Basics of writingConfusing words

Grammar and style tips for authors: Part 2b—More problem prepositions + “different from/than”

From Rick:

I’m running a little late this week, but here’s the second part in the series on prepositions attached to various words.

CENTER on, upon (not “around”) (v): [a primary issue]
—The discussion centered on the critical issue of financial resources.
—Center the logo on the page.

If you think about it, saying a discussion “centered around” something makes little sense because the center is a point around which other things are placed. If people are sitting around a campfire, you wouldn’t say the people were centered around the campfire, because the campfire, not the people, is the center. You’d say more correctly that they sat AROUND the campfire.

CHAFE at (v): [doing something]
—John chafed at having to do his brother’s chores.

CHAFE under (v): [an irritating authority]
—Pete chafed under his boss’s inept management skills.

COLLUDE with (v): [a person to defraud another]
—On their way up the hill to fetch a pail of water, Jack colluded with Jill to self-inflict injuries on themselves to cover up the fact that they had allowed the town bully to steal the pail from them at the well.

COMPARE with (v): [a literal comparison]
—After comparing the suicide note with the dead woman’s diary entries, the expert concluded that someone had forged her suicide note.

COMPARE to (v): [poetically or metaphorically]
—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is the famous opening line of Shakespeare’s sonnet 18.

CONFIDE to, in (v): [a person]
—He confided to Michael that he’d thought about robbing the store.
—We sometimes confide in our friends more than in our family.

CONSIST of (v): [concrete components]
—A properly made latte consists of 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk (or pretend milk) and 1/3 foamed milk (or pretend milk).

CONSIST in (v): [abstract things, such as qualities]
—The town’s main businesses consist in the making of furniture and other diverse small trades.

CONTEMPORARY with (adj): [another event]
—The Irish War of Independence was partly contemporary with the Russian Civil War.

CONTEMPORARY of (n): [another person]
—Ben Franklin was a contemporary of George Washington.

CONTINGENT on (preferably not “upon”) (adj):
—Brian attending college next year is contingent on his getting a football scholarship.

CONTRAST to, with (v): [a person or thing]
—His outlandish attire seems a contrast to his introverted nature.
—He likes to contrast his introverted nature with his outlandish attire.

CONVERSANT with, in (adj): [a field of study]
—Dave is equally conversant in Russian and Arabic.
—Dave is conversant with the issues involved.

Note the slight difference in usage of the two prepositions here. “In” is used more often to refer to languages, but “with” is used more with knowledge and familiarity.

DEPEND on (preferably not “upon”):
—My cat depends on me to feed it at a set time and expresses its dissatisfaction when its mealtime is delayed by even a few minutes.

DIFFER from (v): [a thing or quality]
—While PCs and MACs are both computers and have most of the same capabilities, they differ from each other in price.

DIFFER with (v): [a person]
—Ray differs with Greg on how to invest money.

DIFFER about, over, on (v): [an issue]
—Ray and Greg differ (about, over, on) how to invest money.

*** [I’m going to talk about DIFFERENT FROM and DIFFERENT THAN at the end of this post.]

DISSENT from, against (preferably not “to” or “with”) (n & v):
—Many union workers expressed dissent against the meager pay increase.
—Anyone wishing to dissent from the motion should raise their hands.

DISSIMILAR to (not “from”) (adj):
—Photographs of the Martian landscape show that parts of it are not dissimilar to some places on Earth.

DISSOCIATE from (v):
—Jason chose to dissociate himself from the rest of the team when they decided to go barhopping.

ENAMORED of (not “with”) (adj):
—As a kid, I was enamored of spinach as a vegetable. I was a weird kid.

Although “of” is considered the correct preposition to use with “enamored,” it sounds weird or old-fashioned to say “enamored of.” It’s likely that because we use “enamored” as a fancy synonym for “being in love with something,” the preposition “with” feels more natural. Merriam-Webster notes that both prepositions are in common use with “enamored” and we can take this as just another sign of how the language changes over time.

If you’re interested, here’s an online discussion about “enamored” and its associated prepositions.


EQUIVALENT to, in (preferably not “with”) (adj):
—Drinking a 20 oz. bottle of Pepsi is equivalent to eating 15 teaspoons of sugar. By the Mary Poppins philosophy of a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down, one Pepsi would get you through two weeks of medicine taking.
—What is the equivalent in US dollars of ten Euros?

EXCERPT from (not “of”) (n):
—After reading an excerpt from his novel, I instantly purchased it.

Now let’s close this post with a more controversial one:


Most of us were taught in school to use “different from” and that “different than” was grammatically wrong and cringe-worthy anathema. You were NEVER supposed to say or write “different than”—under any circumstances (along with other equally vile grammatical faux pas).

So what were we supposed to do with a sentence like this:

—College campus life today is much different than it was when I was in college.

You can’t change the “than” to “from” without making the sentence nonsensical:

—College campus life today is much different from it was when I was in college.

Our English teachers had the answer, of course. This wasn’t a simple case of substituting the correct word (as with lie/lay or changing the pronoun).
—The toys were laying (lying) on the floor.
—Sam and me (I) went to the movies last night.

You had to recast the sentence:

—College campus life today is much different from what it was when I was in college.

The problem here is that “from” is a preposition and “than” is a conjunction (most of the time). Because the object of a preposition is a noun or pronoun or a noun phrase, you had to turn what followed “from” into a noun.

You can click on the link to the Merriam-Webster entry for THAN to see the historical debate over whether it was a conjunction or preposition.

What this means is that you can now be equally correct using one of these sentences

—He’s more intelligent than me.
—He’s more intelligent than I. (which sounds a bit stilted)

instead of using the less-stilted “He’s more intelligent than I am.”

If you want to give yourself a full-on migraine, check out the link below. I found the one somewhat esoteric explanation (comment 3 near the end of the discussion) rather amusing that proposed “than” as a special case comparative word that is neither a conjunction nor a preposition.


I’m not convinced that showing how “than” is treated in Latin and German has sufficient bearing on current English usage. I’ve pointed out before that our language—or any language in current use—is constantly evolving. Latin is fixed in time and can’t really serve today’s English other than showing where some of our words and uses came from. And German has grammatical points and constructs different from (not “than”) English, so it’s only peripherally applicable.

My personal recommendation is that you use “different from” where possible, but keep in mind when writing dialogue that your characters are free to speak according to their personalities, which is not always in a grammatically perfect manner.

I’ll be doing a blog post in the next few weeks on proper vs. improper grammar in dialogue, so stay tuned.

And come back next week for the conclusion of prepositions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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