Tiny words can pose the
harshest test of one’s
English: prepositions (or
adverbs, as they may be) such
as in, on or up. I’ve been reminded of this by a curious online dispute with an Australian
He despises representative democracy, whereby, as in nearly all democratic countries, voters elect legislators to make the law. He prefers legislation by popular initiative and referendum, as used — on top of this — in a few countries such as Switzerland and some American states.
He may be expert in world politics. But not, it seemed, in English. He had averred that “the greatest crimes against humanity have occurred in representative democracies”. That, as I fear I told him flatly, is claptrap. Was Hitler’s Germany a representative democracy? Stalin’s Russia? Pol Pot’s Cambodia?
He replied that Hitler and Pol Pot, at least, were brought to power by the processes of representative democracy. Even if so, I countered, their later crimes simply did not occur “in” such democracies. He in turn sarcastically offered a list of synonyms that he could have used, such as via, through, as a result of and others.
None of which is in fact synonymous with his in. Prepositions aren’t his forte: he once urged The Economist to pay more attention to Swiss government, not American, “or is that too much to ask for” — sic — “a paternalist periodical?” Yet the real trouble, I fancy, was not one of language, but that even academics will use any handy stick to beat a dog they dislike.
But enough of this dispute. It led me to ponder the oddities of in, on, etc. Such words often double as adverbs: Christ rode into Jerusalem on (preposition) a donkey, but ride on, ride on (adverb) in majesty, as the Christian hymn goes. But they modify the verb far more than normal adverbs do. Run fast or slowly, you’re still running. But a woman may run up a shirt (or a bill), a critic run down a book, a swordsman run through his adversary, without running at all.
Up is one of the most used of these words. You can be brought up, fed up, blown up, hurried up, roughed up, beaten up, shot up, dressed up, puffed up, caught up, cut up, talked up, whipped up, sold up, swallowed up and more. Yet seldom does this up imply any upwardness. Out is another such: as in hit out, carry out, find out, work out, help out, hold out, mark out or fall out.
And, like most words, these modified verbs can have multiple meanings: his wife wept when he made up to another woman, but he made up a good story, she made up her face and they made up their quarrel.
Yet for all its flexibility, English has rules for such adverbs/prepositions. In a single issue of an Indian newspaper, I met these errors: the clouds opened up (no: people do, shops may, but when you mean rain, the clouds — or, an old cliché, the heavens — just open); the court ordered for a repoll; the panel’s power to superintendency; a jawan brought dead in the hospital.
Not that Britons never err. Nor that everything they think wrong is so everywhere. We may (I don’t) beat up our wives, Americans beat up on theirs. We see things outside our windows and put the cat out of the door. They see things outside of the window, but put the cat out the door. And usage can migrate. I was astonished to find my 1970-ish Shorter Oxford dictionary calling on time an Americanism. Yet evidently it was so once. If India’s English (or Englishes) opts for usages distinct from Britain’s, so be it.
Not that I’ll agree, not even if every academic in Australia lines up (why up?) to say so, that in can mean years after and barely related to.