Don’t Hate on Me, and Other Signs of Preposition Abuse

Today I want to talk about an alarming trend I’ve noticed concerning preposition abuse. I don’t know what it is about these generally small, innocuous words that bring out the bully in people. Yet I’ve seen and heard these stalwart little grammar workhorses misused time and again.

For example, take “on”.  A useful preposition, that in a reasonable world would only draw attention to itself when the writer has to decide between “up on” and “upon” (much like “in” and its dilemma of “in to” vs. “into”).

The whole mission of this tiny part of speech is to indicate the position of something relative to something else, as in “I put the diamond-encrusted collar on the cat.” Yet time and again “on” is put to the blush by being asked to define emotional relationships and perform other tasks for which it wasn’t designed.

I became aware of this problem the first time I saw the phrase “believe on the Lord.” Since then I’ve heard perfectly nice people say atrocious things like “don’t hate on me” and “Look at the way that boy loves on his mama.” What did that two-letter word do to deserve this kind of treatment?

Unfortunately, “on” isn’t the only preposition that gets abused on a regular basis. Take the aforementioned “in”.  Though I was a mere child, I remember when compound-word atrocities like “love-ins” “sit-ins” and even “be-ins” affronted my tender ears.

I also have learned that prior to the 1960s people paired “in” with various forms of the verb “to do”. The results could be sinister (“his ex-partner did him in with a tire iron”) or folksy (“I’m all done in after plowing the back 40”). Being “done in” can be likened to being “tuckered out”- and in the process another preposition is abused.

And “at” hasn’t escaped mistreatment, either. “Where it’s at” is a particularly egregious example of how a helpless little preposition can be tortured. What’s worse, it’s neither a particularly informative nor helpful phrase.

It wasn’t always thus. During the Regency, my favorite historical period, people who were literate tended to be more precise with their language. It is one of the aspects of Regency-set fiction that readers seem to particularly enjoy. And woe betide any Regency writer who has his or her characters fling prepositions around willy-nilly, without regard for their meaning and function.

Can you imagine Jane Austen allowing Elizabeth Bennet to ask Mr. Darcy to quit hating on her family just because her sisters acted silly and her mother appeared encroaching? Or explain to him why she felt obliged to love on them, even when they embarrassed her?

As a preposition-abuser might say, just think on that!

These clearly perturbed Regency gentlemen may be in the throes of trying to determine “where it’s at”.



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