The power of prepositional idioms

Word count: 371 words

Reading time: About 1.5 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help writers. Today, I look at the book English Prepositional Idioms.

My father was a bit of a crank. Eccentric, bull-headed and verbose, he made most of us in our family feel a little crazy — when, in fact, he was the crazy one. (You may think I exaggerate; anyone who actually knew my father will back me up.)

But he wrote and he persuaded me to start writing, too. His home-based office, usually covered in dust and always rife with smoke from his ever-present pipe, held a manual typewriter, stacks of decaying newspapers and a small handful of books. One of those books was English Prepositional Idioms by Frederick T. Wood.

I found the book so useful that I bought my own copy as soon as I moved away from home. Set up like a kind of dictionary, the work begins with an alphabetical list of prepositions, starting with “about” and ending with “without.” Wood defines each one and gives several examples of use.

But it’s the next section that I find even more helpful. It, too, is an alphabetical list, but it focuses on prepositional idioms. If you’ve ever tried to learn a second language, you’ll know that idioms are words or phrases that are peculiar to a specific people, region, community, or class. In English, an example would be, “he talked down to her” — meaning that he spoke in a disrespectful or mocking way.

The idioms in this book, however, refer to the prepositions that make the word meaningful. For example, do you say consist of or consist in? In fact, both are correct but they mean different things. To consist of means to be composed of: A football team consists of eleven players. To consist in means to have as its essential nature. Tolerance consists in respecting the opinions of others.

Sadly, Wood’s book appears to be out of print now, but if you’re interested in finding a copy, check the second-hand ones on Amazon (link above) or Abebooks.

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