A Word, Please: The prickly nature of prepositions

When I get emails from native English speakers who have questions about grammar or usage, it makes me feel useful. They're seeking the same type of information I've sought in the past, which means I'm usually in a position to help. That's a nice feeling.

But when I get questions from people who learned English as a second language, it's not always as gratifying. That's because nonnative speakers are doing something I haven't: They're navigating the elusive, sometimes impossible subtleties of the language — things one picks up, rather than learns.

Take, for example, this email I got recently: "English is not my first language, and although I have been living in the U.S. for over 15 years, there are some nuances in the English language that are hard to learn. One of the problems that I face consistently is the use of prepositions. I understand the big rules for in/on/at, but there are times that no American native can explain while one would use in, on, at, etc. 'It is just the way it is,' is what I hear from friends and family.

"What do you recommend for a foreigner who wants to learn the proper use of prepositions?" she continued. "Here are some examples: We are on campus, at school, in the classroom. We fill in the blank, we fill out a form."

I'd love nothing more than to offer this reader a simple solution for every preposition problem she might have. And I do know a couple ways to get good information — sometimes. But unfortunately, prepositions aren't always that easy.

For example, do you differ from your brother? Or do you differ with him? Do you have an affinity for your neighbor, or an affinity with her? Have you noticed an increased demand for oil, or an increased demand of it?

Is an exercise program customized to your needs or customized for your needs? Can you comment on current affairs? Or would you rather comment about them? Are you bored of the current television lineup? Or bored with it?

You may have strong opinions on some of those. Or about some of those. I certainly do. But finding official answers can be tricky — or even impossible.

"The proper preposition is a matter of idiom," writes Theodore M. Bernstein in "The Careful Writer," "and idioms, if they do not come 'naturally,' must be either learned or looked up."

Unfortunately, there is no single resource for looking these things up. The resource Bernstein was referring to was an unabridged dictionary. But, "dictionaries do not in all instances provide this kind of information," he adds.

Still, this is the best place to start. For example, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary has separate listings for both "fill in" and "fill out." When specific listings with prepositions aren't included, sometimes dictionaries will offer clues under the main word entry.

For example, Webster's New World College Dictionary's listing for "differ" includes this brief note: "often with 'from.'" That's great if you want to know whether you can use "differ from," but it doesn't help if you want to use "differ with."

Other times the dictionaries are no help. Under its listing for "dissimilar," Webster's New World doesn't offer a clue about whether you should use it with "from" or "to."

In those situations, you can check a good usage guide like Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage or Garner's Modern American Usage. But they don't have all the answers, either.

When all these sources fail you, Bernstein says, "the only thing to do is to consult three knowing friends and get a consensus."

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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