English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin

Getting involved

Q: Which preposition should follow “involve”—“in” or “with”? I must be using the “wrong” preposition in casual conversations, because I seem to use the two interchangeably. Is there an easy rule to follow?

A: We have a hunch that you’re mostly concerned with the use of “involve” in the passive (“to be involved”) or as a participial adjective ( “the suspects involved”).

When you need a preposition here, the choice depends on your meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This is how the OED illustrates these passive or adjectival uses:

● “To be involved in” means “more generally, to be occupied, engrossed, or embroiled in.”

Oxford has the examples “deeply involved in smuggling” (1843), and “involved in a union dispute” (1940).

● “To be involved with” means “to be concerned or associated with” or “to commit (oneself) emotionally; spec. to have a sexual relationship with.”

Oxford has these examples: “one of those people one liked to know but not really be involved with” (1983), and “He had involved himself with Ellie” (1955).

Otherwise, when “involve” is used in ordinary constructions (not passively or adjectivally), the usual preposition, if one is needed at all, is “in.”

For example, if “involve” means to envelop or entangle in troubles, difficulties, crime, perplexities, or the like, then “in” is used, not “with.”

The OED has these examples: “to involve as many persons as they could in the charge” (1838) … “involved both kings and people in one common ruin” (1847) … “you will involve me in a contradiction” (1871).

As for its history, “involve” first entered written English, as far as we know, in the 1380s.

The OED says it comes from the Latin verb Latin involvere, meaning “to roll into or upon, to wrap up, envelop, surround, entangle, make obscure.” The Latin verb is formed from the prefix in- plus the verb volvere (to roll).

In its earliest English use, “involve” meant “to envelop within the folds of some condition or circumstance; to environ [surround], esp. so as to obscure or embarrass; to beset with difficulty or obscurity,” Oxford says.

OED citations indicate that this sense of “involve” was accompanied at first by “with” as well as “in.” Gradually the “in” uses became dominant.

You can see a progression in these examples from the dictionary: “ [a doctrine] involved with absurdities, and inexplicable contradictions” (1635) … “[a passage] involved in great obscurity” (1790) … “the numerous difficulties in which this question is involved” (1871).

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