It’s the Little Words that Count

Funk and Wagnalls Standard Handbook of Prepositions, Conjunctions, Relative Pronouns and AdverbsLovers of words understand the joy attendant on a new book even if it is old. My most recent acquisition is a slim claret and dun volume printed by Funk and Wagnalls in 1953 called Standard Handbook of Prepositions, Conjunctions, Relative Pronouns and Adverbs.

The missing comma in the title is deliberate, not the product of the Oxford comma debacle, as an unfortunate modern-day reader might suppose. The editorial staff at Funk and Wagnalls compiled a handbook of those little words that bind our syntax into a pliable frame of reference for a struggling reader, including “relative adverbs which express temporal, causal, conditional, and other similar relations.”

And if that sounds like a mouthful, it is, and it isn’t. The editors wisely recognize that it is these tiny words that so often give the writer the most trouble. Rather than calling them linking words, as so many contemporary English instructors do, they accord them the respect they deserve by designating them “thought-connectives,” foregrounding the critical analysis that goes into their use and the indispensability of such a handbook.

It may not be earth-shattering if we choose that or which to refer to the preceding clause, despite the apoplexy your in-house editor keeps insisting it gives him, but our reader will most definitely be confused if we say that we will put up with something that puts us out. Such phrases, verbals they are often called, give ESL students no end of trouble, and even native English speakers are often uncertain as to whether we should accord with, accord by, or accord to an agreement.

The pairing of such prepositions with verbs is a usage described as idiomatic. It derives from practice without logical recourse. Thus a writer is dependent upon his or her ear or on a good reference work such as this one.

Even in cases where the meaning of the thought-connectives is without dispute, consider their significance. The editorial staff at Funk and Wagnalls alerts the reader to their importance in the striking example of the Gettysburg address, which I take the liberty of reprinting here:

It is rather us to be here dedicated the great task remaining us; these honored dead we take increased devotion that cause they gave the last full measure devotion; we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died vain; this nation, God, shall have a new birth freedom, government the people, the people, the people, shall not perish the earth.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us; that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The absence of those many small words renders the original unintelligible, yet as a writer, I would have struggled more to find the words dedication and devotion than to even consider any of the 21 thought-connectives in the paragraph.

As I revel in this handbook and the light that it sheds on prepositions, conjunctions, relative pronouns, and relative adverbs, I’ll be sharing more details in upcoming posts. But for today, I have a challenge that I’d like to put to us all. The editorial staff of 1953 acknowledges that the list of idioms they have here compiled is extensive but not exhaustive, and they point to a time when fresh uses may become available.

In the nearly 60 years that have transpired since the publication of this text, I can think of at least 5 new communication platforms that are now common:

1) emails

2) instant messages

3) blog posts

4) Tweets

5) Facebook posts

During the next week, I would ask that we all watch the stream of communication that we both write and receive via these platforms. Where do you see a verb and preposition pairings such as get out, indulge in, recognition of, or turn into?

Keep a list and submit it to me, however you wish. Let’s see, as an online community, what we can add to the impressive work done by Funk and Wagnall’s.

And remember, if you’re looking for clarity, focus, and insight into your writing process, mark your calendars for April 18th. And check here for more information about my course, 8 Weeks to Writing with Clarity.


  1. […] Prepositions: A Handy Chart Posted by Corporate Writing Pro on March 29, 2012 Leave a comment (0) Go to comments In our last post, I mentioned that I’ve been reading Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Handbook of Prepositions, Conjunctions, Relative Pronouns and Adverbs. I shared with you my excitement about acquiring that text and highlighted the importance of “thought-connectives” in our syntax with reference to their example of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. […]

  2. […] way to ensure your reader isn’t disoriented by your work is to add transitions, words that the editors at Funk and Wagnalls call […]

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.