Go into a room full of prepositions and they may not easily let you go. I did that two weeks ago, and the pesky creatures, words like by, with or from, are still buzzing round my brain. There are endless curiosities to be found among English prepositions.
Not that to grammarians they are all prepositions. The on in put your money on the table is a preposition; but in put on your clothes itís an adverb. But one name is enough here.
Letís first see off some nonsense. Pedants argue that one must say in the circumstances, not under them, since the Latin circum means around, not over. Their Latin is right, their rule is fiction: I prefer in, but under is more common, and in fact older. Either word is fine.
Thereís a similar ďruleĒ for between. Strictly speaking, you can be between two things or places or the devil and the deep sea, but must be among three or more. Thatís sound advice in general: who would say between all his plays, I like Hamlet best? And it has a solid base: between has the same roots as two or twin. But it is no rule. Between his mother-in-law, his wife and his daughter, he had a hard time: thatís simple, itís natural, and among would sound very odd there.
Or take if I had to choose between India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Iíd pickÖ You could say among, but between is far more natural. Or the old idiomatic phrase ó dying, but not yet dead ó between you, me and the gatepost, meaning confidentially, since gateposts have no ears. To say among there would be not just pedantic but absurd.
Back in the real world, the nuances of prepositions are astonishing. Take up (more often an adverb, in fact, than a preposition). Straightforwardly you can go up a hill. But you can also go up to some big city, however level the road, or, in Britain, go up to Oxford or Cambridge University ó indeed in the past, simple go up could mean just that, with no mention of the institution or its whereabouts, while to be up meant you were an undergraduate there. You can be up to a task or, quite differently, up to mischief; at my old school to be up to Mr X meant you attended his classes. Your psyche or temperature can be up or down, those words serving in effect as adjectives.
You can put up with someone, whether tolerating him or lodging with him. You can think up, dream up, call up, beat up, add up, give up, feed up, ring up, or hurry up; pull up, knock up, take up or look up in at least two common senses; make up or hold up in at least three. And much, much more; all provided you wake up and get up.
Whatís odd about this medley of ups is that the word often lacks its basic meaning, at times any meaning at all: it merely gives a special sense to the verb, indeed occasionally (as in beat up) could be left out entirely. Thatís notably true too of off, which also can be linked to many verbs; and, if less so, of some other prepositions. In most of those Latin verbs prefixed by some preposition, the latter does add its own sense, and thatís true of the English verbs derived from these: someone dejected is cast down, something injected is pushed in. Not so, it seems, when English reflects its Germanic roots; though, alas, I know too little German (which, like Latin, sticks the added preposition on the front of the verb) to suggest why not.
Odder still is that the correct use of these essentially trivial words is a mark of someone who knows English really well. Many people for whom it is their mother tongue fail at that; even such should-be literate ones as us journalists, as I lamented two weeks ago. I have every sympathy with those who had to learn the language at school, and arenít perfect in it ó and deep admiration for those who also had to but are.