An English lesson, if you are up for it

Today I am bringing you another of my occasional lessons in our ongoing educational series, "English as a Third, Fourth or Fifth Language". This time round, we are going to look at the way the English use prepositions, which, oddly enough, is not unlike the way postmen handle fragile parcels.

Today I am bringing you another of my occasional lessons in our ongoing educational series, "English as a Third, Fourth or Fifth Language". This time round, we are going to look at the way the English use prepositions, which, oddly enough, is not unlike the way postmen handle fragile parcels.

Prepositions? They are those funny little words which tend to denote direction, or movement, words like "from", "in", "up", "down", "to", "against", out" and so on.

Not much room for variation there? Think again! Take these two expressions, for instance.

"It's up to you, mate."

"It's down to you, mate."

They both mean exactly the same thing, but do you notice one tiny difference?

That's right! The prepositions used in each expression ("up" and "down") are opposites, and yet in this usage they have the same significance.

Years ago, people only said "It's up to you". This other expression, "It's down to you," is a new one, suggesting either that the English don't listen to what they're saying, or that they have a playful and creative attitude to language.

Here is another example. There is a modern expression in the field of sexual encounters, "coming on to someone", which means pressing your advances on them. There was a time, though, when we said the opposite. We said we were "getting off with someone". So now it is "on" and then it was "off". Two opposite prepositions, meaning the same thing, suggesting either that the English are very lazy about language or equally lazy about sexual seduction.

Of course, you cannot always expect things to be so neat. When we say "It's up to you", the other person can respond by saying "I'm up for it". But if we say "It's down to you", the other person cannot say "I'm down for it". In the first instance, the response could also be "I'm up to it," meaning you are capable of it, but in the second you cannot say "I'm down to it".

The fact is that the English use prepositions, not really like postmen handling fragile parcels, more like DIY people rooting around in their language drawer for old bolts and screws. And it even varies from region to region. Mr John Humphrys got into trouble recently because he condemned the use of the "pretentious" preposition "outwith", little realising that it is a common word in Scotland. He was in for it, all right.

Prepositions are often used as adjectives, too. When a friend is out of sorts, we say: "He's rather down". He is down. Down what? Where has he gone down? Nowhere. He is just down, that's all. He might even be down and out, though that is a lot worse than just being down. (NB: Do not try the opposite. Nobody is ever "up and in".

Another preposition which can be used as a very useful adjective is "off". This can mean lots of different things, such as:

1. Departing ("I'm off");

2. Crawling with maggots ("This meat is off");

3. Withdrawn from the menu ("Sea bass is off, I'm afraid"); and

4. Leaving the starting-line ("They're off!").

I believe that in some American circles the word "off" can also be used as a verb, meaning to kill someone. "He has been offed". Do people in war zones in Britain use this Americanism? Perhaps a reader in Nottingham or Belfast could tell me. There is nothing new about prepositions as verbs, of course, as, for years, we have been downing a drink in one, seeing people being outed by Peter Tatchell, and upping the ante. (Two prepositions for the price of one there, as "ante" is a Latin preposition!)

Time is up (!) so here is your test question. Study the following statement: "When the stand-up couldn't make it to the comedy club, he sent a stand-in along, but there was an immediate stand-off, so he had to stand down." What's all that about, then?

Comments