Monday, November 15, 2010

On and Off, or, the Joy of Prepositions

When I was in 7th grade, my English teacher made everyone in the class memorize a long list of prepositions and recite them aloud. We got bonus points if we could blurt them all out within 20 seconds. I still remember long stretches of that list: aboard, about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, during, except, for, from…(big blank space here where apparently I’ve lost some brain cells in the intervening years)…of, off, on, over, past, since, through, throughout, under, underneath, until, up, upon, with, within, without. And much in the same way that l m n o p in the alphabet song merges into the single complex letter “elemenohpee”, a number of the prepositions merge together into words like “alongamongaroundat” and “untilupupon”.

Ryan has another decade or so to go before he gets to discover that preposition list, but he’s getting a head start these days, particularly with the prepositions “on” and “off”. As I’ve mentioned before, he developed a fascination for light switches some time ago and as a result I repeat the words “on” and “off” to him all the time. Our morning ritual still includes waiting at the door of his room so he can flip the light switch while I announce, “Off!” And waiting again at the top of the stairs so he can turn the hall light “On!” And again at the bottom of the stairs to turn it back “Off!” And on and on. And every time, I carefully announce “off” or “on”. So I’m sure that he’s beginning to associate those words with a light turning off or on.

Although I’m afraid he might be a bit confused, because he’s probably also associating the words “on” and “off” with whether he’s flipping the switches up or down. And the added complication for that is that several of our lights are controlled by multiple switches, which means that flipping a switch down doesn’t necessarily turn the light off, and flipping it up doesn’t necessarily turn it on. I find that a bit confusing myself, and I know how light switches work.

And there’s still another wrinkle adding to the confusion: Ryan has recently discovered the art of putting something on the table and then taking it off the table, and I announce “on” or “off” as appropriate there, too. So as he learns to associate with word “on” with putting something on the table, will he also start to look around to see if a light just went on? And when he moves it off the table and I announce, “Off!”, will he be expecting the room to get darker?

But wait, it gets still more complicated. Ryan has learned to pull his own socks off, so we sometimes play the “on and off” game with his socks. He takes his socks off, I put them back on – all the while announcing, “Sock off! Sock on!”

When you think about it, the words “on” and “off” have an awful lot of meanings that don’t really seem to be related. What does extinguishing a light have to do with removing an object from atop another object, or pulling an article of clothing away from your body? But we explain all of those ideas with the word “off”. It’s amazing that children ever learn this crazy English language at all.

But I can’t think about that right now. I have to take off – Sesame Street is on!

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