The Pleasures of the Preposition

There is no sin in playing with pebbles, if one does not forget their connection with the stars and the suns. It is not reprehensible to ‘study Plato for his prepositions,’ if one remains mindful of the philosophic deduction that may depend on the interpretation of παρά or ὑπò. One loving the human whimsicalities of synonyms may be excused if he sometimes turn away from the bombastic importance of the noun, the nervous insistence of the verb, the glaring ornament of adjective or adverb, to regard some of the subtleties of the humble preposition.

All word-workers have their pet prepositions, and have a critical eye for writers who do not share their regard for this or that favorite, who are careless, say, with by, or indiscriminate with in. Unhappily there exist artists who show a lively interest in the more prominent parts of speech, but who seem to have no respect for the precious connectives; who make an ugly knot when they employ a conjunction, or stitch in a preposition with a prominence that offends the pattern.

The purpose of the preposition is to point out the place of its superiors, their relation each to each, above, below,around, near; but its own place is shown by its usurping no other: its dignity consists in its obscurity. And yet the preposition is itself often so full of meaning that it requires a skillful stylist to give it all its due of significance, and at the same time confine it to its humble position.

Without the preposition, nouns and verbs, however important in themselves, might remain mere separate splashes of color or shape; it is for the preposition so to weave them into the web of the sentence that their relative positions may indicate to the full the significance of the patterned thought. Because its primary business is with placing other words, indicating each varying angle of their relation each to each, — as for example whether a thing emanates from a man or goes to him or passes through him, — the preposition is always hard to separate from its placemeaning, even with all the subtle distinctions of thought to which it may attain. Of these distinctions our adolescence, impatient of the schooling of rule and rhetoric, grows weary; but later there comes a pleasure in the play of connotation we may employ. Prepositions become picturesque with their import for our fancy. Examine in and into: into has a catapultic impact, suggests the splash of a stone thrown into the water, to be readily contrasted with the static quality of in, the stillness, the permanence of the stones, the plants, in the water. The distinction sometimes veers away from the primary difference, when, for instance, the pen hesitates in writing that the individual is merged into the whole or in the whole. To my mind, the waters of oblivion close over him with more finality if he is merged in than into. One enjoys preserving the accuracy of between and among, conscious of all the intimacy of between, all the promiscuity of among. In comparing with and comparing to, the imagination perceives an implication of social strata, since one compares a man with his fellows, in a democratic homogeneity; but in comparing him to another, one connotes the existence of a superior, an aristocracy by means of which we measure and contrast.

An instinct for niceties often leads us to turn to the greater subtlety obtainable by employing prepositions from another tongue than our own. The place element in a native preposition is likely so to persist, that one substitutes for its obtrusive literalness the greater subtlety possible to the foreign preposition from its un familiarity. Our own for and against are heavy with placesuggestion, as against the weight of pure argument inherent in the Latin pro and con. The prepositions of one’s own language never can be made utterly free of literalness. Note how in ‘under the rose’ the thought is obscured by the picture, while, in ‘sub rosa’ we instantly get the desired impression of all the whispered stealth of scandal. About the Latin circa there floats a delightful historic mistiness; circa 300 B.C. has a nebulosity not obtainable by the matter-of-fact about.

Each of us has, perhaps, his pet prepositions from alien tongues, as pleasing to his pen as his favorites of his own vernacular. Who of us has not a fondness for the dear discursive de, which long ago opened to us the pleasant paths of Amicitia and the strong selfreliance of Senectute? De, translated into its English equivalent concerning, has prefaced many a charming essay, and concerning still, whenever seen in a title, promises us entrance into all the enchanting realm of rambling.

The French à la supplies a word that social usage could hardly do without. We less gracious races need that French term, meaning ‘in the manner of,’ for manner has with us too little importance. We need to borrow from our Gallic cousins that prepositional phrase, as we need to learn, also, some of the grace that they believe should always crown conduct. We need to manage our social activities as well as our military ones more in the French fashion. Meditating on prepositions, Gallic and Latin, one remarks the adequacy of their employment in the Latin tongues, so that they weave the substance of the other parts of speech into a blended pattern, wherein they themselves remain duly obscure. What is the significance of the contrasting behavior of the German preposition, which insists that its importance shall be felt by arranging the whole sentence to meet its needs?

Does this pen-play with prepositions seem perhaps petty, as if a grown man should toss pebbles on the seashore? But perhaps the pebbles might tell him of eternity. Do we not sometimes need to remind ourselves of what is permanent? Perhaps words are more enduring than wars. There was once a man who thought it no paltry pastime to be preoccupied with words — small words at that: ‘Hoti’s business’; ‘The doctrine of the enclitic De.’ Because, refusing to be confined to the contemporary, he gave his study to language, the imperishable, a great poet thought him worthy of mountain burial in ‘A Grammarian’s Funeral.’