134. Words with a Variable Preposition



Some words have alternative partner prepositions linked with different meanings


Choosing between prepositions depends sometimes on the meaning that we want the preposition to express (before 6.00, for example, rather than at, by, around or after), sometimes on the surrounding grammatical structure we are using (for example by after a passive verb), and sometimes on the needs of a particular partner word (see 111. Words with a Typical Preposition and 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases).

This post is about the way the first and last of these three uses can occur together; in other words it presents limited choices of partner prepositions that some words allow depending on the meaning being expressed. Examples from other Guinlist posts are for/about after sorry (see 48. Tricky Word Contrasts 1) and for/about/with after concerned (see 81. Tricky Word Contrasts 2).

The main problem with partner prepositions, whether variable or not, is that they can rarely be predicted from the basic space-time meanings that prepositions have elsewhere – they can only be learned through observation or by checking the dictionary entry for their partner word. However, words with a variable preposition, like those with a fixed one, show some helpful trends when they are grouped according to their grammatical class.



1. Adjectives

The two examples given above (sorry, concerned) are both adjectives. As indicators of emotions, they appear to fall into quite a large category of multi-preposition adjectives, other examples being delighted, happy, glad, pleased (all with about/for/with), angry, annoyed, furious, upset, disappointed (all with about/with) and anxious, embarrassed (both with about/for).

On the other hand, there are also emotion adjectives with only one preposition: surprised, amazed and shocked (all at), interested (in), bored and satisfied (with) and worried/excited (about) (as passive participles these can also have by to show an action instead of a state  – see 66. Variable Meanings of Passive Verbs – but this more grammatical use is not a “partner” preposition in the same sense).

When the preposition is variable, about is usually needed with an existing situation. For example, one could be happy (or angry, concerned, embarrassed etc.) about the performance of a football team. Even the use of about before a person directs attention to a situation involving them rather than to them as people. A rare alternative to about is at.

With after positive adjectives like happy also introduces situations, but usually when the meaning is “having” rather than “seeing”. Thus one could be happy with one’s own job and happy about another person’s. However, after negative adjectives such as angry or disappointed, with must instead be followed by a living cause of the emotion (e.g. angry with the government).

For usually goes with living things. After positive adjectives like happy, pleased and delighted it shows the speaker’s good feeling about the fortune of whoever is being mentioned. For example, if one is happy for a newly-wed couple, one is happy that they have achieved something nice. Contrast this with happy about them, which merely shows approval of their situation, regardless of whether it is good or bad.

After negative emotion adjectives, for again introduces a person, but not necessarily someone in a particular situation. Embarrassed does require this, but concerned for goes with people who are in danger of falling into a future bad situation, rather than enduring an existing one, which would be shown by concerned about. Sorry for could express sympathy for someone in a regrettable situation, but it can also be an apology for a regrettable behaviour (see 48. Tricky Word Contrasts 1).

Another kind of adjective that typically has different prepositions indicates exceptional ability. Adept, competent, effective and skilled all indicate the area of ability with either at or in, the difference appearing to be one of generality. We might say, for example, that someone is competent at equations, but competent in mathematicsClever, good and expert, on the other hand, seem mostly to have at. However, they, like all of the others, also allow with to show who or what benefits from the ability, e.g. good with children.

Other adjectives with alternative prepositions include familiar (to/with), disgusted (at/with) and responsible (to/for).


2. Nouns

Some nouns have a partner preposition in front of them, e.g. on an occasion, while others have it after, e.g. a limit on (see 111. Words with a Typical Preposition). Variable prepositions, however, seem mainly to be of the kind that follow their noun. A few examples are mentioned elsewhere within this blog in the post 78. Infinitive versus Preposition after Nouns.

In some cases, the variability of a preposition makes a contrast between all and some of something. Consider the noun news. News of an event means that the event – all of it – is the news, whereas news about it means that the event is already known about, and the news is additional information, i.e. a part of it. Other nouns like this include ignorance, knowledge, a question, an idea, a report and a statement. Sometimes one finds on instead of about, especially after a report.

Slightly different is a theory of/about. Of suggests a much more intricate theory than about. Thus a theory of gravity is a proper scientific theory attempting to explain every aspect, whereas a theory about gravity is more like a single general belief about it.

The noun difficulty uses of before the name of the difficulty (the difficulty of curing cancer), but with before something possessing it, e.g.:

(a) The difficulty with children is that they need supervision.

The same is true of a problem. However, trouble always has with, and advantage, benefit, pleasure and value, whilst combining with of in the same way as above, combine with something possessing them by means of in, usually after there is – e.g. there is an advantage in … (see 161. Special Uses of “There” Sentences).

A different type of noun with a variable preposition is of the kind derived from verbs (see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns). The variability arises if the noun is able to express two different meanings, one an action and one not (see 14. Action Outcomes and 19. Activity Locations). For example, the noun receipt, which is derived from RECEIVE, can mean either “receiving” or “something written to acknowledge a purchase”. With such nouns, it is usually found that the action meaning is followed by of (receipt of visitors), the other meaning by another preposition (a receipt for goods). Full details are in the post 31. Prepositions after Action Nouns 1.

Slightly different is the action noun an increase, which shows what increases with a following of or in, regardless of whether or not an action is being expressed (see 49. Prepositions after Action Nouns 2). The difference is in the cause of the increase: of indicates an external agent, in does not. Thus, an increase of taxes is something brought about by an agency such as a government, while an increase in taxes is vague about agency – taxes might even have increased by themselves. The former corresponds to taxes are/were increased, the latter to taxes increase(d).

The same contrast affects various synonyms and antonyms of increase, provided they have a related verb like INCREASE which can be used both with and without an object (see 4. Verbs that Don’t Have to be Passive 1). They include acceleration, expansion, improvement, intensification, cut, decrease, diminution and reduction (see 115. Surveying Numerical Data).

A special use is found with cost and its opposite value. If we wish to say what possesses a cost/value, the preposition is of (e.g. the cost of inflation). On the other hand, the sufferer of the cost needs to (the cost to the government). This use of to is similar to that with indirect objects (see 126. Verbs with an Indirect Object).

Finally, a word has to be said about research, which can be followed by in, into or on. The first of these seems normally to show the broad subject area involved (e.g. research in biology). The other two often seem interchangeable, though perhaps into shows a more precise object of research (e.g. research on primates/into primate intelligence). It is important to remember that the related verb RESEARCH is not followed by any preposition at all (see 42. Unnecessary Prepositions).


3. Verbs

Verbs with a partner preposition tend to be called “prepositional”. They are not to be confused with “phrasal” verbs (see 139. Phrasal Verbs). Sometimes their meaning changes if the preposition is dropped (see 44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs). Sometimes, though, meaning changes are linked with different prepositions. The following are of interest:

AGREE with/on/to

APPLY for/to

ASK about/for

CARE for/about

FALL for/over

FEEL for/like

GET into/on/off/over

GO into/over/through/with

HEAR about/of

LEARN about/of

LISTEN for/to

LIVE for/in/through

LOOK at/after/for/round

REPORT on/to

PLAY with/at/for/on

SEE about/through

The meaning differences can be found with a dictionary (or by clicking on an indicated link). However, CARE and HEAR/LEARN deserve comment. CARE FOR means either “like” or “provide care for”. The latter does not mean “supervise” (= LOOK AFTER) but rather “cater for health needs of”. We might say, for example, that nurses care for patients. CARE ABOUT, by contrast, means “consider important”, as in care about politics.

The difference between of and about after HEAR and LEARN is the same as that after news (see above): HEAR/LEARN OF means “become aware of”, while HEAR/LEARN ABOUT means “be told something extra about a familiar matter”.


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