed in.

So is this acceptable? Can you say something is fraught without saying it’s fraught with anguish or fraught with danger or fraught with enmity? And where can you turn to find out?

Welcome to the part of the column where I get on my soap box about a little tool called the dictionary. People think dictionaries are good only for looking up definitions and checking spellings.

However, there’s so much more. For example, if you don’t know whether the past tense of “dream” is “dreamed” or “dreamt,” you can find the answer right in the dictionary in the “dream” entry.

Dictionaries list past participles right after the main entry word for all irregular verbs. If there’s more than one, they list them all.

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So when you open a physical or digital edition of Merriam-Webster’s and scan for the verb form of the word “dream,” you’ll see “dreamed” or “dreamt,” meaning both are correct.

If you don’t see past tense forms next to a verb, it just means it’s a regular verb that’s made into the past tense the regular way: by adding “ed”: “walk” becomes “walked,” for example.

When it comes to questions like whether to put a “with” after a word like “fraught,” dictionaries don’t have a formula like the one they use for past tense forms, but they still find ways to help you with questions you may have.

Behold: “fraught, adj. 1. full of or accompanied by something specific — used with ‘with’: a situation fraught with danger … 2. causing or characterized by emotional distress or tension: a fraught relationship.”

Notice how Merriam-Webster’s includes the note “used with ‘with’” under definition 1 yet has no such note under definition 2.

This tells us that “with” is integral to how “fraught” is used when it means “full of or accompanied by.” It also tells us that, without “with,” fraught has a slightly different but clear meaning: involving emotional distress or tension.

“Fraught,” then, is correct with or without “with,” and either way the meaning is clearly spelled out right in the dictionary.

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