Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

You say

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.

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18 Responses to “More Prepositional Cannibalism”

  1. Stan said

    Very interesting! I suspect the same: that an unconscious aversion to preposition duplication lies behind at least some of the cannibalism you’ve reported. A kind of hypercorrection by omission, through a mistaken sense that the expression’s prepositional requirements have been met.

  2. Something else funny about this. To me, “Calls will be answered in the order in which they were received” makes sense, but “Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received” doesn’t really.

    After all, what order was your call received in? Forwards?

    • Ran said

      Excellent point. That part sort of tickled my antennae, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. I think you nailed it.

    • Glen said

      Agreed. For me, only plural things can be “in order.”

      • Philip Whitman said

        How about if I said, “Everything is in order for the President’s arrival.”

      • Glen said

        Well, I think of that as a different expression; in that example, ‘in order’ just means ‘ready.’ But even if you interpret it to mean ‘placed in a sequence,’ the pronoun ‘everything’ still refers to a group of things. So perhaps I should have said that only groups of things (rather than plural things) can be ‘in order’.

    • Neal said

      Good catch! The modifier in the order … would seem to turn any VP into one that can only take plural subjects. But for some reason, “Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received sounds OK to me.

      • I think it’s astonishing that you can notice a small issue (a missing “in”) yet not notice a big one (that the concept of order is inapplicable in reference to a single call). Obviously another manifestation of the eccentricity you’ve never tried to hide… :-)

  3. Keri said

    But how many thousands of people listen to this and never even notice the “error” and think it sounds perfectly acceptable? I think the preposition is implied, and that the sentence is perfectly comprehensible and acceptable.

    Thanks for noticing it, though; very interesting =)

    • Jonathon said

      Of course it’s comprehensible, but the reactions of people like Neal and me show that it isn’t perfectly acceptable. What’s interesting, I think, is that so many people never notice it and would probably not find anything wrong with it even if they were looking, yet some people do notice it and do find it ungrammatical.

      James makes an interesting point, too, but I think that’s just a little too literal-minded for me. ;)

      • Ryan said

        I think the problem here, Jonathon, is that it’s perfectly acceptable to some people but not necessarily everyone. “The English language” isn’t some coherent object shared by hundreds of millions of people, it’s a set of conventions mostly agreed upon. I was wondering for 20 seconds at least why one would even write a blog post about this sentence. On reflection, I’ll admit that it’s not a construction I’d write in a paper but certainly something I can see myself saying.

        At any rate, let’s not act like one set of native speaker intuitions is privileged (in regards to grammaticality) above any others.

      • Jonathon said

        That’s essentially what I was trying to say, Ryan—it may be comprehensible to everyone, but I don’t think we can say it’s perfectly acceptable, because it isn’t acceptable to everyone.

        But I think it would be interesting to find out, first of all, how many people even notice the grammatical oddity, and second, how many find it ungrammatical or unacceptable. I’m guessing most native speakers would struggle to find something odd about it in the first place.

  4. Lane said

    And here I was thinking, when you said “It was starting to get to me”, that this was going to be about pragmatics or discourse, not prepositions: the absurdity of a machine telling you that your call is important to “us”, while it clearly isn’t since you’re left on hold long enough to hear the message five times. If your call is really important to someone, they usually take it quickly, and in person.

    My peeve: the companies (I would name names but it just makes me too annoyed to think about them) whose automatic hold messages always inform you that they are experiencing “unusually high call volume.” Always. I want to write them a polite letter with a clipping of the dictionary definition of “unusual.”

  5. Julie said

    So I’m not the only one on hold at the IRS?

  6. [...] Prepositional cannibalism. [...]

  7. [...] from the grammatical goats.  And of course the Internet possesses all kinds of wisdom about it: here is one example.  Fowler’s Modern English Usage calls the [...]

  8. […] another example of prepositional cannibalism! The larger phrase is basically for certain people. And who are those certain people? They are […]

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