January 28, 2007

Prepositional cannibalism

In reference to my post on "More missing prepositions" (1/27/2007), Jan Freeman sent this PS:

Forgot to mention that Fowler 1926/1965 calls this phenomenon "cannibalism" ("That words should devour their own kind is a sad fact"), with examples of disappearing "to," "more," "in," etc. I don't think I've ever seen it mentioned elsewhere in the usage literature, though.

We're talking about examples like "Kcat, as she is known to her friends", which arguably should be "Kcat, as she is known to her friends as". And "cannibalism" is an infinitely better term for this phenomenon than "morphosyntactic haplology", which is what I called it in yesterday's post.

A bit of internet search uncovers the fact that this term was echoed by Sir Ernest Gowers, "The Complete Plain Words: A guide to the use of English" (1954), in a chapter entitled "Troubles with prepositions":

(ii) Cannibalism by prepositions.

Cannibalism is the name given by Fowler to a vice that prepositions are specially prone to, though it may infect any part of speech. One of a pair of words swallows the other:

Any articles for which export licences are held or for which licences have been applied.

The writer meant "or for which export licences have been applied for", but the first for has swallowed the second.

To see what Sir Ernest is getting at, we need to focus on the second of the disjunctive relative clauses:

articles [ for which export licences have been applied ]

and note that a fully explicit, main clause version of the relative clause would have to be something like

export licenses for [those articles] have been applied for

from which one of the two instances of for has been lost in transit. Or alternatively, as Fowler's term suggests, one for has eaten the other.

For lagniappe, Sir Ernest starts his section by quoting Dean Alford's (mildly sexist but still amusing) argument against the preposition-stranding "rule":

Nearly a hundred years ago Dean Alford protested against this so-called rule. "I know", he said, "that I am at variance with the rules taught at very respectable institutions for enabling young ladies to talk unlike their elders. But that I cannot help."

And he also quotes what he takes to be the winner of the "the championship of the sport of preposition-piling" (Morris Bishop in the New Yorker, 27th September, 1947):

I lately lost a preposition
It hid, I thought, beneath my chair
And angrily I cried, "Perdition!
Up from out of in under there."

Correctness is my vade mecum,
And straggling phrases I abhor,
And yet I wondered, "What should he come
Up from out of in under for?"

Perhaps this will redeem him, in Geoff Pullum's eyes, for using the term "phrasal verb":

Sometimes, when the final word is really a verbal particle, and the verb's meaning depends on it, they form together a phrasal verb—put up with for instance—and to separate them makes nonsense.

(Geoff quite properly objects to this term -- see p. 234 of CGEL for the details -- on the grounds that the verb+preposition combinations do not form constituents in modern English.)

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 28, 2007 12:47 PM