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Prepositions Held for Ransom

Rosie Right

An editor at Style has complained several times about hearing the phrase held ransom. Of course this sounds terrible to most ears because it is missing a very important preposition.

As a copy editor, Rosie finds that those small words, prepositions, are some of the worst problems writers have. Not many writers leave them out altogether (thank goodness), but they often are not aware of the idiomatic usages that have developed in the language. When they are not properly used the writer's message tends to get derailed as the reader wonders what make a phrase sound so funny.

Frederick Crews, one of Rosie's favorite grammarians, has written in The Random House Handbook, Sixth Edition:

"An idiom is a fixed expression whose meaning cannot be deduced from its elements — for example put up with ... . For foreign students of English (or any other language), idioms are a continual source of worry. No amount of grammar study or knowledge of the separate meaning of put, up, and with will yield the right meaning; the idiom, like all others, must simply be learned as a unit. It is not just foreigners, however, who stumble over idioms in their writing. Every composition teacher is familiar with essays by native speakers who write I was bored of being sick or in regards to traffic (it should be bored by or bored with and in regard to or with regard to)."

Crews then gives us several ways to avoid sounding illiterate: Consult a dictionary, then study a wonderful little list of common idioms he lists below his exposition, and keep a notebook of problem expressions. His little list starts with abide ("abide by a promise, abide in a place," and the list ends with "wait at a bus stop, wait for a result, wait on a customer").

For those who are truly interested in using prepositions in idioms correctly and writing euphonious phrases, there is a paperback book that has proved very useful in Rosie's work. Published by John Benjamins Publishing Company, it is called The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations.

Talk the Talk: If Microsoft is forced to break up into several companies, they will perhaps be called the Baby Bills. Source: World Wide Words and The New York

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