Some syntax variations in English evoke practically the same sense

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Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

This very interesting question about English preposition usage was raised in Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently by Miss Mae, a Middle East-based member:

“Why should there be no ‘in’ between the words ‘speaking’ and ‘English’ in the first sentence below but nothing between the same words in the second sentence?

“(1) ‘The last time I was heard speaking English fluently was when my grade-school assistant principal visited me in the ICU.’

“(2) ‘But that incident made me conscious of a divide between Filipinos who prefer speaking in English and those who prefer speaking in Tagalog.’”


My reply to Miss Mae:

Let’s analyze both sentences.

In Sentence 1 above, the preposition “in” is not used between “speaking” and “English” because there, “English” is being used as an adjective modifying the gerund “speaking.” The sense implied by “speaking English fluently” is that the speaker does it as a matter of course.

In Sentence 2, on the other hand, “in” is used between “speaking” and “English” and between “speaking” and “Tagalog” because in both instances, “English” or “Tagalog” is being used as object of the preposition “in.” The sense implied is that the speaker has a choice of speaking either in English or Tagalog—a sense that is made inevitable by the verb “prefer,” which makes “in” functionally necessary to link the verb with the alternative object “English” or “Tagalog.”

In informal English, however, these grammatical distinctions often get blurred without causing sentence dysfunction. In Sentence 1, without raising quizzical eyebrows, the phrase “speaking English fluently” can also use “in” to yield practically the same sense: “The last time I was heard speaking in English fluently was when my grade-school assistant principal visited me in the ICU.”

So with knocking off the “in” in the phrases “prefer speaking in English” and “prefer speaking in Tagalog” in the second sentence: “But that incident made me conscious of a divide between Filipinos who prefer speaking English and those who prefer speaking Tagalog.”

Indeed, English has the flexibility and tolerance for such minor deviations in syntax in evoking the same sense, so they really shouldn’t cause us to lose sleep.

Rejoinder by Miss Mae:

“If the reason why there is no ‘in’ between the words ‘speaking’ and ‘English’ is that the latter was used as an adjective, then why is there also no ‘in’ between the words ‘live’ and ‘is’ in the sentence below?

“‘About 140 kilometers away from the city where I live is Dubai.’”

My explanation:

There’s no need for the preposition “in” in that sentence because in the phrase “where I live is Dubai,” the noun “Dubai” is actually not an object of the preposition but the subject of the sentence. You see, that sentence is what’s known as an inverted sentence, the normal construction of which is this: “Dubai is about 140 kilometers away from the city where I live.” Here, “Dubai” is the subject followed by the linking verb “is” and the subject complement “about 140 kilometers away from the city where I live.”

But here’s a corollary question: Can the preposition “in” hypothetically be used in that original sentence of yours? Yes, but that “in” would need an object of the preposition, say “my Filipina friend,” to function properly, as in this sentence: “About 140 kilometers away from the city where I live in with my Filipina friend is Dubai.”

In that form, though, “live in” becomes a prepositional idiom that could mean “to live in one’s place of employment” or “live in another’s home” or, in the derogatory sense, to “cohabitate” or live with a member of the opposite sex without benefit of marriage.

Of course, that inverted sentence would be much more readable if also rendered in the normal form: “Dubai is about 140 kilometers away from the city where I live in with my Filipina friend.”

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

j8carillo@yahoo.com

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1 Comment

  1. Do these people really get paid for talking like this. No wonder we have so many problems in this country. Pretty soon you will have the loony left starting on racism, like using the word blacboard , thats what we used in classrooms when i was a child & we never thought of it as racism, Then they will say manhole cover, its sexist. Ive known it as a manhole cover since i was a child & i never thought of it as sexist. These people should be put to hard labour not to thinking tasks as they are a polutant of the world.