The Grammarphobia Blog

Idiomatic transmission

Q: Do you have any tips for determining when to use “to” and when to use “of” in a sentence? For example, why do English speakers use different prepositions in these sentences: “There are many disadvantages to pet ownership” and “The disadvantages of pet ownership are many.”

A: There’s no formula for how to choose the proper preposition. In English, the use of prepositions is largely idiomatic, and people who use them correctly do so because they’ve “absorbed” them through long exposure to idiomatic usage.

For example, in the plural we may correctly say, “There are many disadvantages to pet ownership,” or “The disadvantages of pet ownership are many,” or  “You can’t get around the disadvantages of pet ownership.”

In the singular we can say, “One disadvantage of pet ownership is …” or  “The biggest disadvantage of pet ownership is …” or “If there’s a disadvantage to pet ownership, it’s …”

You might use either “in” or “with” when the phrase is split: “In [or With] pet ownership, there are many disadvantages.”

There are even more idiomatic usages when the noun is the object of the preposition: 

“He had me at a disadvantage” … “The terms of the contract were to my disadvantage” … “He labored under a disadvantage”  … “I can’t see beyond the disadvantages” … “We could live with the disadvantages” … “They disagreed about the disadvantages.”

This is why we say there’s no formula here.

We’ve written several times on our blog about the oddities of prepositions, including a posting in 2008.

We wish we could be more definitive. There’s a very handy book, Words Into Type, that has an extensive list (many pages long) of words together with the prepositions they usually take.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t list “disadvantage.” It does list “advantage,” which it advises using with “of” or “over.”

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