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Words

Mar 30, 2016

Five use a mysterious preposition

Lurking in the seemingly innocuous pages of a classic children’s story is the perplexing use of an extraneous preposition. What’s it doing there? And what can it tell us about how language changes? Richard Ingold investigates.

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My daughters’ bedtime stories of choice have, for the past year, all been written by Enid Blyton. As we follow the escapades of the Famous Five, Secret Seven and Five Find-Outers, however, I’ve been sent on an adventure of my own. A linguistic adventure. Take a look at this sentence from Five on a Treasure Island (1942): “Oh Daddy, do telephone to Aunt Fanny and ask her if we can go there!” cried Dick. See what has intrigued me?

I’ve never come across anyone who would use the preposition to after the verb telephone as in telephone to Aunt Fanny. Yet this was clearly possible at the time Blyton was writing, the 1920s to 1960s. So thinking about why it might be there, and why it’s no longer in common use, can reveal some interesting insights into English and the way it changes.

Looking at telephone to Aunt Fanny more closely, the preposition, to, and proper noun, Aunt Fanny, can be classified as one grammatical unit: a prepositional phrase. This would traditionally be called an indirect object, but when analysing grammar, it’s often helpful to use more meaning-oriented labels, such as those given by the founder of the University of Sydney’s linguistics department, Michael Halliday.

In Halliday’s account of English grammar, to Aunt Fanny would be labelled a Recipient. It represents the person who will receive, in this example, a phone call and functions identically to to me in write to me. Recipients don’t always need a preposition though. Consider more up-to-date modes of communication – email me, text me, whatsapp me. In each of these examples, me is also functioning as a Recipient, but has no preposition.

Of course, the situation changes when an object is added; the preposition either becomes obligatory, as in telephone/text/email |the information |to me, or grammatically proscribed, telephone/text/email |me | the information. Yet it seems that the Recipient of the verb telephone could at one time include the preposition to even when there’s no object at all, which is no longer common in standard English.

So when did this change? Well, the Five series appears to indicate that this loss may have occurred during Blyton’s lifetime. Her Recipients were written both with and without to, as in these two examples from Five Have Plenty of Fun (1955):

…she said we ought to telephone the police.

You telephoned to the police, Joan!

I searched through all 21 Five stories and found that telephone + to Recipient occurs 18 times while telephone + Recipient appears 28 times. As you can see from the graph, to Recipient tends to turn up more frequently in the earlier Five books, those published in the 1940s, than in the later stories.

This provides some small insight into the subtle process of language change. A new form will appear and will usually be used by one particular social group, often young women. It may then gradually spread into other groups. A linguistic change can take many years to be complete, however; as shown in Blyton’s writing, two forms may co-exist and be interchangeable for many years.

This is true for another verb, write, and its accompanying Recipient. Although it was not always the case, speakers of Standard Australian and British English tend to say write to me whereas write me is common among English speakers in the USA. As the preposition to disappears, the verb write is coming into line with telephone and other verbs which, like text, email and whatsapp, represent mediated modes of communication. I suspect that this to-less form will spread to other Englishes in the future.

So Enid Blyton’s work offers not only lashings of ginger beer and adventure, but also a hint of language change in action. If you’ve spotted any other interesting grammatical constructions in her work, please write me.

Richard Ingold is a Sydney-based English teacher and writer with an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Sydney. He reads a lot of bedtime stories.

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One thought on “Five use a mysterious preposition

  1. Nicole Lindsay

    Very intriguing. I still find the Americans dropping of “to” in “write to” quite jarring.
    Consider the Swallows and Amazons books. There’s about a dozen of them; the first is the worst but they improve hugely afterwards and are very funny.
    I refused to read Enid Blyton to my kids though I loved them myself as a child. They are too badly written to read out loud.

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