Write up, write down, etc

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by temur, Aug 1, 2008.

  1. temur man of no words Registered Senior Member

    I realize that if you add "up" to a verb, it means that you are opening to other people, public, or the action is somehow away from yourself: to upload, to write up, to open up, etc. Similarly, "down" will imply the action is being directed inwards: to write down, to download etc. So you can guess the meaning of compound verbs from which word it is using. Is this rule universal? Do other words like "with", "out", "in" have a general meaning similar to this situation? So for example can you explain the meaning of the words "to put up with", and "to hold up" in terms of the constituent parts? I can somehow understand when people use these words. but it is confusing to me to use myself these words. Sometimes I am not sure which of "up", "down", "in" etc I should add to a verb, and I am sure I use wrong words a lot of times. One example I remember is I never understood the difference between "fill in" and "fill out". What I am trying to ask is what is a good way to learn these things? Do I have to study each of these compound words one by one or is there any general rule? I have been practicing English for years but I think I am not going to learn these just from practice.

    Sorry for using rusty English in linguistics forum.
  2. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  3. temur man of no words Registered Senior Member

    If any of my statements is wrong please correct me. Or if it is incomprehensible please point out then I will try to clarify my point.
  4. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  5. Myles Registered Senior Member

    Language is like that. You can find words and examples of their usage in a good dictionary but it does not end there. Words are also used figuratively and the meaning can only be understood in a particular context. That is why a language cannot be learnt from books alone; it is necessary to read and. if possible, spend some time in a country where the language is spoken.

    Much of the language we use makes little sense, if we examine a sentence word by word. From your question, you seem to know this. This seems to be true of all languages.

    To deal with your question about the word " fill", I would say that filling in a form suggests completion. i.e. we are adding something to make it complete. In the same way, we talk of filling in a hole in the ground. To fill out cannot be explained in this way, so you must simply accept it. I associate it with American usage, much of which seems to be the result of the influence of the languages of immigrants. It may just be a co-incidence but a German would talk of "filling out" a form.

    Finally, you will find American usage becoming accepted in the UK because of our exposure to films, the internet and so on.

    If it's any consolation, the fact that you have asked the questions you did shows you are aware of the problem.
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2008
  6. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Words that express relationships are among the most volatile, and change over the centuries in ways that can seem capricious, often ending up with multiple, contradictory meanings. Prepositions are the worst, in the languages that have them such as our Indo-European family.

    Look at the pathetic set of prepositions our language offers us, ostensibly as tools for accurately describing every possible relationship. I haven’t got an exact count (I’ll leave that as an exercise for the readers, as they say in textbooks

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

    ) but I’m sure there aren’t more than thirty. But worse, most of these originated in our ancestral proto-Germanic language, back in the Stone Age of the diaspora of the Western Indo-European tribes, when many of the most important concepts, objects, activities and relationships we need to talk about didn’t even exist yet.

    We’re very prolific about adding new nouns, verbs and adjectives to our language. We have a variety of methods, including compounding (birdhouse), borrowing from other languages (soprano), acronymy (laser) and whimsy (rambunctious). In the thousand years since the Norman Invasion put pressure on English to adapt to an entire new culture, our vocabulary has grown explosively.

    But not so our prepositions. You can probably enumerate all the prepositions that were added to English in the last thousand years. Into, without, onto, during… I’ll leave the complete list for another exercise.

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

    The Anglo-Saxons themselves added some in the previous millennium, as their tongue diverged from continental Old German. About, above… this is a difficult exercise that you probably can’t tackle unless you know another Germanic language and notice their absence. (Both of those words are triple compounds of existing prepositions: “on by out” and “on by over.”)

    The few prepositions we have, have been pressed into service to cover multiple uses, with the result that they have virtually lost their meanings entirely. If you hand an application form to an American, he will fill it out. Apparently, according to the above post, if you hand it to an Englishman, he will fill it in. (I didn’t know this.) There is no difference in meaning.

    You native anglophones, try explaining to a foreigner what the difference is between arriving somewhere on time and in time. Between your child being at school and in school. Americans have completely lost the distinction between waiting for someone (being impatient) and waiting on someone (serving them food), with the result that Britons think all Americans A. have jobs as waiters and B. are very rude, because we’re always waiting on people but we never wait for them.

    So the answer to the original question is, unfortunately, that there are no solid, standard meanings for English prepositions. You cannot study them systematically. You have to learn myriad uses for each one as a matter of idiom. In most cases, getting it wrong will not cause you to be misunderstood, it will simply identify you as a non-native speaker. It’s a little rite of passage that we pose to foreigners. When you can get through an entire day without using a preposition wrong, then you’re one of us.

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

    We’ve been working on a solution to this problem for decades, and it involves an actual structural change to our language, something that does not happen often. Like Chinese (which has only two parts of speech: nouns and verbs), we’re giving up on prepositions and building compound words to express relationships. Compounds like user-friendly, cable-ready, fuel-efficient, risk-averse and labor-intensive illustrate a new paradigm that has arisen in English, perhaps in my lifetime but certainly in the 20th century: one of the words is an adjective. We’re expressing relationships by drawing on our thousands of adjectives, instead of a handful of prepositions.

    English is a democratic language that has no academy like French or Spanish, that has never been “reformed” by an elite group of scholars like German or Italian, and whose speakers pay scant respect to authorities like dictionaries and stylebooks. We make it up as we go along. If it doesn't work, we fix it. Long live English!
  8. temur man of no words Registered Senior Member

    Myles and Fraggle, thanks for your replies!

    I still don't get what "fill out" really means. Is the meaning the same as that of "fill in"?

    Fraggle, you always talk about Chinese being a language with only nouns and verbs. Here is something I don't understand. How do you express things like "therefore", "so", "thus", and so on? They are not nouns or verbs right?
  9. Myles Registered Senior Member


    Over here we fill in or fill out a form, the latter I suspect being American usage which we have adopted.

    Your reference to French remids me that all there is notplain sailing for foreigners. As every beginner knows, "sur" translates as on. When a Francophone uses sur, it can have other meanings as well. For example, the idion, " nous somme sur le meme bateau" can also be rendered as "dans le meme bateau", this latter being more common . You may know Debussy's " Petite Suite en Bateau". Hows that for confusion?

    " Dans " normally translates as in but a Frenchman will sat I took it "dans" the drawer , where we would say from.

    As we both agree, the only way to get to grips with prepositions is by reading, and listening to native speakers. One day, when I am in the mood, I shall run through Irish prepositions. My instinctive feeling is that we have less of a muddle than one finds in English.
  10. Myles Registered Senior Member

    I would suggest that fill in and fill out can be considered interchangeable but, on balance I would recommend "fill out "because this can be used in the US and in the UK.

    What, as a matter of interest, is your native language ?
  11. mathman Valued Senior Member

    I would guess as to the difference between fill in and fill out, although the net result is the same.

    "fill in" implies supplying answers by filling in the blank space.

    "fill out" implies completing something that is unfinished.

    When dealing with forms, they end up meaning the same.

    However in other contexts they may not both be used. Example: a pretty girl fills out a bathing suit - fills in seems peculiar. On the other hand: a manager fills out a roster for a ball game - a player fills a position (no in or out), but could fill in for another player.
  12. temur man of no words Registered Senior Member

    Thanks all. I feel that I need some more time to get the difference.

    My native language is Mongolian. My bridge to English was Russian which I used for a decade.
  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    In most cases, yes. In fact, in virtually all of the examples given in this thread of "filling out" and "filling in," you could leave out the preposition entirely and just say "filling," and your meaning would be just as clear.
    Those are conjunctions (although "thus" behaves more like an adverb and also has a second meaning in which it is an adverb, just to confuse you), which we haven't covered, and they are difficult to explain. Let's start with prepositions first, which are the original subject of this thread.

    Prepositions express relationships, and all prepositions still have one ancient, fundamental meaning that describes a physical relationship. For example, "I am in the house," or "I am at home," describes my physical relationship with my house. In Chinese, I say this using only nouns and verbs: Wo zai jia li, literally, "I occupy the house's interior."

    We could, of course, say the same thing in English, but it takes too long. Chinese is a more phonetically compact language for a variety of reasons; one is that it has almost no meaningless "noise words" like "the," and another is that it has no inflections and lets a very rigid word order serve their function, so I'm actually saying "I occupy house interior," in just four syllables. Note that I could just as easily (and in many cases just as compactly) say "I occupy house roof," or basement, or garden, or bedroom, or driveway. The syntax of the language invites me to be more precise without having to expend a lot of energy on extra syllables. If it's truly not important to tell you what part of the house I'm located in, I can just say Wo zai jia, "I occupy house."

    Let's take a more complicated example. "I went TO school ON the bus AFTER breakfast." Three prepositions, and only one of them (after) actually adds any meaning to the sentence. The other two are just placeholders, or noise words. In Chinese you say "I eat breakfast ride bus attend school." Once again, the rigid word order makes prepositions unnecessary, by clearly stating the order in which the three actions took place. And BTW if it's important to specify that I did this yesterday, or every day for a year, I'd just toss in two more syllables for "yesterday" or four more for "every day last year," instead of letting you guess what my use of the past tense implies. (Chinese has no tense, number, gender, etc., always begging you to be precise and always making it rather easy to do so.)

    Conjunctions are harder to explain because the nouns and verbs used to express those relationships are customarily translated as conjunctions rather than nouns and verbs, and also my command of the language is not sufficient to give you literal translations. But where we would say "therefore," they say something like "it follows," and where we would say "because," they say something like "the reason is." Remember that these constructions are not as cumbersome in Chinese as in English and generally only use two one-syllable morphemes.
    We "fill in the blanks" in a crossword puzzle, and we even use the same phrase as an idiom for solving a mystery.
    As I have often noted, French is surprisingly similar to English in many of its attributes. One is its nearly totally useless prepositions. Another is its phonetic compactness, rivaling English (among the languages I'm familiar with) for being second to Chinese; it has a lot of one-syllable words and a lot of contractions. Another is its huge paradigm of phonemes and a tendency to juxtapose them in almost any combination, making pronunciation difficult to learn. Finally there's the grammar, which is nothing but a collection of relics from an ancestral language that have no logic to them anymore.
    If it has the set of only twenty or thirty prepositions that typify the Indo-European languages, it would be hard for it to be any less confusing and ambiguous.
    No one will be taken aback if you say "fill in a form" in the US. I recommend learning the proper idiom for the country in which one will live and not striving for a transnational dialect of English, which does not exist, and will identify you as a foreigner everywhere you go.
    In all but the last example, you could omit the preposition and make perfect sense. In the last one, you're leaving out the noun that would bring in the sense: filling another player's position on the team, in which case speaking more clearly makes the preposition unnecessary.
    Does Mongolian have prepositions?
    That is a very difficult bridge! From our perspective, English and Russian have very little in common. Their relationship is as distant as the relationship between two Indo-European languages could possibly be.
  14. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    Fraggle, just to clarify, the most common way of expressing 'because' in Chinese would probably better translate as "the reason for this is..." considering the other uses of 'wei' by itself.

    As well, 'suoyi' has a strange translation if you look at the two characters alone. I'm not sure how the Chinese came up with that word.

    As for your (and the popular) theory that Chinese does not have any meaningless expressions; I still disagree. Most notably you can talk of 'ran'hou' which technically has the meaning of "and then..."

    The problem is that this - in the spoken language - is used to mean a myriad possibilities such as "and so"/"and then"/"also"/"also having"/"next in order"/"besides"... In short, it just means general accompaniment and next-to-ness. More information is often needed to elucidate the exact meaning of the word in a sentence (or context is needed). This works much the same way as some prepositions in English.

    Moreover, you (and, again, the popular texts) speak of the lack of useless "the" in Chinese. That might be true, but I find "na'ge" and "zhe'ge" are used almost as frequently as "the" in English and in much the same way. In English if I was telling the story of my filling in a tax form I would say "Next I filled in the tax form." In Chinese I would most likely say "I next wrote-finished that(na'ge) tax form".

    In short, they do almost the exact same thing in spoken language. Though, admittedly, the written language avoids this most of the time.
  15. temur man of no words Registered Senior Member

    It has many cases like in Russian, where you add some affix to a word and modify its case. There are some words that describe spatial and temporal relationships, and they modify the case of the noun(s) they are relating. I guess those words have the same function as prepositions, but they are "postpositions".

    Compared to Mongolian, Russian is way closer to English. It has primarily SVO structure, it has words corresponding to the placeholders (not the words for question) "what", "which", "when". In Mongolian there are no words like these placeholders that make possible treating an entire sentence like a word.
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2008

Share This Page