More Prepositional Cannibalism
Posted by Neal on November 9, 2010
“Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received.”
I stayed on the line, cleaning up the kitchen one-handed while I waited. By the time I was speaking to a real person, I had listened long enough to have heard the message at least five more times:
Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received.
It was really starting to get to me … holding the phone to my ear with one hand, clearing the table and loading the dishwasher with the other, and hearing again and again, “the order it was received.” You’re missing the final in!, I kept thinking. You don’t say
*The calls were received this order.
The calls were received in this order.
So when you lift out order to turn this clause into a relative clause, you don’t just forget about the in. Jonathon at Arrant Pedantry knows what I’m talking about. He and I are flexible here; you have more than one option for what to do with the in. You can leave it stranded at the end, the same way as you’d leave it at the end of the house I grew up in. Or you can take the in along with order, and put them both at the front of the relative clause. Summing up the choices:
Your call will be answered in the order it was received in.
Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.
Personally, even though I’m comfortable saying (and writing) in the house I grew up in, I find the stranded-preposition option kind of awkward here. I prefer the order in which it was received.
They’ve talked about this kind of missing preposition at Language Log here and here, calling it “prepositional cannibalism”, a term borrowed from Ernest Gowers, who wrote about “One of a pair of words swallow[ing] the other.” In this case, we’ve got a pair of ins, one of them heading a prepositional phrase modifying be answered, and the other modifying were received. Only one survives.
Here are a couple of other examples of prepositional cannibalism that I’ve heard at one time or another:
You have to pull out at the same angle you went in [at].
I want to sell it for a higher price than I bought it [for].
I wondered if this kind of preposition dropping happened when the prepositions weren’t identical. I don’t think it can:
*Give it back to the person you got it [from].
*Put it into the same box you got it [out of].
*Make eye contact with the person you’re talking [to].
Arnold Zwicky has some examples of a dropped preposition with no other prepositions at all in the sentence, including these:
… take a variable that we already know the behavior [of].
… and other important things that we hope to get them the money [for].
He calls the more general phenomenon preposition absorption, and the observation he makes is that the omitted preposition has to be recoverable from the context in one way or another. In the case of cannibalism, it’s the existence of an identical preposition that provides the information; in Zwicky’s examples, it’s the wider context. However, in my ungrammatical examples, I think the context is sufficient to allow recovery of the missing prepositions, but the sentences are still no good. My impression is that, regardless of what’s going on in Zwicky’s examples, preposition cannibalism occurs among speakers who want to avoid truly ungrammatical phrases like world in which we live in, and in so doing accidentally block some legitimately repeated prepositions.