For the Love of Prepositions Part 12 …in the time of coronavirus

In this time of global pestilence and need for isolation, many people have understandably been posting on social media about immunity. The preposition they use after this word or after the corresponding adjective ‘immune’ varies. Sometimes it is ‘to’, sometimes ‘from’.

I am not a prescriptive grammarian and the purpose of these blogposts is never to police the way people employ language but to reflect on the social meaning of shifting language norms… In this case, however, the precise use of terms may determine the way people perceive a lethal disease and behave in response to it. There may therefore be some justification for greater caution in this specific instance.

‘Immune to’ and ‘immune from’ are both correct but they have different meanings.

The first is a medical term. It means that your body has developed antibodies that may protect you from contracting a disease. Usually, you have developed these antibodies as a result of already having been exposed to infection. Of course, like many technical terms, it can also be used figuratively.

[1] I am immune to criticism

means ‘you can criticize me, but it doesn’t upset me’.

‘Immune from’ by contrast is a legal term. It means that a judge has decreed that you are exempt from something, usually some kind of burden or penalty. If a witness is ‘immune from prosecution,’ it means that they cannot be charged with a crime, even if they have in fact committed one. This may be the case in plea deals, for example. Again, the term can be used figuratively.

[2] I am immune from criticism

means ‘people aren’t allowed to criticize me’.

There is clearly a big difference between statement [1] and statement [2]. The latter suggests arrogance or unfair privilege; the former indicates forbearance.

The legal use of the term is much more ancient. It goes back to Latin and Roman Law. Immunology, is, unfortunately, a field of knowledge that is much younger than the legal profession. It is therefore understandable that laypeople tend to use ‘from’ in all contexts and think legalistically about issues that have nothing to do with the law. This is especially likely to occur if these issues involve relatively novel complex concepts, such as immune responses and antigens. However, in a medical context, use of ‘from’ may be misleading… fatally misleading in fact…

No-one is immune from a virus, even if they are immune to it. To suggest the former is possible at best invites complacency, at worst justifies eugenics. To expect the former invites mistrust with regard to vaccination. Both are dangerous attitudes in a time of crisis.

Of course, few who use ‘immune from’ inappropriately in this way have any conscious malign intent. However, over time, persistent repetition of such imprecise use of language nudges people unconsciously as a herd in the direction of complacency, callousness, mistrust, and lack of care.

People who do not care about language probably do not care about people either. This is a malady as insidious as any disease.

There is, however, another preposition that is used with ‘immune’, albeit far less frequently. This alternative is ‘against’.

Use of ‘against’ in this context could be conceived as wrong, if we define ‘wrong’ linguistically-speaking to mean ‘insufficiently frequent to be considered standard usage’. If, however, we define linguistically wrong as meaning ‘lacking due precision,’ there are perhaps good logical arguments in favor of a shift to ‘against’ in medical contexts. It is, therefore, no surprise that use of the phrase ‘immunity against’ is more common among scientists, especially those whose native language is not English, for whom the turn of phrase does not sound ‘strange’.  ‘Against’ is also more common with the abstract noun than with the adjective. This again suggests that it is preferred in more technical contexts.

‘Against’ has the advantage of echoing the Latin prefix used in scientific neologisms such as antibody and antigen. It also suggests the metaphor of an ongoing battle that may be won or lost, which is more appropriate than that of inviolable protection from… It would not be the first time that non-native speakers taught us how best to use the English language.

Appendix

A Brief Statistical Survey

I checked the frequency of occurrence of all three prepositions with the words ‘immune’ and ‘immunity’ in texts accessible through Google. To simplify the search, I restricted it to ‘chickenpox,’ in order to rule out non-medical uses and avoid ongoing controversies surrounding Covid-19.

The results were as follows.

  immune immunity
to 13700 (73%) 15300 (66%)
from 4510 (24%) 3290 (14%)
against 648 (3%) 4720 (20%)

 

Afterthought

Someone asked me about ‘for’. To my mind, this sounds very strange with the adjective but not with the abstract noun. I, therefore, checked the figures for this preposition. ‘Immune for’ registers a frequency of 10 (0.0%); ‘immunity for’ registers 1,900 (7.5%) in the context searched for above. This confirms my instinct and justifies not (yet) considering these as forms in standard use.

I will in future post long overdue discussions of ‘to’, ‘for’ and ‘of’ as part of this ongoing series on prepositions and my love of them.

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