As anyone learning the language will tell you (usually through gritted teeth), English is inordinately fond of peppering its vocabulary with particles – those irritating little words that get added to verbs (mostly), altering the meaning in subtle, and often unpredictable, ways.
New ones enter the language all the time and may at first appear to be redundant. As a proofreader, the difficulty (or one of them)* is in knowing which have become accepted as standard and which should be deleted.
By way of example, let’s take a look at the sentences below. Which would you say need the particle (in bold) deleting?
1) Many older people can’t afford to heat up their homes.
2) Smoking is bad for your health, but eating large amounts of sugar may be equally as damaging.
3) The trees were covered in a myriad of monarch butterflies.
4) Britain and the EU are hoping to enter into a post-Brexit trade agreement.
5) She met with the director yesterday.
6) Carbon capture is a technique for mitigating against global warming.
Hopefully, you said that in sentence 1) ‘up’ needs to go: it merely reiterates the notion of increase that is already inherent in the meaning of ‘to heat’. However, things are not as simple as they may seem. Consider the following variations:
a) Greenhouse gases are continuing to heat the atmosphere.
b) Greenhouse gases are continuing to heat up the atmosphere.
c) The atmosphere is continuing to heat.
d) The atmosphere is continuing to heat up.
To me, c) sounds incorrect, and the Oxford English Dictionary agrees that where there is no object after the verb, ‘heat up’ is used. However, I’d argue that a) also sounds slightly odd. I have no dictionary definition to prove it, but could it be that ‘heat’ is preferred for a positive, intentional action, whereas ‘heat up’ suggests a negative, unintentional one?
How about sentence 2): ‘equally as damaging’? This one grates with me, and my inner prescriptive grammarian insists that it should be simply ‘as damaging’ or ‘equally damaging’, but my niggling descriptivist side assures me that, sooner or later, it will become accepted as standard, along the lines of sentence 3), which traditionally should have been ‘a myriad monarch butterflies’ (from the Greek meaning ‘10,000’ – and not ‘10,000 of’!) but is now almost always used with the particle, presumably by analogy with ‘a lot of’.
Regarding sentence 4), most people would, hopefully, agree that with the literal meaning of ‘enter’ (for example, ‘to enter into the room’), ‘into’ would be incorrect. However, ‘to enter into’ is now accepted by the OED in the context of relationships or agreements with the meaning ‘to become involved in’ or ‘to commit to’.
For sentence 5), your instinct, as mine is, might be to cry, ‘Expunge that nasty Americanism!’ but, in fact, ‘to meet with’ usefully (and officially, now, in British English) distinguishes a prearranged business meeting from a chance encounter.
Finally, the tricky example in sentence 6) of ‘mitigate against’: I’ve now seen this one so often that it’s starting to sound correct, but dictionaries assure me that it should be just ‘mitigate’, meaning ‘alleviate’ or ‘make less severe’, and that the ‘against’ comes from a confusion with ‘militate against’, meaning ‘be a powerful factor in preventing’.
It remains to be seen what further changes the future holds, but what is certain is that the errors of today often become the correct forms of tomorrow and that language learners and proofreaders will continue to gnash their teeth as the language changes ineluctably before them.
*Another difficulty is in knowing where to put particles – but that can be the subject of a future blog post.
Share this post: