Prepositions and phrasals revisited
I Accidentally Turned My Dad Into Immigration Services, read an op-ed headline in The New York Times. I burst out laughing. Was the author a magician?
Whoever wrote that headline apparently didn’t know from phrasal verbs, as we say in New York. (“The phrase he doesn’t know from (something), meaning ‘he doesn’t know about (something),’ is a word-for-word borrowing . . . of a Yiddish phrase ‘Er veys nit fun,’ ” says Grant Barrett in A Way With Words.) *
But someone else did. In the Times archive, the hed has been corrected to I Accidentally Turned My Dad In to Immigration Services.
What’s the difference? Turn into is a phrasal verb meaning to transform something into something else, as a magician might (or appear to). Turn in to means to report someone to some authority, as the op-ed writer did.
A phrasal verb is a verb + adverb combination that has an idiomatic meaning. As I wrote in Prepositions and phrasals: “If a word you know to be a preposition has no object, chances are it’s being used as an adverb in a phrasal verb.” That’s the case in both versions of that headline. In the original, into is thek adverb. In the second, it’s in; to is a preposition. To whom did she turn her father in? To Immigration. And that’s why In is capitalized but to is not. Adverbs are capped in heds; prepositions are not. (How well do you know phrasal verbs? Take this interactive quiz.)
As that blog post explains, English has a lot of prepositions, and their use is highly idiomatic. A Brazilian student wrote in a Craft drill:
A 57-year-old man was killed after being shot about three dozen times inside a tombstone store in the corner of East Houston and First Avenue at 9 p.m., police said.
Idiom demands on or at the corner. Tighter and better: at East Houston Street and First Avenue, since on the corner of implies an intersection. (You can almost always tighten intersection right out of your copy: at
the intersection of East Houston Street and First Avenue.)
Much like the geographical references detailed in the post, media references are especially idiomatic in their use of prepositions. You read — or, better yet, publish your work — in a newspaper, in a magazine or in print. But you read the news on a website, watch it on TV or hear it on the radio. (Verbs can be idiomatic, too. In English we watch TV or watch a movie on TV, but in a theater we see the movie: “I went to the movies last night.” “What did you see?”)
Some languages have a single word for meanings where English has two. Case in point: as I wrote in Idiom: the advanced course, French has one word — faire — that can mean either make or do, which explains why French students often write about making research when they should say doing. Similarly, in French the preposition a (with an accent grave, which WordPress does not supply) can mean either at or to. In French, you allez a Quelqueplace — go (to) Somewhere — and arrivez a Quelqueplace — arrive at it. In English, you go to but arrive at.
Speaking of make, one phrasal that is seen and heard everywhere nowadays but still makes me cringe is make for, in its second meaning on Merriam-Webster: “to cause (something) to happen or to be more likely.” From The Times, on the Sydney Opera House:
Years ago, the hall installed clear plastic doughnuts above the stage to push the sound outward, but the highly reflective stylings of the interior and the large size of the hall still make for a sonic mess.
Or the old saying Many hands make for light work. Actually, it’s Many hands make light work. It long predates the popularity of make for, which I don’t recall hearing much before the 1990s. My argument against make for is that make is a transitive verb — one that takes a direct object — and thus the preposition for is superfluous, making make for wordy and sloppy. (A late-breaking parallel to support that argument: an international student wrote that during World War II “people craved for information and relief.” Crave, too, is transitive, so people didn’t crave for information; they just craved it.)
* Know from also has a non-New-York meaning: to be able to tell the difference between two things. As Hamlet says: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”
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