Mea Culpa: prying into Americanisms and other supposedly wrong usages

Pry to mean force open, a quantum leap and pedantic prepositions in this week's Independent

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We ran this headline on Monday: “10-year-old girl pries open alligator’s mouth to free leg in Florida lake attack.” This is an interesting American usage. To “pry” in US English can mean to force open, a back-formation from “prise”, which sounds like “pries”. In British English, we would normally say the girl “prises open” the alligator’s mouth. 

By the way, alligator is one of my favourite etymologies. It comes from the Spanish el lagarto, “the lizard”. 

The nuclear option: The suggestion that the NHS might borrow on the commercial market “marks a quantum leap in privatising our NHS”, according to a comment article this week. Most people do use the phrase quantum leap to mean “a sudden large increase or advance”, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. But its original meaning in physics is a change of the state of an electron in an atom or molecule from one energy level to another. Which is important but only at the atomic level. It is, therefore, one of those metaphors that is both a cliché and inaccurate, and best avoided. 

Up with which: There now follows a mini lecture about prepositions. I am not really sure what a preposition is, even though I was born a long time ago. It is a myth that most people over the age of 50 were taught much formal grammar. It is a sort of joining word, such as from, to, by and with.

Anyway, one thing that many people over the age of 50 were taught is that some words go with certain prepositions and that to use another preposition is wrong. This is silly. There is no good reason in logic or grammar why “different from” should be correct and “different to” incorrect. It is a mere convention. Like many conventions, such as those about the wearing of hats, it used to be a social status marker. Fortunately, progress (as with the wearing of hats) means this is less so now.

However, for many people “different to” remains “wrong”, while “different than” is American, and we, as writers concerned with words and the effect they have on people, need to know that. So I say stick with “different from”, not because it is “correct” but because lots of our readers think it is. I once had a debate with my friend Oliver Kamm of The Times about this.

The same goes for “bored with” rather than “bored of”, and “fed up with” rather than “fed up of”. A search of the millions of books digitised by Google confirms that the so-called correct preposition-combinations are more common than the unconventional forms, so I have the safety of numbers on my side too.