I have always reserved a special affection for prepositions. I love the way they combine functionality with brevity and beauty and their capacity to effect subtle changes in meaning. I am also fascinated by the various shapes they assume and the way the uses to which they are put shift over time; and the fact that, even when closely related etymologically, they are not easily mapped from one language onto another.
In so far as prepositions serve both to concatenate weightier lexical items into meaningful phrases and as a basis—by way of affixation—for the creation of new words, they can be seen as the linguistic equivalent of the subatomic particles that invisibly glue reality together, and yet, on closer examination, are found to exhibit the oddest quirks and bizarre patterns of behavior.
This series of blog posts will look at some of my favorite prepositions from the combined perspective of someone who is both a poet and a language teacher.
‘At’ is one of the trickiest prepositions from the point of view of someone coming to English as a second language. It is one of the last things that even advanced learners manage to master and even those who begin to acquire a taste for it tend thereafter to employ it more liberally than necessary.
The reason why learners find prepositions in general—and the in/at/on distinction in particular—so difficult to acquire is that they have been schooled to think in terms of rules and exceptions, rather than in terms of flavors and patterns.
The problem with the rules and exceptions approach is that language does not work in this mechanistic way and, as a result, exceptions tend to outweigh rules, a situation that, understandably, generates nothing but frustration. Why do people say ‘in the morning,’ ‘in the afternoon’ and ‘in the evening’, but ‘at night’? And, if this is a rule, how is it that things can ‘go bump in the night’? Why do people say ‘at the weekend’ in the UK, but ‘on the weekend’ in the US?
An honest and well-meaning but somewhat facile, supercilious and unhelpful response to such reasonable questions is simply to say “Because they do. Don’t worry about it.” Many teachers these days—rightly wary of grammar books—provide just this kind of answer to students and, given that it is, objectively speaking, indisputably the ‘right answer,’ it is very tempting to do so.
Subjectively, however, such a response sends a very mixed message to the learner. On the one hand, it offers no explanation whatsoever for something the student finds troubling and mysterious; on the other it tells them that this mysterious something doesn’t matter and should not be bothered about. This is akin to telling a small child frightened by a bump in the night that such noises ‘just happen’ ‘so there’s no need to be scared.’ A non sequitur that has kept many an active young mind anxiously awake at night.
How though do we avoid sending this mixed and unhelpful message without falling back on essentially untrue (or at best highly inadequate) formal rules and explanations?
I believe the best way to do this is to learn to see language in a different way—not as a machine whose nuts and bolts need to be unpicked, but as a gourmet dish to be savored or a symphony to be enjoyed and reflected on. That way a peculiarity or an irritating exception can be reconfigured emotionally as a charming detail or pleasing discovery.
I do not—given the weight of pedagogical and social history that urges us to think, act and feel otherwise—underestimate just how difficult it is to effect such a change of mindset. But I am certain that it is the way to go and am increasingly convinced that it is the only way that people ‘properly’ learn a second language.
In this spirit, my ‘explanations’ of prepositions aim to contribute in some small way to this change. I try to use etymology, history, comparison with other languages, speculation and poetry and constant reference to everyday life to convey a ‘feel’ for the language rather than construct an abstract explanation. I attempt neither to shrug mysteries off nor explain them away.
“At” is a very ancient preposition and it crops up all over the Indo-European ‘family’ of languages at various points in space and time. Its form has suffered very little alteration over time from its ancient roots. English ‘at’ is cognate with Latin ‘ad’.
In some Germanic languages (German and Dutch, for instance) it has lost out completely to a preposition cognate with English ‘to;’ while, in the Scandinavian languages, the reverse has occurred, ‘to’ losing out to ‘at’. English, as if often the case, lies somewhere in between the Scandinavian and Continental Germanic languages. “At’ and “to” both still exist, although ‘at’ has ceded a lot of ground to ‘to’. We do not, for example, normally use ‘at’ for movement towards [but see below for a case where we do].
In neo-Latin languages ‘ad’ is still very much alive and kicking in the form of “a” and has retained both of its original meanings of ‘movement towards’ and ‘location in’ a place. In European Portuguese it is routinely used with verbs in the infinitive to convey a progressive or continuous aspect, a feature absent from Brazilian Portuguese, but a very interesting one with an intriguing parallel in English (to which I shall return later).
Like all prepositions, ‘at’ has a tendency to shift from a purely spatial meaning to adopt a temporal one as well. We thus say “at six o´clock” by analogy with “at home.” The prefix a- (in ‘away’, ‘aside’, ‘about’, ‘around’ etc.) may also be related to ‘at’, but this is more controversial and it is clearly not related in a direct fashion.
There is a strong feel to ‘at’ of something that is fixed in the ground at a specific point, and by extension at specific points in time. To my synesthetic poet’s mind, the final –t even has the sound of someone hammering a post into the earth to demarcate territory.
We are thus ‘at home’, when we are at home; and we reside at an address. By extension, the bookkeeping symbol @ (pronounced ‘at’ and used to refer to price/cost per unit), made obsolete by the advent of electronic spreadsheets, has now been universally adopted to indicate an e-mail address.
We do not, however, live “*at Birmingham”, because Birmingham is a vast sprawling conurbation surrounding us. We live in Birmingham, in the West Midlands, in England, in the United Kingdom, in Europe. Such geographical frames of reference are not specific or personal enough to merit ‘at’. They embrace us; but it is difficult for us to embrace them.
Following the metaphor of the post in the ground, ‘at’ is also the natural preposition of choice for signposting and the giving of directions. “Turn left at the crossroads.” “There are a lot of people at the bus stop.” “I’ll meet you at the library.” “The train stops at Birmingham.” (i.e. at the railway station—a point on a rail network—passengers are not at liberty to get off and wander around in Birmingham for a while before continuing their journey!)
This signposting usage extends both to time and to written or spoken text. “at the start”, “at the end” “at the bottom of the page” “at the start of his speech” etc. etc.
This may also (and it is a big MAY) explain “at night” and “at the weekend” (in UK usage). Different from morning, afternoon and evening, the night is traditionally regarded as a time of repose, when people are at home, asleep. The night is more a point of positional reference, marking one day from the next, than a period of time in which people go about their business. Ghosts, however, do not go to sleep at night; they move about in it making bumping noises. Likewise, the weekend marks one week off from the next and is a time of repose, when people are at home rather than at work.
Why then do we say “at work” meaning “at one’s place of work?” This is arguably yet another extension of the fixed-in-the-ground flavor of ‘at’. We say that we are ‘at’ a place or an institution, when we are there for some specific practical purpose for which that place or institution is designed. Worshippers are ‘at church’ worshipping; while tourists are ‘in the church’ taking selfies. “My daughter is studying at the university,” but escaped convicts are found hiding “in the university.” Yet again we get a clear flavor of fixed in space, fit for a specific purpose and emotional attachment in the case of ‘at’, while ‘in’ is enclosing, non-specific, and neutral, if not alienating.
The same principle may also apply loosely to a wide range of fixed phrases: “at peace,” “at war”, “in doubt,” “in despair”, “at rest”, “in confusion”, but this may be a speculation too far.
There are some cases where ‘at’ retains its older meaning of ‘movement towards’. These are confined to prepositional and phrasal verbs and always overlaid in some way with something of the fixed in the ground flavor I have outlined above.
If I throw a ball to someone, I intend them to catch it; but if I throw a ball at someone, I intend to hurt or startle them. In the first case, I am, to some extent, at least temporarily, relinquishing ownership of the ball and it leaves my emotional space and enters that of another. But in the latter, I am using the ball to invade their emotional space or co-opt them into mine—telling them, in contemporary colloquial parlance, “where I am at.” Likewise, if I talk to someone, I am having a mutual conversation or expecting them to listen to and mull over what I am saying; whereas, if I talk at them, I am merely giving orders or letting off steam, regardless of whether they are listening or likely to respond.
Finally, I turn to speculation regarding the use of a- as a prefix in English, especially the archaic use of a- plus the –ing form of the verb (a circumfix—lovely word!) to indicate continuity or persistence of action. It is not possible to say for certain whether this is related to ‘at’, in fact, it is most likely that, strictly speaking, it is not. The now largely non-productive a- prefix in English derives from the corruption and conflation of various archaic prefixes. The situation is muddied, perhaps irreparably so, by the fact that the prefix has been used in this way by various English poets and song-writers over a long period of time to produce a kind of faux archaic effect, to such an extent that it is virtually impossible to distinguish the fake from the genuine article in extant historical corpora.
But does this matter? The apparent connection between ‘at’ and the modern use of the progressive is so tantalizing it is hard not to believe that there is some truth in it. The continuous form of the verb in modern English emerged somewhat suddenly and mysteriously and most scholars now concur that it is not related to a similar Anglo-Saxon form, which had a different structure and function.
A more promising suggestion is that the form reflects a very similar one in Celtic languages. But this theory begs serious historical explanations as to why such a substrate should suddenly pop up again. Recent archaeological and genetic research and new historical methodologies have cast considerable doubt on traditional accounts of how England was populated and thereby how English developed as a language. Unfortunately it would inflate this post very greatly, if I went into all this in any detail here.
Instead, I’ll go back to intuition and feel.
Language is nothing if not perverse when looked at in terms of rules. According to Salikoko Mufwene of the University of Chicago, the functions of the present continuous in modern English can be summarized as follows:
- [I]t converts events expected to be punctual into longer-lasting, even if transient, states of affairs [e.g., “Nancy is writing a letter”];
- it [con]versely converts those states of affairs expected to last long (lexical statives) to shorter-lasting / transient states of affairs [e.g., “Tom is living with us”];
- and it simply presents those verbs whose denotations are neutral with regard to duration as in process / in (transient) duration [e.g., “The wall is cracking”], though duration is most expected of statives.
Though this explanation may appear to tie common-sense into Mobius-strip-like knots in one’s brain, it is actually the best description (objectively speaking) of the use of the form that I have so far come across. The present continuous/progressive can be used to lengthen an action that would otherwise be perceived to be punctual or very transient, shorten an action that would otherwise be perceived to be permanent or long-lasting, or convey the fact that we care about neither of the above. It can be used to produce opposite effects or to indicate the presence of neither. Wow!
I shall analyze this extensively and in a more serious manner in one of my future posts on the nature of the English verb. Here I am more interested in whether the scent of ‘at’ can be detected in any of these distinctions. “Nancy is writing a letter” could easily be an erosion of “Nancy is a-writing a letter” (a form that is attested but archaic, perhaps faux archaic) or “*Nancy is at writing a letter.” (a form that is frustratingly absent from the written record). She has her mind fixed on this activity; she is dominating it; it is not dominating her. Modern constructions such as “Nancy is good at writing letters,” although somewhat different in meaning, suggest at least, the possibility of some such connection, as do the tantalizing similarities with Celtic languages and modern European Portuguese.
As studies of etymology and historical linguistics tend to end, with all the inevitability but none of the implicit optimism of scientific papers that urge the ‘need for further research’, ‘we will probably never know.’
This is the point where science and language most radically diverge. In science, everything is potentially knowable; in language, most things will always remain unknown.