Distinguishing between prepositions of place and prepositions of time

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I WAS thinking of presenting some very interesting responses to my open letter last week on dubious stories in Philippine media that Filipino women have the world’s smallest breasts <http://tinyurl.com/zcxkhtj>, but an incredibly unbelievable language-related story came up in the news—that the charming July 19 Republican convention speech by Melania Trump, wife of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, had plagiarized almost word-for-word some passages from the speech of now American First Lady Michelle Obama in 2008 during the Democratic convention that nominated her husband for the American presidency.

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This is the kind of news story that every columnist on language would be loath to miss commenting on, so I immediately started jotting down notes on how that highly improbable event—an event that the writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a “Black Swan” in his nonfiction book of the same title—could have happened. But in just a little over an hour, cable news and social media began exploding in a frenzy of savage commentary about that speech. Indeed, to be honest about it, there’s hardly anything left anymore that I could write with enough enthusiasm about the topic.

It is perhaps providential that when I finally decided to pass up writing a full-length column about that controversy, a very interesting language-related subject closer to my heart came in through my Facebook account for Jose Carillo’s “English Forum.” It was this note posted by Menchu Aquino Sarmiento, former executive director of the PAL Foundation of Philippine Airlines, in a discussion thread about the agony of quitting smoking:

“Mr. Carillo, my aunt requests you to please comment on your blog, or even write directly to Philippine Airlines about the grammatical error in the use of the preposition ‘at’ on the PAL flight information channel that one can view during an international flight. On the said channel, the time is indicated thusly: ‘The time at (italics supplied) San Francisco is __.’ She worries that passengers who notice the error might think less of us as a people, even if we are not native English speakers and might be cut some slack.”

My reply to Ms. Sarmiento:

I think your aunt’s worries are entirely justified regarding the misuse by Philippine Airlines of the preposition “at” in that flight information channel: “The time at San Francisco is 8:30 A.M.” That usage is grammatically wrong because it’s clear from the sense and syntax that “at” is being used as a preposition of place and location, not as a preposition of time. It would be correct if the usage of “at” is as a preposition of time, as in “Our flight is arriving at 8:30 A.M.”

So, if “at” isn’t the correct preposition in “The time at San Francisco is 8:30 A.M.,” what should that preposition be? In American English, the prepositions for indicating place and location are “in,” “at,” and “on,” where the general rule is to use “in” for an enclosed space, “at” for a point, and “on” for a surface.

There are more specific usage rules for prepositions to establish relationships in space, and the pertinent rule in this case is to use “in” for names of specific land areas, as in “She lives in San Francisco in California”; for spaces, “She works in a Silicon Valley IT company”; for bodies of water, “She goes swimming in the lake”; and for lines, “The passengers are in a row.” (For my comprehensive four-part discussion of preposition usage, click this link to the Forum: <http://tinyurl.com/clvn9tw>).

Clearly then, the preposition for that PAL flight channel message should be corrected to “in,” as in “The time in San Francisco is 8:30 A.M.” This way, your aunt need not worry anymore that PAL passengers—Filipinos and foreigners alike—would still think that Filipinos are that deficient in their English.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com

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