Provide me food: dependent prepositions

Figs

Over the last year or so I’ve noticed some language change happening to the word ‘provide’ and how it’s used with prepositions – the words that tell you the relationship between the nouns (and pronouns).

A verb like ‘provide’ can be transitive, intransitive or ditransitive. That is, it can work:

  1. without an object (intransitive): We hope the state will provide.
  2. with an object (transitive): They provided food.
  3. with an object and an indirect object (ditransitive): They provided her with food (or They provided food to her).

The third example has the preposition ‘with’ or ‘to’, depending on what order you put the nouns in, but the rule is that the noun that comes second uses a dependent preposition, and if the recipient is the indirect object, then this element is optional.

‘Provide’ has a few dependent prepositions:

  • Provide (someone) with (something) (from #3 above)
  • Provide (something) to (someone) (also from #3 above)
  • Provide for (something or someone)
  • Provide against (something)

What I’ve been seeing recently is examples where the author clearly meant to use the ditransitive version, but didn’t add the preposition:

They provided her food.

The preposition is now missing. This changes the type of sentence it is, from being a ditransitive example to a transitive example, and changes the relationship between the nouns, therefore changing the meaning of the sentence.

The original sentence, ‘They provided her with food’ means that someone has given a woman some food.

If we take the preposition out, ‘her’ is acting possessively to modify ‘food’. It was her food, not his. Or: ‘The food that is her was provided by them.’ The focus can vary, but what’s important here is that the food is hers.

Here’s another example:

The restaurant also ensures that students provide customers service that reflects the excellent reputation the owners have built up over many years.

This sounds like it was supposed to say either ‘customer service’ or it’s a possessive that is missing its apostrophe. Was it meant to be ‘customers’ service’? If we put the preposition in, it’s clearer:

The restaurant also ensures that students provide customers with service that reflects the excellent reputation the owners have built up over many years.

The reason I’m uncomfortable with the form that omits the preposition is a question of geography. It’s not acceptable in British or Australian English, but it is acceptable, apparently, in American English. Forms such as ‘provide me food’ are found in the US, which to my Australian ears just sounds like someone being lazy in saying ‘my’.

Here are some ngrams for the phrase ‘provide me (with) food’ according to English, American English and British English. It’s clear that the phrase using the preposition is much more common than without. But interestingly, the two forms are closer together in British English than in American English. Ngrams are only looking at published works, most of which will have been through some kind of editorial process and therefore will conform more closely to standard.

English1950_2008BrEnglish1950_2008AmEnglish1950_2008

I had thought that a straight internet search would show up more occurrences of the version without the prepositions, but “provide me food” returns 11,400 results, and “provide me with food” returns 84,000 results, which is approximately 7 times the results returned without the preposition.

It will be interesting to see how this changes in the coming years, but for now I’m staying with the ‘with’ team.

That which does not kill me …

I recently heard that someone had been advised against ever using the word ‘that’ in their writing. Editors are often asked to clarify rules for people who were terrorised at some point in their education about prepositions, pronouns and prose, but this one was new to me. ‘That’ has many functions in English, so many that I felt anyone trying to speak or write without it would come across as if the reception were breaking up.

‘That’ can be all kinds of trouble to a writer because it can function as:

  • a demonstrative adjective (you’ll see in that magazine)
  • a demonstrative pronoun (hey, look at that!)
  • a relative pronoun (I had dinner at the restaurant that everyone was raving about)
  • a conjunction (we know that she is in cahoots with him)
  • an adverb (she was that mad!)

It turns out that the advice was about preferring ‘which’ over ‘that’ in the case of relative pronouns, under the assumption that the former was more correct in writing, and the latter should be reserved for speech. This idea was described as ‘a supposed, & misleading, distinction’ by Fowler in 1926. He explained the different frequency of their use as evidence of more complex structures in writing, where more peripheral information is packed into a single sentence, than is usual in speech, where people tend to keep sentences simple and add information by making new sentences.

The most common problem with that/which is in defining versus non-defining relative clauses. Consider these two sentences:

The women in my class, who are doctors, are left-handed.

The women in my class who are doctors are left-handed.

Non-defining clause

The first of these is an example of a non-defining clause. That is, the part in the middle that is set off from the rest by the commas does not ‘define’ the first part. It’s just an extra piece of information. My main statement is that ‘the women in my class are left-handed’. As it happens, they are also all doctors. Non-defining clauses are always set apart from the main clause by a pair of commas.

Defining clause

The second example shows a defining clause. In this case, there are some women in my class, but only some of those women, the ones who are doctors, are left-handed.

When you’re talking about people you use the relative pronoun ‘who’. But what if you’re talking about inanimate objects? Then you have a choice between ‘that’ and ‘which’:

Non-defining: The books in my house, which are fiction, are very old.
(can only use ‘which’ here, and the additional information is set off with commas)

Defining: The books in my house that are fiction are very old.
(can use either ‘which’ or ‘that’)

In the first example, my main statement is that all of my books are very old. It happens that they are also all fiction. In the second example, I’m making a statement that only the fiction books in my house are very old.

The rule is that you can’t use ‘that’ for a non-defining clause, but you can use ‘which’ in either defining or non-defining clauses. So in that second example we could have said ‘The books in my house which are fiction are very old’ and it would have meant the same thing. Fowler lamented in 1926 that it would be much clearer if we all agreed to use ‘which’ only for the non-defining clauses and always use ‘that’ for the defining clauses, but it’s just not the way the world is.

After editing many reports with complex sentences that contain relative clauses, which can make a sentence long and unwieldy, I agree with him completely.

References and other sources

Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.

Grammar Girl on ‘that/which’

OWL at Purdue on relative pronouns

For the love of verbs

It may seem an odd thing to name a favourite part of speech. They’re all necessary, aren’t they? It would be like saying, ‘My favourite position in football is striker,’ or ‘My favourite ingredient in chocolate cake is cocoa.’ Although editing is as much about the game as the individual players, as much about the cake as the ingredients, I find that in fiction writing I am engaged by verbs and in corporate writing I often reinstate verbs to give them back their power.

In fiction

One thing I love about verbs is how quickly they can capture an image and convey it to a reader.

Take this example:

Ron had to leave. All the aunts and uncles begged him to stay, but he slowly extricated himself from the lounge chair, made his way into the kitchen where he left his cup and saucer on a bench, then out to the passageway. Some of the aunts followed him, and the uncles, having risen more slowly, took the shortcut from the lounge room out to the front door. Ron put his hand on the doorknob and turned as his relatives bottlenecked behind him, all reaching for a kiss or a handshake or shoulder clap. He opened the door a wedge, squeezed through and burst out into the sunlight.

In this piece the word ‘bottlenecked’ evokes the sensations of crowding together into a narrowing space, and of still more people coming from behind, adding to the pressure that results in Ron ‘bursting’ out of the house.

Another example comes from Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. The main character, Tony, is describing his teenage years and how his parents and those of his friends repeatedly warned them about the dangers of drugs and peer group pressure and of getting girls pregnant, when they can barely hope to have girls look at them and are getting up to none of the shenanigans their parents are worried about. He says:

How far their anxieties outran our experiences.

The verb ‘outran’ here evokes two streams of action: the one that is actually happening in the lives of the boys, and the one that is happening in the minds of their parents. Had Barnes said, ‘How much worse were their anxieties than our experiences’ (using the verb ‘to be’) the image would have been shapeless and powerless.

In corporate writing

Understanding how verbs work can improve corporate writing too. Although a verb is just one of the links in the chain that is a sentence, this part of speech does have some special qualities. To start with, you can have a one-word sentence consisting only of a verb. ‘Run!’

But most sentences consist of at least a subject and a verb. A subject is a noun or noun phrase: it’s what we’re talking about; and the verb (marked here in italics) is saying something about the actions or state of that noun.

‘Imogen runs.’

Here ‘Imogen’ is the subject of the sentence.

A subject can be longer than this and include all kinds of other information about Imogen.

‘The girl named Imogen runs.’

‘The girl with the dark hair named Imogen runs.’

‘The girl with the dark hair named Imogen, whose brother rides a bicycle beside her, runs.’

The problem of long subjects

You can see that subjects can be very long, and a reader can soon feel lost until they get to the bit that tells us what is going on here: the verb. For this reason I like to think of the verb as the pivot in a sentence. All the time we’re reading the subject we’re having to store information in our minds to make sure we can relate it to the verbal pivot that we know is coming up.

This kind of structure is very common in corporate writing:

‘The government committee for the awarding of corporate citizen medals and other social engagement activities was disbanded.’

We don’t get to the verb here until close to the very end of a long sentence. It would be an easier sentence to understand if we moved the verb closer to the front:

‘The government disbanded the committee that was for the awarding of corporate citizen medals and other social engagement activities.’

(The other problem with this sentence is the passive structure, a topic that deserves its own post.)

The problem of nominalisations

In corporate writing, verbs are often nominalised, or turned into nouns. A weak verb is inserted to replace the strong verb, and the whole sentence is weakened. You can often remove a lot of superfluous words when you trade a weak verb for a strong one.

‘The job of the representative is promotion of our corporate brand.’

Here the verb in the sentence is the weak verb ‘is’. The noun ‘promotion’ is a nominalisation of the strong verb ‘promote’, and this structure requires adding in ‘the job of’, making the whole subject ‘the job of the representative’.

‘The representative promotes our corporate brand.’

Now there is a short subject, ‘the representative’, and a strong verb instead of a weak one. The whole sentence is more succinct.

This isn’t a recommendation to change all sentences in corporate writing to this kind of structure; to do so just introduces a new type of monotonous structure. The variety of structures possible in language is what gives it richness and subtlety. But the problems of long subjects and nominalisations are common in corporate writing and a swing back to shorter structures and strong verbs can only strengthen the communicative power of corporate writing.