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Misuse of prepositions

  Tags: Error | Grammar
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beano
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 Message 1 of 16
09 August 2012 at 1:55am | IP Logged 
One of the classic ways of identifying a non-native speaker of a language is the misuse of prepositions. As we all know, these troublesome little words don't tally exactly between different languages and learning the appropriate usage is a cumbersome process.

I have heard people who speak otherwise excellent English, slip up now and again by using the wrong preposition. It rarely affects my understanding of what is being said, but this is a type of mistake that a typical native speaker doesn't make and it can jar when you hear it.

Is it possible to iron out all preposition problems? I wonder how wartime spies managed, they were in a foreign environment where they had to be utterly convincing. They couldn't afford to say anything that might make someone's ears prick up.
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Serpent
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 Message 2 of 16
09 August 2012 at 2:06am | IP Logged 
They probably memorized examples, the more the better... I bet they also had some tricks for sticking to what they know well without making their speech sound too simple. Shekhtman anyone? :)

Nowadays, with the modern technologies available, the best way is probably to use cloze deletion in SRS.


In English, though, what looks like a preposition often isn't one. Phrasal verbs are fascinating... and a nightmare too. A fascinating nightmare :) There might be some logic to them but it usually isn't obvious, so it's far easier to mix up than when using actual prepositions.

Edited by Serpent on 09 August 2012 at 2:13am

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mrwarper
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 Message 3 of 16
09 August 2012 at 11:52am | IP Logged 
I think this has more base on prejudice than facts.

Do native speakers use prepositions (or anything for that matter) 'the right way' 100% of the time? Certainly not, and it can be just as jarring for the educated ear. The fact that *typically* natives make fewer mistakes than foreigners doesn't imply by any means that some of them foreigners can't do as well as the locals when using prepositions, even including regional [delete]misuses[/delete]... er, I mean, regionalisms, just to blend in.

Actually, as with any 'sleight of hand' trick I think it should be easier to mislead your audience and pass for a native if (besides being an excellent TL speaker, obviously) you try and make it look that you come from some place known for its 'funny' regionalisms, since that may act as a cover for the occasional slip-up.

As for motivations and techniques... one would think that the possibility of getting an appointment with a firing squad at dawn should be more than enough to motivate anyone, but of course YMMV. As a rule of thumb, I'd go by the spoken equivalent of the 'rule' in this very forum: if you're not sure how to say it, don't-- say something else.
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Julie
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 Message 4 of 16
09 August 2012 at 1:05pm | IP Logged 
mrwarper wrote:
Do native speakers use prepositions (or anything for that matter)
'the right way' 100% of the time? Certainly not, and it can be just as jarring for the
educated ear.

I believe they just make other kinds of mistakes (e.g. they use wrong prepositions for
different expressions that non-native speakers do). I guess it's like cases in Polish
(and probably in other Slavic languages): native speakers do get them wrong (sometimes
I check the endings in a dictionary, and I catch myself looking up the same words again
and again) - but these mistakes are different from those made by non-native speakers.
On the other hand, aspect is another huge difficulty for those learning Polish, and I
very rarely hear native speakers getting it clearly wrong.

Prepositions are actually one of my biggest grammar problems in English (articles are
the other one). For me, massive input seems to be the best (yet slow...) solution: at
some point, some prepositions just feel right. I tried both SRS (admittedly, not much
of it) and doing grammar exercises, and what I learned did not really stick. For
another language I had much more contact with native speakers and I would ask my
friends to not hesitate to correct my mistakes - and it really works, in some cases I
still remember the context.

BTW, if I've got any prepositions or articles wrong here, let me know :).
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Iversen
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 Message 5 of 16
09 August 2012 at 1:13pm | IP Logged 
I would put misuse of prepositions and wrong gender or case in the same group of errors: they occur because you learn a word without its morphology/wordrelated syntax, and you can run into this problem whether or not you use structured vocabulary methods or simply rely on lots of input.

Ahem. Shouldn't lots of input teach you how to learn a word correctly? Yes, in the long run you will develop some sixth sense for what you can say and what you can't. But prepositions (especially with phrasal verbs) and articles and case endings are fairly anonymous so you can read and listen for hours on end and get the general meaning from the content words alone without even noticing all those small pesky words and word fragments. So some kind of systematic approach is definitely useful.

The problem is that you also can commit the error of making wordlists and Anki cards just with interesting 'content' words, and then you don't learn anything about the morphology or word-bound syntax of those words. The solution is of course to indicate the most important things in a concise way and learn them with the main words. Trying to add them later isn't nearly as efficient.

In the case of gender or paradigm where one a simple rule can give you sufficient information the rule is: learn that simple rule as soon as possible, for instance by making a short example list for it, which both will teach you the rule and some new words.

If there isn't a simple rule you have to make annotations in your wordlists or on your anki cards, but this task can be simplified: if one category is much more numerous than the other(s) then just make annotations at the words from the rarest category (or the rarest categories if there are more than one). For instance most words in German are masculine so just mark the feminines and the neutra (and don't ever mark "-chen" -words because they are always neutrum). I use simple gender graphical signs, but during the memorization I read these as der, die ,das.

Another example which I recently used in my Guide to language learning part IV was the aorist of Greek verbs. When you have seen enough aorists you just need a hint to guess the correct form, and therefore I just note down one single consonant in my wordlists. Actually I also ought to indicate the past passive form and the last vowel in the ending for verbs with the accent on the final omega of the 1 person singular active form, which is the one used in dictionaries. But that would be too much even on a good day, so I normally just write the aorist consonant, and only if it is another than the one I expected at my current level of knowledge).

And finally: I always write the accent in my Russian wordlists precisely because it isn't written in normal texts. Maybe I could develop a sixth sense for stress in Russian words by listening to enough spoken Russian, but it would take a long time and I don't hear nearly enough Russian to make the miracle happen within my lifetime.

So the rule is: make the absolute minimum of annotations in your wordlists or on your anki cards - and leave matters there.

Then what about example phrases? Personally I have a memory that doesn't support long winding phrases, but it can just about deal with short phrases with a dummy word: "go for something" - "go somewhere" - "go down/up" - "go to Hell" (OK, the last one is an exception, but it can be used because I see and hear it fairly often). So if I want to remember the prepositions of phrasals verbs I may indicate one or two prepositions in my wordlists, but never more than that. Rome wasn't built in one day, and neither was my English (or Latin) vocabulary.

Contexts are good, but you can't always get the necessary unequivocal information from them. So seeing a word in a genuine text helps me to remember it, but I may still have to use a dictionary see how it is inflected. Besides you basically need to understand all the elements of a long expression to remember it, unless you are endowed with something I haven't got. If I wanted to learn the word "sling" in a context I would start out with "slings and arrows" and postpone "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; No more; " as a certain venerated bard wrote in Hamlet. Some people like to learn things by heart, and god bless them, but don't expect me to follow in their footsteps.


Edited by Iversen on 09 August 2012 at 2:19pm

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mrwarper
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 Message 6 of 16
09 August 2012 at 2:12pm | IP Logged 
Julie wrote:
I believe they just make other kinds of mistakes (e.g. they use wrong prepositions for different expressions that non-native speakers do)...

This happens, but just not all of the time.

One of my pet peeves here is the widespread (and blatantly false) belief that foreign speakers are somehow different and so they never can be a native speaker's equal. Since there's plenty of real life counterexamples, there's no such thing as a 'foreign disability' to linguistic proficiency, there's just things many (even most, if you want) foreign speakers trip over. My point is, foreign and native speakers aren't the same thing (for one, native and foreign aren't synonyms, are they?) but it's far from clear how often the difference is relevant:

Take any language use case you want to analyse. Any given individual has either been exposed to it in such a way that it sticks (and is therefore produced naturally and appropriately, in which case nativeness is a moot point) or they haven't, and they make mistakes.

Now, where do such mistakes come from? In the case of foreign speakers there's the clear possibility of linguistic interference, while monolingual native mistakes are much more, well, random. (A polyglot native would be somewhere in between: mostly random, with a certain probability of TL interference). So, foreign speakers can only be told from native speakers when their usage mistakes (or more easily, when a certain amount of different ones) follow an identifiable pattern, and one that clearly marks them as 'foreign' at that, for if they made the same 'mistakes' as region X natives you'd have no way of telling who is who.

How often do natives and foreigners make such and such mistake? That's matter for a very interesting --and immensely broad, in such abstract terms-- research case that I leave to others, because it's not relevant when you can only guess from the mistakes a given individual actually makes (we were discussing this in the context of espionage).

So, is it possible to iron out all problems, preposition related or otherwise? No, it isn't, not even for natives. Still, it's possible for everyone to get pretty close if they devote some efforts to it. Just have a look at all the almost perfect, non-native English speakers you'll find here. How did they do? Everyone has their own stories--that's what the forum is made of.
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Julie
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 Message 7 of 16
09 August 2012 at 5:05pm | IP Logged 
mrwarper wrote:
In the case of foreign speakers there's the clear possibility of
linguistic interference, while monolingual native mistakes are much more, well, random.

I wouldn't agree they are random. They might be (if it's just a slip of a tongue) but
very frequently, they result from intralinguistic interferences (I'm not sure how
established this term is) the source of which is identifiable.
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mrwarper
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 Message 8 of 16
09 August 2012 at 5:30pm | IP Logged 
Julie wrote:
mrwarper wrote:
In the case of foreign speakers there's the clear possibility of
linguistic interference, while monolingual native mistakes are much more, well, random.

I wouldn't agree they are random. They might be (if it's just a slip of a tongue) but
very frequently, they result from intralinguistic interferences (I'm not sure how
established this term is) the source of which is identifiable.

Just how frequently exactly?

Unless we do a real study covering a gazillion mistakes, complete backgrounds of each individual, and a detailed analysis of each mistake to point out its most probable cause (no less!), all we can really say is "there are many possible sources for natives' mistakes, and we don't know how many mistakes each one actually produces". On the other hand, if the individual speaks other language(s) that is usually pointed out that as 'the cause' rather quickly (often rightfully so).

Isn't that exactly what I said before, i.e. random vs less random, just with a lot more words?



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