About itself

About Itself

Haj Ross
Circle – Noetic Services, Inc.
Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brasil
Linguistics, University of North Texas

It is generally felt that most prepositions which are lexically associated with verbs, adjectives, or nouns are idiosyncratic. That is, that it is an accident that it is (up)on that goes with depend, of that goes with afraid, and for that goes with hatred. What I want to do is to suggest that this kind of treatment, while in general probably basically right for many lexical items, and surely unavoidable in at least some cases, is wrong for the non-spatial [but conceptual? / topical? / _____(other)] preposition about.

So what is at issue, then, are apparently idiomatic collocations like talk about, sad about, and tale about. I will not be concerned with any instances of locative about (as in There are millions of pollywogs (all) about the house.), because I believe that there is no lexical item that selects just this preposition, as opposed, say, to selecting a higher-order constituent, such as Locative or Directional. Thus the transitive verb leave requires a direct object and selects Locative, allowing a pretty wide range of prepositions: We left jujubes in/on/around/under/…/about the pail.

This is all I am going to say about this kind of about, because I believe it not to have any special features requiring particular comment, as opposed to whatever treatment is developed for locative constructions in general.

My basic idea is that there is only one other kind of about, and that it is (almost) never used idiomatically. I am forced to parenthetically include the hedge almost because of a few such expressions as to be about to, it’s about time and so on. I believe, however, that these are extremely rare.

What, then is this other about that we hear so much about? Prototypically, its object denotes topics (of acts of speaking), and then, by extension, objects of thinking (i.e., facts or states of affairs), and finally, in some languages, causes of emotions. What follows is a very preliminary list of lexical items which occur with this conceptual (?) about. Since many of these also occur with of, in the same meaning as about, I will indicate this fact, either in blocks of words, where this is possible, or on individual words, when not. “DO” and “IO” after a verb means that the verb takes a direct object or an indirect object before the about -phrase. If prepositions are necessary, I’ll indicate this too.


(1) Verbs

Group 1 (both possible with of):

tell (IO [indirect object]), write ((to) IO)

(2) Group 2 (generally at least poor with of – and systematically worsened by the presence of a prepositional phrase between the verb and the about-phrase. That is, such contrasts as in the following pair of examples seem typical: I have read (?*to her) of various colleges.):

say DO [direct object], read (to IO), complain (to IO), talk (to
IO), speak (to IO), hear (from IO)

[NB: [very few nouns are possible as a DO of say if an about-phrase is to follow: I said [nothing / something / few things / some honeyed words] to Laureen about the size of my apartment.

(3) Group 3 (impossible with of):

(dis)agree (with IO), concur (with IO), argue (with IO), negotiate
(with IO), enquire (of IO), wonder, question DO, query DO, hush up (IO), josh (DO),
kid (DO), report (to IO), go on (to IO), bitch (to IO)

(4) Group 4 (manner of speaking verbs – all take an about-phrase, and most can take
a to-phrase as an IO) (though the presence of a to IO often worsens the
acceptability of the about-phrase – cf. We were lisping (??to Mr. Kvili) about the
responsibilities Jo had], and some of them can have at in place of this paradigmatic
to: I [yelled/shouted /*whimpered/ *lisped] at them about Cuba. Those of them
that allow of to replace about are indicated by a following of in parentheses.)

babble (?of), blabber, blather(?of), blubber, boast (of), brag (of), chat, chatter, coo, curse, dither, giggle, groan, grumble, joke (?of), kvetch, lisp, moan (of), mumble (of), mutter (of), roar, shout, shriek, snicker, snigger, stammer, sputter, stutter, swear, titter, whisper (of), yell (??of)

{Subgroup – manner of singing verbs:

yodel, chant, croon, hum, warble (*to IO),…}

(5) Adjectives (none occur with of)

evasive (with IO), silent (with IO), frank (with IO), deceptive (with IO), reticent (with IO), ?taciturn (??with IO), quiet, voluble, loquacious, effusive, eloquent (?with IO), i (?with IO), ?garrulous

(6) Nouns

story (of), tale (of), account (of), report (of), book [letter, epistle, card, journal,…] (*of)

While these lists could be extended, that is not the main point here, which is to float the following generalization:

Crummy Biconditional # 1

(7) Any verb whose meaning involves linguistic communication will be able to occur with an about-phrase, and any (non-locative) about will have the meaning that its object denotes the topic of the communication.

Before I start battling with the various problems in CB#1 (which are, after all, why it is a crummy biconditional, instead of being a regular one), let me give a few examples to suggest why it is that anyone might want to try to prop up CB#1 even for a minute.

Let us start with the contrasts in (8):

(8) a. Otimar was moaning.
b. Otimar was moaning about something.

(8a) seems to refer to a situation in which Otimar was making sounds which were characterizable as moans (i.e., low-pitched, protracted, who knows what else,…). But (8b) asserts that above and beyond making this kind of noise, there was a possibility of interpreting Otimar’s sounds linguistically. That is, when moan is followed by about, it becomes a verb of linguistic communication.

The same is true with respect to battle. Look at the sentences in (9).

(9) a. They are battling for an island.
b. They are battling about an island.

I feel the same kind of difference here – that (9a) could be used in a military situation, one in which there is no necessary implication of communication between the combatants. This implication is much more strongly suggested in (9b), though not as strongly as in (8b). Is this possibly because the primary sense of moan is one of denoting a kind of auditory experience, while the notion of verbal battle, though perfectly comprehensible, and in fact conventional, is still felt to be slightly metaphorical? I do not know for sure, and will not try to resolve this problem here.

OK. Back to the crumminess. Let’s break up the biconditional into two parts and look at each in isolation.

(10) a. Implication A: any predicate involving comunnication
(signed or spoken) can take an about-phrase.

b. Implication B: whenever about can occur with a predicate, the predicate is one of linguistic communication.

What makes this generalization wrong is two large classes of counterexamples – predicates of cognition, like think about or know about, and predicates of emotion, primarily adjectives: (sad / glad /…about), but also not a few verbs ([grieve / exult /…] + about). Let us look at the case of cognition first.


Verbs Group 1 (all possible with of)

think, know, remind DO

Group 2 (not so hot with of)

learn (from IO) [NB: I learned of [this / ?*Ed] yesterday]

Group 3 (out with of)

remember, figure out, find out, forget


Group 1 (both possible with of)

(un)sure, (un)certain

Group 2 (not so hot with of)

positive [NB: I’m positive of this / *Ed], accurate

Group 3 (out with of)

perceptive, secretive, definite, dubious, vague, (un)clear

Group 4 (better with of than with about)

true, false, cautious, wary

Group 5 (OK with of; weak with about)

conscious, considerate

Group 6 (only with of)


Before I go on with these lists, a few comments are in order. First of all, do not be upset if you find that you are having different judgements from mine on the grammaticality of the various elements in these lists with and without about and/or of. I have only begun to look at this phenomenon, and while I am giving as accurate a set of judgements about my own intuitions as I can come up with, I not only do not expect, but would in fact be astounded if even one other speaker should share my feelings on all of these cases. I suspect that these facts are well below the level at which consensus can be expected. What I do expect, however, is that many, if not all, speakers will have some predicates with which both prepositions can occur, and others for which one of the prepositions will seem stronger. There will doubtless be some commonalities across speakers (for instance, I would be startled if a noticeable number of speakers preferred about to of after aware), but I think that we may defer harvesting these for the moment.
Secondly, the words true and false differ from all others that we have considered so far, in that they do not denote a relationship between a human (or higher animate) being and a state of affairs (the object of about / of). These two words, which occur in contexts like This (sentence / statement /…) is true/false of Texas, thus should not really be called cognizings at all. Nonetheless, I have included them here because of the way they appear to fit in with the patterns that are emerging.
Thirdly, it may seem strange to find a word like aware included in these lists, even though it does not appear to cooccur at all with about, and after all, isn’t that what we’re thinking of / on / about? Yes, but be patient a bit.

Before we turn to an examination of the use of about with predicates that involve emotions, let me mention an interesting class of regularities which my attention was drawn to by an observation of Polly Ulichny’s. This is the fact that there are some words which only accept about when its object is an embedded question. Communicate, describe, talkative, and afraid are four predicates which manifest this phenomenon:

(11) a. He never communicated with us [about where he lived / ?about
his address].
b. ?She tried to describe [about how she had had to leave the
spaceship in an elliptical orbit/*about her difficulties].
c. ?Nega was not very talkative [about how she had escaped/*about
her escape].
d. I’m a little afraid [about what might happen to us / ?about the
future / ??about Soraya].

I believe this phenomenon to be quite widespread among the classes of predicates that interact with about, but I have not yet studied it systematically. I have no idea as to what it might mean. Now as we turn to look at emotion predicates, let me just indicate that I already feel that the distinction between what I am calling topics and what I have referred to above as cognizings is not a very clear one. For instance, I have classified evasive, silent, and quiet among the adjectives linked to linguistic communication, while I have placed secretive among the cognizing adjectives. This reflects my feeling that the sentences in (5a) seem to imply an avoidance of speech, while the sentence in (5b) seems to suggest a pattern of behavior designed to prevent the inferring of any information, even non-linguistic:

(12) a. Jailson was evasive/silent/quiet about some things.
b. Jailson was secretive about some things.

In the case of (un)clear, I feel that things are even worse: there are sentences that can be ambiguous. Consider (6):

(13) Naima was not clear about how long she would be working.

It seems to me that this sentence can be used in two kinds of situations. In the first, it describes the existence within Naima of a state of mental uncertainty. In the second, it refers to the lack of clarity in what Naima said. Thus in the first, nothing need have been said; in the second, the sentence is used to make a metalinguistic assertion.

I have cited these cases to show why I have said that the boundary between topics and cognizings already feels like a difficult one to patrol. I mention this because the boundary between these two (or possibly: this one) things – topics and cognizings – and what we are about to proceed to, namely causes of emotions, seems to me to be an even more slippery one.
Ah well. Let’s try our best.

The reason that I have been speaking about causes of emotion is because of a quite general relation of near, if not absolute, synonymy between sentences with about which denote emotions and corresponding sentences with an explicit causative structure. An example appears in (14):

(14) a. Nick was happy about the popsicle.
b. The popsicle made Nick happy.

There are also verbs which are associated with emotions, or with their expression, and these too seem to yield good causative paraphrases.

(15) a. Bonnie [raged / grieved / fumed / rejoiced] about the skis.
b. The skis made Bonnie [rage / grieve / fume / rejoice].

These emotion-causing about-phrases differ systematically from the about’s that appear with topics or states of affairs as their objects, in that the emotion-causers’ abouts can never be replaced by of. A partial list of verbs and adjectives involving this type of emotion-about follows:

Verbs cry, weep, sob, sigh, laugh, giggle, guffaw, rage, fume, boil, sweat, worry, exult, rejoice, rave,
grieve, freak out, fret, blow up, have a fit, blow one’s stack, feel [good /bad / wonderful /. . . /
terrible /. . .]

Adjectives glad, happy, overjoyed, relieved, sad, nervous, worried, upset, anxious, mad, sorry,
regretful, jealous, preoccupied, antsy, fretful, resentful, angry,. . .

AND the whole of the surprised-class:

surprised, astonished, baffled, disgusted, disgruntled, embarrassed, shocked,. . . (as well as compound adjectives like heart-broken, grief-stricken, awe-struck, etc., which are related to sentences which do not take visible IO’s: I was heart-broken about the Porsche is not related to *The Porsche heart-broke me, but rather to The Porsche broke my heart. Similar acrobatics are necessary for grief-stricken, awe-struck, etc.)

I note in passing that there is another class of adjectives that take about, but which have no causative paraphrase. Some examples appear in (16).

(16) Tex is [good / bad / OK / terrible / funny / generous / . . . ] about
signing checks.

Some attempted paraphrases appear in (17):

(17) a. Tex is [good /bad /. . . ] in the way that he signs checks.
b. The way that Tex signs checks is [good / bad /. . .] [NB: *generous]
c. It is [good / ?bad / *OK / terrible / *funny / generous] of Tex to
sign checks.

The differences in behavior between (10a), (10b), and (10c) make me more than uneasy – they convince me that I have not come close to understanding these adjectives, and they make me almost certain that it is not one class of words involved here but rather a whole bunch. I therefore and hereby throw up my hands about (Hmm – there’s a funny about. . .) the whole mess of them.

One of the things that elates me / grief-strikes me about this whole area is the fact that we are obviously not grappling with an English oddity here. Whatever turns out to work for English about ~ of had better be general enough to work for German über ~ von, Portuguese sobre ~ de, French de (and maybe sur?), and so on. These languages have one preposition which has a locative meaning –English about = “around (±);” German über = “over;” Portuguese sobre= “above, over;” French sur = “on” – and one which is used in possessive or genitival constructions. Thus

a desk of Tony’s / a picture of Tony

(More thought necessary than currently available)

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