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Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014 12:01 am

All for one – and ‘for’ for all

The rise of the all-purpose preposition

 

These days, the editor’s desks of most newspaper and web news outlets are occupied by the very tender bottoms of bright boys and girls who are younger than some of my house plants. These are the people who are writing the headlines to our news reports, which means they are the people who are responsible for a trend that I, as a wordsmith, find baffling. If a computer file can be said to bulge, mine bulges with examples of the use of the word for as a sort of one-size-fits-all preposition.

Here are a few instances that I’ve saved from various newspapers, blogs, search engines and the like over the past couple of years.

For used instead of about: “Complaints pour in for Lady Gaga’s X Factor show;” “News for community Chevy Chase.”

For used instead of with: “A Highland Park teenager was taken into custody this morning after a judge set bail at $50,000 in connection for a Labor Day crash.”

For used instead of of: “Official site for Wright’s landmark 1902 design in Springfield, Illinois;” “Origins for names of Illinois counties;” “Profile for Champaign, Illinois;” “Childless men at greater risk for heart disease.”

For used instead of to: “Mixed reaction for new Apple iPhone.”

For used instead of in or by: “The 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee that was documented for the movie Spellbound.”

Not only does one see for used when it shouldn’t be, it sometimes isn’t used when it should be, as in this 2011 headline in the Chicago Tribune describing “mixed reviews to Evanston’s proposed ban on paper and plastic bags.”

There are lots of things I find annoying about American prose and speech; the near-universal misuse of disinterested to describe someone who is uninterested is a good, or rather a bad, example. I can’t approve of it, but I understand why people get the two words confused. I also understand that this is America, and we apply the same standard to prose that we apply to constitutionality or government budgets or child-rearing, which is, Close is good enough. And, yes, I understand that popular usage is a growing, ever-changing thing – like flu viruses.

But prepositions mean something specific within a sentence; that’s why English has so many of them. Use the wrong one and you not only break a rule, which is not important, you confuse the meaning of the sentence – which is very important indeed.  

Here’s a headline from a California paper describing the impending move next year of the San Francisco Forty-Niners into a new stadium after 53 years. The headline read, “Nostalgia can’t dim excitement for new stadium.” I’ve heard of “smart” buildings, but I didn’t know they can build stadiums that get excited, too, although if anyone can, it would be Californians.  

“This narrow road is near the law courts and Inns of Court, so most of the shops cater for the legal profession.” I have walked the roads near law courts and Inns of Court, and I can tell you that the shops there sell wigs and robes and suits; they clearly cater to the legal profession, but unless English lawyers eat their hats, they do not cater for it.  

To hardcore descriptivists, none of this matters. In their view, if most people use “for” in these ways, the use of for in these ways is correct. I say this is hooey, for the same general reason that saying something is “literally” this or that when it literally is not demeans the language. The object of writing (especially journalistic writing) is to describe how things really are.

That said, let me add that I am not a hardcore prescriptivist either. (For example, I don’t think that splitting infinitives is as dangerous as splitting atoms.) The test in all cases is whether the deviation from the rule enhances or confuses meaning in particular instances, and thus whether it sustains or subverts the marvelous variety and flexibility of the England language. Splitting an infinitive compromises neither meaning nor the language; muddling one’s prepositions this way does.

The answer to this puzzle lies in the ways our young people learn English. I realized that when I realized that what I was reading in the papers and on the web was exactly the sort of error I hear when listening to novice English speakers. Americans of school age read as if deciphering a foreign language – not because it is English, but because it is written. Spoken English, unfortunately, is too slapdash, too ephemeral, to make the impression on the hearer that written English makes on the reader. The latter learns the subtle differences between prepositions by seeing them used appropriately, the way an apprentice woodcarver learns which knife to use to fashion a particular curve – by watching someone do it who knows how.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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