Style Patrol: Prepositions Are Creeping Up on Us | Live Culture

Style Patrol: Prepositions Are Creeping Up on Us


  • Brad Calkins

What's wrong with these sentences?

Maisie is obsessed with prom, so she volunteered to head up the decorations committee.

Every morning I rise up and brush my teeth.

When she makes an omelette, she adds in feta and fennel for an unusual flavor.

He despised the ruling regime, so he joined up with the resistance.

When Frank knelt down to look, he could see the floor was strewn with crack vials.

I'm guessing most readers don't see anything "wrong" here. When I edit stories for the paper, I see constructions like those bolded above all the time. And they're not incorrect — not in the sense that verb-with-preposition constructions such as "The desert lacks of water" and "We discussed about trade policy" are incorrect (for more examples of those errors, see here). All the verb forms above are familiar in colloquial English.

What they also are, in my view, is unnecessary. Cluttering. And more and more common in journalism and other writing.

Specifically, it's the prepositions that are redundant. All the above verbs can be used with the above prepositions, but in most contexts they mean the same thing when you use them solo.

Consider the verb to head. According to Webster's, one of its meanings is "to be the leader of (something)." When you say "He heads the Securities and Exchange Commission" and "He heads up the Securities and Exchange Commission," you're saying the same thing.

Or kneel. Again according to Webster's, one meaning of the verb is "to move your body so that one or both of your knees are on the floor." So why is it necessary to specify that you're kneeling down? (NB: I have seen the phrase "kneel up" used to mean rising from a sitting position to a classic kneeling one. In that case, it makes sense, because you're going against the usual sense of the word: to lower oneself onto one's knees [or to rest there]. When comic-book villains say, "Kneel before me!", kneeling up is not what they mean.)

Rise Up is a great name for an activist organization or a bakery, and a nice, rhythmic way to exhort people to fight the power ("Rise up and cast off your chains!") But have you ever heard of something rising down? The sun doesn't have to rise up in the morning. It can just rise, as can bread, balloons, lazy sleepers, etc.

Same with raise — it denotes upward motion or lifting. Unless you want to emphasize the direction or give your sentence a better rhythm, you don't need up. Nor do you need down every single time you use the verb fall.

You can add ingredients to your recipe without adding them on or in. You can join an organization without joining up with it. You can follow someone without following along after her — if you were walking in front of her, you wouldn't be following, would you?

And here's an odd phrase I saw recently in a rough draft: "distribute up among," as in "The funds raised will be distributed up among the needy." Just say no to this. "Distributed to the needy" or "distributed among the needy" is fine.

Sure, it's a teensy, tiny problem involving teensy, tiny words. But this is the kind of stuff editors notice — because we see patterns.

I was going to call this needless-preposition trend "preposition creep," but it turns out blogger Ben Yagoda of the Chronicle of Higher Education is already making good use of that phrase. For him, it describes the shifts in our common usage of prepositions with verbs over time: for instance, "obsessed by" becomes "obsessed with" becomes "obsessed on." (I personally still consider the last phrase an abomination, but President Obama used it, so...)

Perhaps my kind of preposition creep — the adding of redundant prepositions — is a related phenomenon. Why do we add (not add on) these prepositions, anyway? Maybe we do it for emphasis, or because we like the rhythm of the extra syllable(s). Or because that's how we talk — with lots of filler — and our speech style bleeds into our writing style. Or maybe we just want to make our 1500-word quota for a feature story any way we can.

Or maybe there's a meaningful distinction between "head" and "head up" that's escaping me. As always, I welcome comments and feedback — do you use these constructions? Why or why not? Do you think it's OK for editors to give them a merciless red-pen treatment?

Join the crusade against preposition creep now! Because doesn't "Join up with the crusade…" sound kind of … wishy-washy?

Next month: Is the lay versus lie distinction a lost cause?

Style Patrol is a monthly blog column for word nerds.