The other morning on my way in to work I passed the van of a pharmacy whose slogan is ‘Dispensing quality’, and some linguistically minded prankster had inserted ‘with’ between the two words, showing what a difference one small preposition can make.
Much of the work we are sent to proofread is written by non-native speakers of English, and prepositions tend to be a particular problem because of the differences between them in different languages.
Cause and effect or sequence of actions
Often, the influence on the meaning is negligible, so while ‘depend of’ (as in French) sounds incorrect, it won’t alter the reader’s understanding of the text. However, when it comes to cause and effect or a sequence of actions, it’s quite a different matter. For example, in a recipe for people who are gluten-intolerant or have a wheat allergy, writing ‘You can substitute rice flour with wheat flour’ could have dangerous consequences on the diner’s health, when what was meant was ‘You can substitute rice flour for wheat flour’. Similarly, in a geography text ‘the drought resulted from a famine’ is a totally different, and far less plausible, statement than ‘the drought resulted in a famine’.
The best way to get these right is probably to memorise a relevant example, following the rule that:
- to substitute A for B = A replaces B
- to substitute A with B = B replaces A
- A results in B = A causes B
- A results from B = B causes A
Different in American English than/to/from in British English
If you had your proofreading hat on while reading the section above, you may have noticed that I wrote ‘different than’, and may have tutted or winced. Traditionally, ‘from’ is the preposition that follows ‘different’ in British English (although ‘to’ is more and more frequently used), while ‘than’ is preferred in American English. So, following British conventions, I should have written something like ‘… is a totally different statement from, and is far less plausible than…’. Yet again, the British and the Americans are ‘divided by a common language’, and if we native speakers of English can’t agree among ourselves on which preposition is correct, no wonder non-native speakers struggle!
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