Proper Prepositional Pairings

Like any other language, English functions best when its parts are correctly connected.

During grammatical evolution, parts of speech have bonded with certain prepositions for concise expression. An exacting writer observes these couplings and upholds their intended use and integrity.

The noun “affinity” (a natural connection or attraction to a person or thing) is but one example of prepositional mating that calls for closer attention. In most applications today, we often hear and use “an affinity for” someone or something.

In the past, keeping in step with grammarians such as Theodore M. Bernstein (The Careful Writer), style arbiters have advised against attaching “for” to “affinity." At the same time, we recognize our language is fluid: Over time, the writing and speaking majority determine what will or won’t stay—i.e., what is a fad and what isn’t.

“Affinity” and “for” have become attached at the hip—so much so we recognize their lasting union. At the same time, the exacting writer will acknowledge that “affinity” has other prepositional partners to which it’s tied for accuracy. In addition to “for,” “affinity” combines with “between,” “with,” and “to.”

If you are expressing a natural attraction toward someone or something, you will use the now accepted “for.” This pairing most often follows the verbs “have” and “feel”: “I feel an affinity for Jack—we’ve been friends for 20 years,” “She has an affinity for politics and current events.”

If you are describing the whole of a good relationship, you would use “between”: “Jack and John have an affinity between them.” If you are writing of the same relationship from one party’s viewpoint, you would use “with”: “Jack enjoys an affinity with Sam.”

So far the examples convey an easily identified interest or appeal. If you find someone to be different from you but you’re still drawn to that person, you feel an affinity to him or her: “Bob feels an affinity to Richard even though their thoughts compete.” The same applies to things: “Her style is strictly postmodern, but she admits an affinity to expressionist art.”

The following are a few more examples of correct word-preposition pairs:

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ability at (doing), with (something)
Joseph shows great ability at solving complex equations.
Joseph shows great ability with mathematics.

emigrate from; immigrate to, into
Johann emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1984.
Johann immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1984.

adverse, averse to
Elizabeth is averse to running on pavement because it’s adverse to her knees.

noun: contrast to (opposite); noun, verb: contrast with (different)
Catherine’s conservative views present a stark contrast to Irene’s liberal beliefs.

In contrast with Joseph’s strict adherence to written procedure, Sarah believes in allowing some interpretation.

Philip’s sidearm throw when he’s fielding the ball contrasts with his straight overhand delivery when he’s pitching.

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Being mindful of prepositional pairings shows your devotion to clean and clear writing. Whenever you are unsure of a prepositional pairing, be sure to look it up in a style or grammar book.

If you have a wider interest in good grammar and want to infuse more of it into your writing, a great website to visit, review and bookmark is www.grammarbook.com.

Word Choice: Small Is Still Better Than Big

The true size of the English language is often debated and probably impossible to determine. Those who do try to quote the count tend to agree that English includes about 250,000 to 300,000 distinctly usable words.

The second edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (2009) comprises 171,476 words in current use; 47,156 obsolete words; and another 9,500 derivative words as subentries (a total of 228,132).

The estimate of an English speaker’s vocabulary varies more widely. Some say the average person has 5,000 to 6,000 words for retrieval. Others say 10,000 to 20,000. In a May 2013 web article, The Economist used its own test results to measure that an adult native’s vocabulary ranged from 20,000 to 35,000 words. William Shakespeare was said to have had a word bank that soared as high as 60,000.

Of perhaps even greater note, whatever the size of your vocabulary, many agree that most of us draw from a main base of up to 1,000 words to express ourselves—which leads to why we’re discussing big versus small.

Words’ primary function is to convey our thoughts, ideas, wishes, and opinions. If people have a vocabulary of 5,000 words on the low end and 35,000 on the high (we won’t include Shakespeare), but they often rely on a core 1,000, we can deduce that a part of our language will be understood by all.

A look at just one list of the 1,000 most common words shows almost all have three or fewer syllables. We use a smaller, simpler index because it ensures greater clarity and easier processing, which leads to greater trust, which leads to greater credibility.

A Princeton University study determined that using big words can even make people look, well, not so smart. When it comes to words, small beats big, and clear outfoxes complex.

The (superb) website GrammarBook.com has touched on this in Resolutions for Word Nerds (see #4). It has also cited where a four- or five-star word can be acceptable and even desirable (Big Words We Can Use).

Overall, expressive and persuasive writing blends the diverse, pointed, and evocative words available to us. Some will be big, and some will be small. In everyday communication, however, less is more in making sure we’re quickly understood, especially in an age of content overload.

Here’s but a start on keeping your writing ready to convert from big to small:

Instead of / Use

abstemious / restrained or moderate

anachronistic / out of date

auspicious / promising

circuitous / indirect

circumlocution / wordiness

conviviality / cheer

enervating / tiring

hypothesis / theory

jubilation / joy

magnanimous / selfless

ostentatious / flashy or showy

parsimonious / frugal

perfidious / shady or corrupt

perspicacious / alert or aware