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Grammergency #20: Preposterous Prepositions
Written by
Annie Tucker
September 2015
Written by
Annie Tucker
September 2015

According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, a preposition is “a word or group of words that is used with a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase to show direction, location, or time, or to introduce an object.” Common prepositions include but are not remotely limited to in, on, at, to, from, for, with, without, of, about, between, through, against, before, after, under, and around.

What this means in basic terms is that it’s difficult to craft more than a few sentences of prose without including a preposition at some point, because it’s one of the most versatile parts of speech that exists. But frequency of use also means greater susceptibility to misapplication, and that’s what we’re going to explore today.

I’m not talking about the “rule” that a sentence should never end in a preposition; at this point in the evolution of language, we’ve pretty much gotten past that (and if you need evidence, just refer to the late, great Raymond Carver’s epic short-story collection Where I’m Calling From). No, I’m far more concerned with the prevalence of the following five prepositional errors, which litter the publishing landscape today.

1. Where Are You At?/Where’s That At?/Where I’m At

This construction appears everywhere from text messages to advertisements to published books, so often that people either have accepted it as part of our colloquial lexicon or just don’t know any better. However, whether you’re referring to geographical location or emotional well-being, the at in this context is always extraneous, so don’t use it. 

2. Inside of/Outside Of

Of has a dual purpose similar to that of at. People frequently use of in a psychological context, as in “feelings inside of you” or “factors outside of you.” Other people use it to describe location, as in “I grew up just outside of Boston.” But in any of these or other, similar examples, you never need to include of, because they already contain a preposition: inside or outside. Just say “feelings inside me,” “outside Boston,” and so on.

3. Should of/Would Of

Here’s a case where a preposition doesn’t belong at all. If you say, “I would of arrived on time if my train hadn’t been delayed” or “I should of gone to the store earlier,” you’re speaking gibberish. You want to use the verb have in both cases here: “I would have arrived” and “I should have gone” (and don’t even get me started on people who say, “I should of went”).

4. Center Around

I wrote about this in another post, but it bears repeating, because this phrase is both overused and illogical. The center of anything connotes a precise, fixed point, not a circular or revolving area. If you want to use the preposition around, use it in “revolve around,” but the preposition on belongs in “center on.”

5. To Where

I started noticing this phrase only a few years ago, in sentences like “I want to get this project to where it’s done” and “He was angry to where his face was bright red.” Why people don’t just keep things simple and say, “I want to get this project done” and, “He was so angry that his face turned bright red” is beyond me, and I’d love to know how we got here.

Have a grammar question? Leave it in the comments below.

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  • Patricia Robertson

    I hear these a lot in common parlance. If people use them a lot, at what point do they become the accepted form?

  • Kristen Winters

    Oh thank you for letting me know I'm not alone in my strong pet peeves with regard to grammar!

    My other one is "Me and [insert name]..."  I softly correct my kids to have them repeat, "[Name] and I..." to hopefully have at least 2 adults one day using this phrase correctly.  The incorrect phrase is everywhere, and I fear, as so often happens, will just become accepted though it is completely wrong.

    Related to this is listing names and then ending with "myself" (i.e., "If you have questions you can see Mrs. Jones or myself after the session." It should be "...or me," but people, I believe, are so fearful of using "me" or "I" incorrectly, they've inserted "myself" to alleviate any uncertainty.  :(

  • Lisa Thomson

    Great refresher, Annie. Thank you. I'm guilty of some of these grammar sins. :)

  • Pamela Fender

    Oh, boy...does number three ring true for me. In other words, it drives me crazy.
    I'm a substitute teacher on days I'm not writing, and you wouldn't believe how these students in high school speak and write. (Maybe you would.)

    I will ask them to repeat what they've just asked, or stated, until they get it absolutely correct.
    My biggest pet peeves are double negatives and the word "like." I tell them unless they're using "like" as something they're fond of or something similar to, then stop saying "like." It's amazing how difficult this task is for them.