English English language Expression Grammar Usage

Embarrassment of prepositions

Q: I heard this usage at least a half-dozen times in an episode of the sitcom New Girl: “She is embarrassed of me.” Rarely have I heard such an awkward phrase repeated in a scripted context. Is “of” wrong here? If not, why does it sound so awful?

A: We can’t say that “embarrassed of” is wrong, but scriptwriters who were older or more tradition-bound would probably have used “embarrassed by” instead.

Like “bored of,” which we wrote about in 2013, “embarrassed of” has recently become more common. 

For now, “embarrassed by” is still the favorite combination, with 1.6 million Google hits. The runner-up is “embarrassed for,” with 1.2 million. And trailing distantly are “embarrassed about,” with 656,000 hits, and “embarrassed of,” with 523,000.

So “embarrassed by” is three times as popular as “embarrassed of.” (We ruled out the 1.8 million hits for “embarrassed to,” since with infinitives there’s no choice—“embarrassed to ask,” “embarrassed to be,” and so on.)

While “embarrassed of” is trailing at the moment, it’s gaining fast. Searches with Google’s Ngram viewer show a sharp spike in the use of the phrase between 1980 and 2008.

We’re not talking here about uneducated speakers. A university professor, writing on the American Dialect Society’s discussion group in 2007, said that “of” was becoming the “default preposition” among students in his linguistics courses.

He reported seeing usages like “poking fun of” and “self-conscious of” in student writing since the 1980s.

In fact, many prepositions used after adjectives are starting to defy their traditional roles.

“It begins to look as if preposition replacement is becoming an occasional but significant feature of the language,” Robert Burchfield writes in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.). “It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, though at present still regrettable, that some people (esp. children) are now usually bored of instead of bored with.”

In fact, it isn’t always “of” that muscles its way in. Sometimes “of” is muscled out by another preposition.

Burchfield cites the linguist Dwight Bolinger, who found that as words like “of” are used in growing numbers of idiomatic phrases, their meanings fade and other prepositions start to replace them.

For example, Bolinger observed that “about” was replacing “of” in certain phrases: “conscious of” was becoming “conscious about”; “wary of” was becoming “wary about,” and so on.

He also found that “enamored of” was becoming “enamored with,” and that “free of” was becoming “free from.”

Unfortunately, it’s easier to observe this kind of trend than it is to explain why it happens. Who knows? Perhaps “embarrassed of” emerged by analogy with “ashamed of” and “afraid of.”

Clearly, prepositions are a handful—in more than one sense. They comprise a relatively small set of words, but it’s often difficult to choose among them or to explain why one is better than another.

We answer lots of mail about prepositional usage, from new learners of English as well as from native speakers.

In 2012, for instance, we wrote about why people say “in the newspaper” but “on the Internet.” In 2008, we discussed why “to luck out” means “to luck in.”

In 2011, we ran a post on why English speakers say “in 2001” but “on Monday.” And in 2008, we had an item on why prepositions are used so differently in British and American English.

The answers aren’t cut-and-dried, because the choice of one preposition over another is mostly idiomatic and becomes habitual. That being the case, preferences emerge (or subside) based on common usage.

This is why prepositions often defy labels like “correct” and “incorrect.” They express relationships, so their meanings are often abstract. It’s better to speak of the “customary” or “dominant” preposition than the “right” one. 

In his book The Careful Writer (1965), Theodore M. Bernstein writes, “The proper preposition is a matter of idiom; and idioms, if they do not come ‘naturally,’ must be either learned or looked up.”

And what if a particular idiom can’t be found in a usage manual or dictionary? “The only thing to do,” Bernstein says, “is to consult three knowing friends and get a consensus.”

However, unless the “three knowing friends” are all roughly the same age, you probably won’t get a unanimous verdict.

You could seek an answer in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, which devotes several pages to prepositions that complement adjectives.

The book discusses “about,” “at,” “by,” “for,” “from,” “in,” “of,” “on/upon,” “to,” “towards,” and “with.” And while the lists of corresponding adjectives aren’t exhaustive, some are implied in the explanations.

For example, the book notes that “by” is used only with “adjectives deriving from past participles in their passive use.”

This would include “embarrassed” as well as “bored,” because (1) they’re identical to the past participles of the verbs they’re derived from, “embarrass” and “bore”; and (2) they’re used passively, as in “I was embarrassed” or “they were bored.”

Some adjectives aren’t limited to one preposition. For example, Cambridge separately lists “bored” among those that can take “with.”

And some adjectives can take either “at” or “about.” These often denote “a psychological reaction” to what’s expressed in the complement, Cambridge says: “annoyed,” “pleased,” “aghast,” “indignant,” and so on.

What all this boils down to is that prepositions are unpredictable.

“Language is nothing but a set of human habits,” Otto Jespersen wrote in his Essentials of English Grammar (1933). “As with other habits it is not to be expected that they should be perfectly consistent.”

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