The two examples given above (sorry, concerned) fall into this category. The category as a whole tends, like them, to express emotions, e.g. happy, glad, pleased, delighted (all with about/for/ with), angry, annoyed, furious, upset, disappointed (all with about/ with) and anxious, embarrassed (both with about/for). However, there are also emotion adjectives with only one preposition: surprised, amazed and shocked (all at), interested (in), bored and satisfied (with) and worried (about) (as passive participles these can also have by to show an action instead of a state – see 66. Variable Meanings of Passive Verbs – but this more grammatical use is not a “partner” preposition in the same sense).
When the preposition is variable, about is usually needed with an existing situation. For example, one could be happy (or angry, concerned, embarrassed etc.) about the performance of a football team. Even the use of about before a person directs attention to a situation involving them rather than to them as people. A rare alternative to about is at.
With after positive adjectives like happy also introduce situations, but usually when the meaning is “having” rather than “seeing”. Thus one could be happy with one’s own job and happy about another person’s. However, after negative adjectives such as angry, with must instead be followed by a living cause of the emotion (e.g. angry with the government).
For usually goes with living things. After positive adjectives like happy, it shows the speaker’s satisfaction with the good fortune of whoever is being mentioned. For example, if one is happy for a newly-wed couple, one is happy that they have achieved? something nice. Contrast this with happy about them, which merely shows approval of their situation, regardless of whether it is good or bad. On the other hand, after negative adjectives for seems to have a future reference: being concerned for refugees expresses a fear that something bad might happen to them, while concerned about suggests that something bad has already happened.
Other adjectives with alternative prepositions include good (at/ to/for), disgusted (at/with) and responsible (to/for) .
- Nouns: Some nouns have a partner preposition in front of them, e.g. on an occasion , while others have it after, e.g. a limit on … (see 111. Words with their Own Preposition). Variable prepositions, however, seem mainly to be of the kind that follow their noun. A few examples are mentioned elsewhere within this blog in the post 78. Infinitive versus Preposition after Nouns.
In some cases, the variability of a preposition makes a contrast between all and some of something. Consider the noun news.
News of an event means that the event – all of it – is the news, whereas news about it means that the event is already known about, and the news is additional information, i.e. a part of it.
Other nouns like this include ignorance, knowledge, a question, an idea, a report and a statement. Sometimes one finds on instead of about, especially after a report.
Slightly different is a theory of/about. Of suggests a much more intricate theory than about. Thus a theory of gravity is a proper scientific theory attempting to explain every aspect, whereas a theory about gravity is more like a single general belief about it.
The noun difficulty uses of before the name of the difficulty (the difficulty of curing cancer), but with before something possessing it, e.g.:
(a) The difficulty with children is that they need supervision.
The same is true of a problem. However, trouble always has with, and advantage, benefit, pleasure and value, whilst combining with of in the same way as above, combine with something possessing them by means of in, usually after there is – e.g. there is an advantage in.
A different type of noun with a variable preposition is of the kind derived from verb. The variability arises if the noun is able to express two different meanings, one an action and one not. For example, the noun receipt, which is derived from RECEIVE, can mean either “receiving” or “something written to acknowledge a purchase”. With such nouns, it is usually found that the action meaning is followed by of (receipt of visitors), the other meaning by another preposition (a receipt for goods).
Slightly different is the action noun an increase, which shows what increases with a following of or in, regardless of whether or not an action is being expressed. The difference is in the cause of the increase of indicates an external agent, in does not. Thus, an increase of taxes is something brought about by an agency such as a government, while an increase in taxes is vague about agency – taxes might even have increased by themselves. The former corresponds to taxes are/were increased, the latter to taxes increase(d).
The same contrast affects various synonyms and antonyms of increase, provided they have a related verb like INCREASE which can be used both with and without an object (see 4. Verbs that Don’t have to be Passive 1). They include acceleration, expansion, improvement, intensification, cut, decrease, diminution and reduction.
A special use is found with cost and its opposite value. If we wish to say what possesses a cost/value, the preposition is of (e.g. the cost of inflation). On the other hand, the sufferer of the cost needs to (the cost to the government). This use of to is similar to that with indirect objects (Verbs with an Indirect Object). Finally, a word has to be said about research, which can be followed by in, into or on. The first of these seems normally to show the broad subject area involved (e.g. research in biology).
The other two often seem interchangeable, though perhaps into shows a more precise object of research (e.g. research on primates/into primate intelligence). It is important to remember that the related verb RESEARCH is not followed by any preposition at all (Unnecessary Prepositions).
Verbs with a partner preposition tend to be called “prepositional”. They are not to be confused with “phrasal” verbs (Phrasal Verbs). Sometimes their meaning changes if the preposition is dropped (Troublesome Prepositional Verbs). Sometimes, though, meaning changes are linked with different prepositions. The following are of interest: