42. Unnecessary Prepositions

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Preposition Temptation

Preposition Temptation

Some verbs are often given an unnecessary following preposition. It may be helpful to know which they are and why this error occurs

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THE ERROR OF THE UNNECESSARY PREPOSITION

Unnecessary prepositions appear quite often in the speech or writing of advanced learners of English. They tend to come between certain active verbs and any noun or pronoun placed after them as an “object” (objects are explained in the Guinlist post 8. Object-Dropping Errors). The verb LACK is a typical verb often given an unnecessary preposition:

(a) Poverty exists when people lack … the necessities for life.

The preposition that is often wrongly added here is of. In this post I wish to provide a list of verbs like LACK that often tempt learners to add an unnecessary preposition, and to suggest some reasons why the need to add an unnecessary preposition is so often felt.

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NECESSARY AND UNNECESSARY PREPOSITIONS

Before looking at the list of problem verbs, it is important to appreciate that many verbs in English do actually need a preposition with them. These are what grammar books often call “prepositional” verbs. Here are some examples:

(b) Plants depend on water.

(c) Many elderly people have to cope with disability.

It is normal to say that here the prepositions on and with are parts of the verbs depend on and cope with, so that the following nouns water and disability are the verbs’ objects. Prepositions like this are different from ordinary prepositions that introduce an adverb-like phrase after a verb, like into in this example:

(d) The Nile flows into the Mediterranean Sea.

Here the verb is only flows: the preposition into “belongs” to the noun after it. Linguists have some ways of deciding which of these two different preposition uses exists at any particular time, but I will not go into those here. Other Guinlist posts that touch on the idea of prepositional verbs are 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1,  35. “To do” versus “To doing” 44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs,  84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions 108. Formal and Informal Words,  123. Prepositional Verbs Containing a Noun and 139. Phrasal Verbs.

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VERBS THAT ARE COMMONLY GIVEN AN UNNECESSARY PREPOSITION

The existence of prepositional verbs in English is undoubtedly a major part of why some verbs are wrongly given a following preposition. Here is a list of non-prepositional verbs that are often taken to be prepositional, but mixed in with them are a small number that really are prepositional. The reader may wish to test his/her knowledge of preposition use by trying to identify the true prepositional verbs in the list:

(1) ACCESS, (2) AFFECT, (3) AWAIT, (4) COMPRISE, (5) CONFRONT, (6) CONTACT, (7) CONTRADICT, (8) CORRESPOND, (9) DEMAND, (10) DISCUSS, (11) DISPOSE, (12) EMPHASISE, (13) EQUAL, (14) INFLUENCE, (15) INHABIT, (16) INVESTIGATE, (17) LACK, (18) OBEY, (19) OPPOSE, (20) REACH, (21) REQUEST, (22 ) RESEARCH, (23) RESEMBLE, (24) RESPECT, (25) SEEK.

All of the verbs in this list are non-prepositional except the eighth and the eleventh (which take to and of). This means that with the other 23 any following preposition is wrong – the object of the verb must be the next thing said.

If the correct use of any verb in the list above comes as a shock to you, it is worth noting in order to avoid future error.

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POSSIBLE REASONS FOR UNNECESSARY PREPOSITIONS

There seem to be various possible reasons for the use of unnecessary prepositions like of after lack, about after discuss and on after emphasise.

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1. Verbs that Look Like Nouns

The word lack can be both a verb and a noun. When it is a verb, it needs an ordinary object without a preposition. When it is a noun, the same object of the verb can still be mentioned but now it has to be placed after the preposition of (see 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1). Compare:

(e) VERB: The investigation has been dropped because the police LACK evidence.

(f) NOUN: The investigation has been dropped owing to A LACK OF evidence. 

Other verbs in the earlier list that can also be nouns without a change of spelling are RESPECT, REQUEST, DEMAND, RESEARCH, INFLUENCE, CONTACT, and ACCESS. Their respective object prepositions are for, for, for, into, on, with and to. Surprisingly, none of these is the regular object preposition of. Unsurprisingly, these are the usual prepositions that are used unnecessarily when the above words are verbs. 

In addition to the verbs listed above, it is possible that AFFECT and RESEMBLE acquire their unnecessary prepositions from their related nouns (an effect on, a resemblance to). The verb EQUAL should be mentioned too: its unnecessary preposition perhaps comes more from a related adjective (is equal to) than from the noun equality to (see 66. Types of Passive Verb Meaning for more verbs that look like adjectives).

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2. Verbs that Have a Prepositional Synonym

The other verbs in the first list above (AWAIT, COMPRISE, CONTRADICT, DISCUSS, EMPHASISE, INVESTIGATE, REACH and SEEK) can all be matched with a prepositional verb that means the same thing: WAIT FOR, CONSIST OF, CONTRAST WITH, TALK ABOUT, FOCUS ON, LOOK INTO, COME/GET TO and LOOK FOR. The prepositions in this second list are exactly the ones that are often used unnecessarily with the verbs in the first, suggesting that the synonymous verbs may be causing the unnecessary prepositions.

A further possible cause of the error with COMPRISE is that its passive, which needs of before a following noun, means the same as the active (see 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1). For a common use of COMPRISE, see 162. Writing about Categories.

The possibility of synonyms leading a word to be used incorrectly is considered more extensively in this blog in the posts 10./140. Words with Unexpected Grammar 1/2.

Many other pairs of prepositional and non-prepositional synonyms can be identified in English. I present some below in a smaller version of a matching exercise whose original is in my book Grammar Practice for Professional Writing. Again, any of the non-prepositional verbs which tempt the use of a preposition should be noted for future reference.

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3. Verbs whose Derived Noun cannot Have “of”

A very striking feature of the problem verbs listed above is that the nouns derived from them rarely have of before an object-like noun, despite this preposition being the most typical after “action” nouns (cf. a lack of in [f]). I think this could help explain why these verbs are often given an unnecessary preposition.

To understand why, it is first necessary to appreciate that many nouns that do not have of before an object-like noun are derived from a prepositional verb, and normally need the preposition of that verb instead of of (see 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1). Thus, dependence, derived from DEPEND ON, needs on, reference, from REFER TO, needs to, and application, from APPLY FOR, needs for.

The problem is that the reverse of this rule is not true: although many nouns with a preposition other than of correspond to a verb that also needs this preposition, quite a few – demand, discussion, emphasis, influence, investigation, etc. – do not. And you cannot predict which nouns are which, but simply have to memorise them. As a result, writers not sure about whether a particular noun’s non-standard preposition can be used with its corresponding verb will probably just guess sometimes that it can, on the basis of the number of nouns that actually are derived from prepositional verbs. Their assumption will sometimes be right, but unfortunately it will also sometimes be wrong.

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4. Verbs that can be both Prepositional and Non-Prepositional

Some verbs vary in their need for a preposition, depending on their meaning. Examples are APPROVE, which may or may not have of (see 44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs) and CONFRONT, which sometimes needs with (see above). Such verbs can cause prepositions to be wrongly left out as well as wrongly put in.

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PRACTICE EXERCISE: PREPOSITIONS AFTER VERBS

The following exercise involves two lists, one of verbs that must or can have a preposition and one of verbs that cannot. Each verb means roughly the same as one of the verbs in the other list. Readers are invited to find the matching pairs. Answers are provided at the bottom.

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PREPOSITIONAL VERBS:  ASK FOR,  LIVE IN,  EQUATE TO,  CORRESPOND TO,  AMOUNT TO,  COMPLY WITH,  APPROVE OF,  APPEAL TO,  OBJECT TO,  LOOK FOR.

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NON-PREPOSITIONAL VERBS:  LIKE,  SEEK,  OPPOSE,  REQUEST,  OBEY,  TOTAL, ATTRACT,  INHABIT, EQUAL,  MATCH.

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ANSWERS:  ask for/request;  live in/inhabit;  equate to/equal;  correspond to/match;  amount to/total;  comply with/obey;  approve of/like;  appeal to/attract;  object to/oppose;   look for/seek.

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4 thoughts on “42. Unnecessary Prepositions

  1. I think the list of verbs that do not need preposition is not complete. Solicit, advocate and continue or discontinue should be included. Here the prepositions are inherent in the verbs. For example. When you solicit you are asking for something. Therefore SOLICIT would not necessarily take preposition FOR. Same goes for advocate. And for DISCONTINUE there is no need for WITH. Example is … Discontinue the case and not discontinue with. I stand to be corrected anyway!

    • Thanks for these valuable observations! You are right about SOLICIT and ADVOCATE, but CONTINUE is one of those verbs that can be used either with or without a preposition (“with”), depending on the meaning. The two meanings are explained in my post 44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs.

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